As another lorry overtakes our car approaching a blind corner on a sleet-covered single carriageway, it strikes me that this is the most ridiculous car journey I’ve ever known anyone to undertake.
“Sometimes it’s like we’re still in Mumbai,” says the driver with a wry smile. It feels like we’re hurtling along at some lick. The car is shaking a lot, it’s incredibly loud and the single wiper is manically working in vain to clear the windscreen of sleet. But a glance at the digital speedo shows we’re barely touching the road’s speed limit of 55mph.
The driver is Rahul Kakar, Autocar India’s chief road tester, and the car in which we’re limply chopping through Arctic-like Estonian roads is one of the cheapest new cars you can buy anywhere. So far, it has covered 9500 miles of an 11,000-mile journey halfway around the world.
Designed by the French and built in India, the Renault Kwid has a starting price of just £3000 and this particular car is being driven from India Gate in Delhi to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the spiritual home city of its maker, by Autocar India to put it through the toughest possible test of endurance possible.
If you think that sounds ridiculous, you’re right. Crossing two continents in the depths of winter in a car that costs the same as a set of 20in wheels on a Ferrari 488 Spider is like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in flip-flops. And when an invitation arrived to join Autocar India for the final leg of the journey from Tallinn to Paris, I couldn’t wait to join them. But last night in Tallinn, when I met my new travel companions, who were weary and quiet after a month on the road and had been victims of a four-hour hold-up for questioning at the Russian border, the enormity of the task dawned. This won’t be a sightseeing trip around Europe.
Having had a 6am breakfast, we’re now on a single carriageway taking us to Lithuania for an overnight stop, but our sat-nav says we have another nine hours on the road.
Various members of the Autocar India team have helped along the way, but it has been a very small-scale operation given the size of the task, and just four of the team are with me now. Videographer Mritunjay Chakraborty has been chronicling the trip for the Autocar India TV show since the start in Delhi five weeks ago. He was a vegetarian before the trip started, but 10 days of relentless work through China fuelled only by egg fried rice has turned him into a carnivore. Photographer Ashley Baxter joined the team in Kazakhstan around a month in, taking over from Kuldeep Chaudhari, and 22-year-old Jay Patil has driven the support car – a Renault Duster (Dacia doesn’t exist in India) – almost the entire way. Before this trip, he’d never been outside of India.
“The most difficult thing has been getting used to other people being good drivers,” says Jay, unflinching in the face of Estonian truckers. “People are polite and everyone signals. It’s very different.”
Rahul has led the convoy in the Kwid from day one. He’s no stranger to ambitious road trips. Just last year, he drove from India to Germany in an Audi Q7, but this is a much sterner test, mechanically and physically.
“The sense of achievement is incomparable,” Rahul says, who has grown a deep Stockholm syndromestyle affection for the Kwid. “I love this little car, but it’s way more of a challenge than doing this in an SUV.”
He’s not wrong. As the morning wears on, even as a passenger, I’m a little drained, more than a little uncomfortable, and bitterly cold. The heater (designed for Indian ‘winters’) just about works, but the temperature outside is teetering above freezing and our breaks for photography throw us at Mother Nature’s mercy all too frequently. But the team have suffered much worse than this.
“We prepared for temperatures of minus 5deg C at the lowest, but Aralsk in Kazakhstan got to minus 23deg C,” Rahul says, pointing out that they started in a humid, sweltering 30deg C in Delhi. “None of us has ever felt cold like that before. Ashley struggled to press the shutter on his camera.”
The road we’re on is a single carriageway with a 55mph limit the whole way, so although we’re only 350 miles from Lithuania, it will take all day to reach Kaunas, our destination. Despite the gruelling conditions, Rahul is chatty as we cycle through his eclectic collection of music on USB sticks.
After a brief lunch stop in Latvia, I drive the Duster support vehicle to give Jay a break. “It’s amazing, but extremely tiring, to see the world like this,” he says. Has he ever felt like throwing in the towel? “Never,” he says. “It’s been the most incredible trip. But I have 1200 songs on my phone and I’m bored of every single one of them.”
I keep the Kwid within sight all the way to Lithuania and we park up at our hotel. The team is so battered and bruised from their time on the road that no one can resist the temptation of room service and an early night.
Another 6am start follows. We shovel down three platefuls of breakfast and, as per the morning routine, I set up the sat-navs for both cars, help take down some figures (mileage, temperature, time, date) and share a few laughs with the others to keep spirits up. Then it’s out to the old town in Kaunas. We make frequent photography stops during the day, but the main opportunity is first thing in the morning in a scenic part of whichever town we end up in.
“You can take us into Poland,” Rahul says, handing me the keys to his beloved Kwid. I accept reluctantly, thinking of all the TV shows and magazine features that depend on this car. It hasn’t had a single fault so far – not even a puncture – and I don’t want to be the person to cause one. My accelerator inputs are tentative and my gearshifts almost apologetic as we join the traffic.
The attractive-looking Kwid is comparable in size to a Hyundai i10, a bit longer but slightly narrower, and this one has the new three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine, as opposed to the 0.8-litre model I’ve driven previously.
Although it’s noticeably peppier, it’s still not quick. A total of 67bhp and 67lb ft means that it’s as breathless as an asthmatic OAP with a 40-a-day habit and has no poke whatsoever. By European standards, the only things that stand out about the Kwid are its eyecatching looks and its eye-popping price. This version retails for around £4000. But the car isn’t destined for this continent; it’s not going to muscle in on the budget territory owned by in-house rival Dacia. In India, where most cars on the road are dangerously poor, the Kwid has become a best-seller in a colossal market that has proved impossible for some manufacturers to crack.
The interior might incline you to think that the car costs twice its actual price. Cabin space is generous and air-con, as well as a touchscreen infotainment system, are standard with this engine.
But once you drive it, the costcutting becomes obvious. The steering is feather light and vague, especially at speed, not helped by the tiny, 13in wheels and skinny tyres. It’s difficult to get any sort of feel for what the front end is doing, although it could have been much worse if they hadn’t switched to Ceat winter tyres in China. The lowspeed ride is pretty jerky and under any acceleration whatsoever the engine moans like a teenager forced to watch Question Time. There’s also a lot of noise and vibration to contend with, although the fivespeed gearbox is at least fairly slick. But this is one of the cheapest cars in the world, remember. That it hasn’t disintegrated in the rain is a marvel, but this Kwid has made it nearly halfway around the world.
As we head towards Warsaw, the roads widen but the weather worsens and crosswinds shake the Kwid on its axles. An ultra-light kerb weight of 700kg causes a battle with the steering wheel to keep on the straight-ahead. The snow stops and the skies clear, offering postcardperfect rolling hills as far as the eye can see, blindingly white from the glare of the sun. Even with snow underfoot, the Kwid doesn’t miss a beat. It had a planned service in Kazakhstan. The check included an oil change, coolant top-up and a new air filter and oil filter, but apart from that, it has needed no intervention from an engineer. Miraculous.
The snow overnight in Warsaw covers both the cars, and after a brief snowball fight, we hit the road again. The conditions are tough and the pace of the trip is relentless, but nothing dampens the spirits of the team. Even after just three days, my alarm in the morning is as welcome as a punch in the face, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to have kept this up for more than a month.
We cross the border into Germany and are welcomed by a blaze of blue flashing lights in the rear-view mirror. The police car overtakes us and we’re escorted from the motorway into the woods nearby. This feels ominous.
“You’re from the UK?” the puzzled officer asks, leaning towards the car window, brow furrowed. When travelling in an unrecognisable car with Indian registration plates in Europe, it’s hard to look inconspicuous. Even before they reached this continent, Rahul tells me, they were pulled over and searched countless times.
Our documents are thumbed through, questions are asked, Rahul smoothes it all over and we’re soon sent onto the autobahn.
The crosswinds that shook us in Poland have gone, so it’s stable as I anchor my right foot to the floor, hands clenched on the wheel, road clear. The engine howls, wind and road noise cranks up to 11 and the speakers distort Rahul’s Europop. It’s time to chase a top speed.
Screaming it forwards and overtaking cars that cost 20 times as much, I clock 100mph, and in the afternoon, Rahul ekes out a staggering 108mph from the threepot. The tranquil, snowy old towns of eastern Europe become distant memories as we charge past huge metropolitan German cities, and we can all feel that Paris isn’t far now.
Stops in Berlin and Cologne pass quickly with jubilant evening meals and then there it is, looming over the western end of the Champs-Élysées with wild Delhi-style traffic snaking around it: the Arc de Triomphe, and the conclusion of this epic odyssey.
In all, it has taken 44 days to cover 11,000 miles through 13 countries in a brutal test of mechanical durability and driver endurance. The Kwid and the team have passed with flying colours. Obviously, by any stretch of the imagination, this is not the best car in the world, but this trip is as strong a message as any to those who might question the resilience of Indian manufacturing standards.
The titanic effort of the entire team, and the sheer audacity to come up with this ridiculous idea and execute it, is truly remarkable. Just like this little car.