Thank god it’s Friday! It’s a mantra I am absolutely in love with, for Fridays mark the start of an all-play and no-work zone for me. Well, usually it works like that, but once in a while I end up working and on those days I also end up grumbling. But not today, for today office means the driver’s seat of the lovely Mercedes-AMG SLC 43 and a day pass to the hill climb that connects Lonavala to Aamby Valley. Hell, this is what Fridays should look like.
The hill town of Lonavala is just an hour and a bit’s drive away from Pune and about two and a bit from Mumbai. Accessible as it is, the town is extremely popular for day and weekend trips throughout the year and you’ll find plenty of hotels, resorts and restaurants along with the weekend homes of the well-to-do from Mumbai and Pune. Away from the hubbub of and in the middle of these two cities, laidback Lonavala has a charm that’s quite unique. But monsoon is when Lonavala becomes magical. The usual brown of the mountains turns into a lush luminescent green and they often get covered in dense fog. It’s an absolutely fantastical setting. As long as you remember to watch out for the oddly parked car on the side of the road or a jaywalker intent on a selfie next to a waterfall.
Just about 25km away from Lonavala is what is touted as independent India’s first planned hill city, the one we all know as Aamby Valley City. Aamby Valley itself has been in the news in the recent past for reasons that are of no consequence to us but what is of consequence is that thanks to Aamby Valley, the twisty-turny road that connects it with Lonavala is beautifully surfaced. Ergo, a perfect place for a hill climb. Think I’m exaggerating? Think again. A misty mountain climb over fabulous tarmac with some magnificent views to be enjoyed along the way. And all of this is close enough to home for the entire trip to be done in the course of a single day.
It’s still raining when I pull away from all the stares of the people in my housing complex who have come to see the beautifully low and lithe Mercedes-AMG SLC 43. The shiny maroon –Mercedes calls it Designo Hyacinth Red Metallic, SLC has that effect on people. From morning walkers trying to live a healthy life to over-excited children, everyone stares at the replacement to the old SLK. I drive out of the gate with an unfamiliar swagger that I’m already getting used to. Perhaps a car like the SLC does that to you.
While the rest of Pune is still shaking off the late slumber that monsoons bring with them, I am cruising down the Mumbai-Pune expressway towards the exit to Lonavala. The low bassy hum of the SLC’s 3-litre bi-turbo V6, the light drizzle and the lushness of the waterfall-dotted landscape make me hum. Eighty kilometres per hour, the ridiculously low official speed limit on the expressway, feels like child’s play for a car whose engine churns out 362 brake horsepower and 520Nm of max twist. I know I’m barely even scratching the surface here, something I hope to change once I’ve crossed Lonavala town and headed up the mountain road.
Till Bhushi dam, about seven kilometres down the road to Aamby Valley, is packed with picnickers and revellers. They stop and turn as I rumble by at near-crawling speeds, for apart from happy and unmindful pedestrians there is the ever-present danger of scraping the low nose on the speedbreakers that the authorities have put here. Just a couple of bends later, I’m in a different world for ahead, stretches out a wonderful road, all the way to the gates of Aamby Valley City.
Away from the madding crowd, I stop and put the car in Sport mode for it would be a shame to do a hill climb in Comfort, let alone Eco. Sport+ is a tad too extreme for this road. The first turn after the short rising straight of the last bit of Jalvaayu Marg is a nice tight hairpin of a left-hander. From here on, to the top it’s just Vaayu Marg, and rightly so, for you feel like you’re flying through the clouds. A couple of fast kinks follow and then the fun begins in earnest.
The next set of six hairpins connected by short straights is taken with the nine-speed 9G-Tronic transmission between second and third, using the beautifully finished and somewhat discreetly placed paddleshifters. Brake. Set the car up for the turn. Turn in. Hit the apex. Straighten out and blast ahead for the next one with the engine roaring its delight at finally being made to work some, accompanied by loud pops of the turbo. I bet people would have heard us a mile away.
Where the first hairpin is taken gingerly, the second one onwards I let loose. As much as I can on a public road that’s narrow. The 235/40 front tyres and 255/35 rear tyres grip the wet surface with an adhesive quality that feels like Velcro while the low slung and beautifully balanced chassis feels like the SLC was created with just such a road in the eye of the engineer’s mind. At one point, I toy with the idea of putting down the top. After all the joy of a convertible is top down motoring, isn’t it? A sudden squall however puts paid to such silly notions and I quickly decide to live with somewhat dampened spirits than with damp AMG interiors. At the end ofthis series of hairpins, I find a piece of run off, hang a U and head back down for a repeat performance of the six hairpins. Second time around is even more fun because by now I’ve gotten used to the way the car accelerates and pins you to the seat until you lift off.
After a second round of blasting up the hairpin set, I set a course for Lion’s Point. On a normal day you would get some majestic views of the Sahyadris from up here, but halfway here the SLC and I drive into fog that looks thick enough to be a cloud bank. After the initial panic of not being able to see past the louvred bonnet of the Mercedes, I settle into a child-like excitement – thrilled, but for no particular reason other than the fact that driving through this cloud feels like magic. I drive with utmost care past Lion’s Point, known for being a hot favourite with many a reveller.
Further up, the fog starts to thin out and the road begins to open up into a series of gentle curves. I straightline a handful, zoom through a left-hander keeping the Air Force installation on my left before swinging right again and continuing. The SLC and I dance our way to the top, with the multi-talented AMG not only swaying in tune with the road’s rhythms but also keeping the excitement of the drive alive with her full-throated song. At one point, the road opens up and you almost think you’re on the plains for the Sahyadri is made up of plateaus. There is a quick left-right followed by a fast flowing ninety-degree right-hander that also dips down into a straight stretch for almost a quarter of a mile. It’s my favourite corner on this entire hill climb because not only is this an open corner where you have great vision right through to the end of the turn, providing a safety net that is never available on blind U-turns, it also allows the driver to carry decent speed through the turn.
Even with the traction control turned on, the tail seems to slip just a shade at the exit of the previous tight left-hander before the SLC catches herself and lines up for that fast right turn. The act of carving through that corner feels like a million bucks. Out on the straight I stop, turn, and repeat. I lose count of the number of times I do this until Gaurav reminds me that it’s still rainy and there’s a photoshoot to be done. For once, I welcome the showers. Every time it starts raining Gaurav has to take a break from the snapping and clicking, which means a chance for me to drive. Magical though it is, fog plays occasional spoilsport because there is no way of experiencing The Thrill of Driving when you can’t see where you’re going. Gaurav gives me a thumbs-up at around four in the evening, signalling that we are done with our day’s “work”.
The moment I have the green signal, I speed off towards the gate of Aamby Valley, a few kilometres ahead. At the gate, I turn around and drive back somewhat slowly to that open patch of straight road that leads to my favourite corner – this time a left-hander since I’m approaching from the other end. I check to make sure the road ahead and behind is completely empty. I engage Sport+ using the Dynamic Select button on the dash, put my left foot on the brakes and pile on the revs. At around 3500 revs I can feel the rear shaking and swinging, raring to be unleashed. I oblige and the SLC shoots ahead magnificently. I stay on the throttle, working the gearbox, soaking in the roar and the pops, as I head for the horizon where another AMG hill climb awaits. Indeed weekends should start like this. Thank god it’s Friday!