Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Bad roads, good places, great cars: Luxury SUVs go off the road

As the sales of luxury SUVs surge in India, some owners are taking them out of their urban comfort zone and onto roads the vehicles are actually built for

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: Jun 18, 2024 06:03:24 PM IST
Updated: Jun 20, 2024 11:48:31 AM IST

Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad started his explorations long before he, or his family, even had a car. Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad started his explorations long before he, or his family, even had a car.
There are those who drive, and those who drive. This story is about the latter.

Given the surge in luxury vehicles in India, including SUVs, catching a glimpse of several in a day has become commonplace in the big cities. Commonplace also is seeing them standing at traffic signals, crawling through congested roads, navigating unruly autorickshaws and two-wheelers, or simply parked—squeaky clean—in the parking lots of high-rise buildings and malls. Vehicles that are built to take on the toughest of roads—or none at all—and the most challenging of weathers are often rarely taken out of the comfort zones of their owners.  

And yet, there are those who push not just their vehicles, but themselves, out of these very comfort zones and to the edge of their limits to travel across the world in search of adventure, new experiences and learnings, or to fulfill childhood dreams.

“The car you drive, frankly, can become irrelevant if you have the will power,” says Badri Baldawa, a Mumbai-based businessman who turned 80 in early June, and who drove from Mumbai to London when he was 73. “I could have done the London trip in a Maruti 800 also, but yes, it would have been tough for me to drive for 21 hours at a stretch in it. The BMW X5, in which we travelled, is very well suited for long hours of driving, and is much easier on my back.”

Baldawa has driven a wide range of vehicles in his travels across 65 countries, with the most recent one abroad being in Uganda, in a Land Cruiser. His first trip abroad was in Norway to see the midnight sun, in 1983. “When I was in school, my teacher had told us about a country where the sun does not set for six months. I had told myself that I will have to see it to believe it,” he recalls. “So once my business was steady and settled, I decided to make my first foreign trip and go to Norway.” The drive within Norway was challenging not because of the terrain, but because it required driving alone for 46 to 48 hours at a stretch, without any stops. “I had to reach certain places within a certain amount of time, and this was the only way.”

Driving in cold and difficult terrains is something that he also experienced on an expedition in Russia. “Driving in the snow in the Russian winter can be very challenging. For about eight days, that’s all we did—drive. And there was nothing but several feet of snow all around us,” he says, recalling his most memorable driving experience.

Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad started his explorations long before he, or his family, even had a car. Mumbai-based businessman Badri Baldawa drove from Mumbai to London when he was 73 in a BMW X5

Baldawa’s view about the car being irrelevant is possibly also true, to some extent, for Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad. Because for him, his explorations started long before he, or his family, even had a car. Patel started travelling around Gujarat as a young boy who would distribute grains and flour on his bicycle. “Then when I became a civil engineering student, in 1979, I got a motorcycle—it was a Jawa—and travelled from Ahmedabad to Kanyakumari and back,” says the real estate businessman. In the years that followed, setting up his business took up most of his time and thoughts, and, except for the odd trip, he didn’t travel much. In 2000, he did take his Gypsy to Ladakh—which was a far cry from today, with its mostly smooth, tarred roads—and in 2006, he went to Lahaul and Spiti.

It was only in 2006 that he started his travels once again in earnest. Patel is a firm believer in driving vehicles that do not have many electrical components, and therefore are easy to repair while on the road. “There are a lot of very good SUVs, like the Defender, which are capable of driving on difficult roads. But if something goes wrong with them, it becomes difficult to find mechanics to fix them or do some jugaad.” Consequently, over the years, he has placed his trust in the Ford Endeavour—he has an older model and a newer one—and a Toyota Fortuner for his long-distance expeditions.

In 2010, he travelled through the villages of northern Thailand on an off-road motorcycle trip. Later, he also travelled from Ahmedabad to Bangkok and back—via Assam, Manipur, Myanmar—with his car. In 2018, he travelled to Morocco, across 16 countries and 45 days with a bunch of friends. “On the way back, from Spain we sent the car back on a cargo ship, and took a flight ourselves,” he says.  

“In 2015, I started my project of covering 29 states in 29 days. So, every day I would reach the capital city of a new state and visit its Vidhan Sabha,” says Patel. The word spread on Facebook, and often a group of enthusiasts would meet him outside the city, and accompany him in a convoy of motorcycles. “In Bengaluru, I was met by a group of students, who then put me up in their hostel at night. For that time, I forgot that I was 60 years old!”  

Patel has driven in 45 countries, including Uganda and Jordan, and is just back from a trip where he drove from Almaty, through the mountains to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. “The more I stay away from tarred roads, the better it is. I love off-roading,” he exclaims. “I have been to so many big cities around the world, that I don’t want to see them at all when I drive. I prefer the mountains, and to be surrounded by nature.” Among the numerous anecdotes from his travels, he recalls his time in Thailand with his friends: “The person who would be driving wouldn’t even leave his seat when we stopped for toilet breaks,” he says with a laugh. “Because if you left it, you wouldn’t get it back! Such is the passion of driving.”

Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad started his explorations long before he, or his family, even had a car.

Patel’s view about his trusty Fortuner is shared by Pranav Tejookaya of Mumbai. Over the years, he has travelled five times to Ladakh, in three different SUVs—the Fortuner, the Audi Q7 and the Land Rover Defender. “The Fortuner was a no-brainer; it is the best vehicle to drive on rugged roads. With the Audi Q7, I had to be more careful, since it is an expensive car and I did not want to damage the underbody. The Defender experience was, however, the best since the vehicle is built for those roads.”

Also read: Why the luxury car market is zipping in India

Tejookaya has inherited his passion for driving from his father, who was a race car driver. “He had imported a two-seater MG for the races, and had modified it by putting in a different engine,” he says. “In those times, and I am talking about 50 years or so ago, the races would be held at airports, such as Pune and Baroda. At that time the air traffic was not heavy, and airports would be closed on weekends. The erstwhile kings and other affluent people would race their cars on the airstrips.”

In 2016, Tejookaya went on an expedition in Iceland. “It was amazing, and we drove more than 400-500 km a day. At certain places, there were no roads also. I was driving a Toyota Hilux, with a modified chassis and anti-skid tyres. We were driving in six feet of snow, and had an instructor who was telling us how to navigate,” he says. “You have to drive at a specific gear and specific speed, because if you are too slow or you stop, you will get stuck. Mine was the only vehicle in the group that didn’t get stuck!”

It is not just difficult terrains that Tejookaya loves driving on. While on family trips in Europe, he rents a Mercedes or Volkswagen minivan to go on self-drive tours through the countries. He also drives to places close to Mumbai, such as Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. “Driving is my passion, and even if I am going back to my native place in Kutch, my driver sits next to me while I drive,” he says.

A passion for cars and driving is common to people like Tejookaya and Shalin Sarvaiya. “I have been driving for many years, and my most recent trip was in New Zealand with my family. I will be going soon again, this time to Slovenia and Croatia,” he says.  

While on holiday, say for two weeks, he prefers to travel for 12 days and rest for the remaining days. He has done most of his trips in his BMW X5, and has recently got himself a Range Rover. “Driving your own car on cross-border trips is a different experience altogether,” he says. However, when he is driving in countries where he cannot take his own vehicle, he prefers driving the Toyota Land Cruiser or Prado. “For instance, in New Zealand I drove a Prado, while in Jordan, it was a Land Cruiser and in Iceland, it was a Defender,” he says.

“I chose to buy the BMW X5 and the Range Rover for their driving pleasure, because it would be me driving them—I don’t give my cars to drivers; I am very possessive about them. Reliability is also a big reason, because on some of these trips, we are in such deep interiors that we might not come across another soul for a long time.” Sarvaiya feels that on long expeditions, he prefers luxury SUVs because they make the driving experience very comfortable and they are also reliable.

His travels have taken him across the world, and he has driven on snow and glaciers, in deserts and on dunes. “When I say dunes, I don’t mean something like just dune-bashing, but where the entire terrain is desert and gravel. For instance, during my trip in Namibia this April, we were driving on dunes and gravel roads for 80 percent of the time. I love driving on snow and gravel roads, but for a driver all roads can be beautiful and challenging.”

Within India, he has driven to the north and the south, through Uttarakhand, most of Himachal Pradesh and extensively through Spiti Valley, as well as the whole of the Northeast. He feels his expeditions in Iceland and Russia were the most memorable among extreme adventure trips, but his travels in Africa were the most memorable from the point of view of an overall experience which includes the people and culture of the place. “If you go with an open mind, as long as you respect the food, culture and faith of the people, you will not face any challenges anywhere. People everywhere are beautiful,” he says.

“Whenever I have driven through the country, I feel that I am able to touch the soul of that place, in terms of its people, culture and food. For instance, a few years ago we travelled from the top of Italy to the bottom, excluding Sicily, and we went through the internal roads and none of the motorways. This is because if you go through the motorways, you don’t see the small villages and towns,” he explains.

Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad started his explorations long before he, or his family, even had a car. Rajiv Bhatt has driven through large parts of the country in his Land Rover Defender V8 Bond edition

Rajiv Bhatt believes every car, too, has a soul, and you can feel connected with it. “If you treat your car well, it will repay the good deed. And I have seen people abusing their cars, and then the cars breaking down, as if they want to get back for mistreatment,” he says with a laugh. The Mumbai-based businessman has driven through large parts of the country, including the mountains of Himachal Pradesh in his Defender; he is now aiming to do a trip to London in the same vehicle.

Bhatt owns a Porsche Cayenne, a Jeep Trailhawk, a Defender and a Mahindra Thar. A car enthusiast, he feels the capabilities of each of these vehicles are different and they have their own charms. Although his decision to buy the Thar was met with some uncertainty by his family, since it does not fall in the same luxury segment as his other wheels, he feels proud of owning a made-in-India product. While the Cayenne, he says, is a mood-lifter and can immediately put a smile on his face, the Defender is very reliable on rough and rugged roads.

Bhatt’s family has had cars for many decades. Starting with Morris Minors and Premier Padminis, they kept pace with the Suzukis, Peugeots, Hondas and Mahindra; then came a shift to the German carmakers—Mercedes and BMWs—and now it’s Land Rover, and Porsche.

There are those like Patel and Baldawa who prefer planning every aspect of their own trips, even when they are over several weeks and countries. But this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For those who prefer to enjoy just the drive, and leave the planning, organisation and logistics to someone else, there are companies such as Adventures Overland and Cougar Motorsport that ensure that clients have a memorable expedition, all in the comfort of luxurious vehicles and accommodations.

Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad started his explorations long before he, or his family, even had a car. A convoy expedition at Khardung La, Ladakh. Organised by Overland Adventures, clients bring their own cars which include Land Cruisers, Range Rovers, Porsche Cayennes and BMW X5s Image: Adventures Overland

Cougar Motorsport was incorporated in 2009, and conducts a mix of B2C and B2B events. The B2C events are curated entirely by the company, and it has been taking customers on travel expeditions for more than 15 years now; it has concluded about 325 events in all.

“I personally had an interest in driving and motoring and motorsport. I have been a rally driver for four years while I worked in a bank,” says Ashish Gupta, founder and director of Cougar Motorsport. “Every time I would come back from an event, I would find a lot of interest within my peer group—bankers, private equity professionals, lawyers and clients in the corporate sector—who would say, this sounds fantastic and we would love to come. However, there were no platforms for them unless they ventured out alone.”

Gupta also realised there was a gap in the market, where a company could offer a product or a service where it can take care of everything, because everyone did not have the same appetite for extreme motorsport or adventure. “They said, we’d love to do something; whether it’s competitive or non-competitive it doesn’t matter. We just want to experience the vehicles we have bought, because right now it is only taking the kids to school, and us to the malls. We’ve never even engaged the four-wheel drive,” he recalls. In Cougar’s very first event in 2009, it managed to bring together some fairly well-known and influential people, and they brought their Land Cruisers and Porsche Cayennes and Pajeros and Mercedes.

Over the years, Cougar’s offerings have expanded to include different geographies within India—the Northeast, the Himalayas and Rajasthan. “We also tried some routes in South India, which were very picturesque. But then we realised that Indians have a fascination for the mountains, and that is where they flock to. We are getting our first set of international travellers for the South Indian routes,” says Gupta. The tours within India, depending on the location and duration—the usual ones are weekend-to-weekend, but there are shorter ones as well—can cost between ₹2.5 lakh and ₹5 lakh per person. The Delhi-to-London trip that Cougar organises can cost between ₹25 lakh and ₹27 lakh.

Mahendra Patel of Ahmedabad started his explorations long before he, or his family, even had a car. Shalin Sarvaiya has done most of his trips in his BMW X5, and has recently got himself a Range Rover, seen here. His most recent trip was in New Zealand with his family Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India

Adventures Overland, which was started by Tushar Agarwal and Sanjay Madan in 2012, organises a limited number of premium expeditions in India and abroad with a focus on high quality of service, hotels and experience.

“We do six continents through different drives. So, you can choose to do all six continents in one year, or you can do it over six years,” says Agarwal. “Ninety percent of the trips we organise are abroad. In India, the Northeast is becoming very popular. And we are also in the process of buying our own fleet of cars this year.”

Once the fleet is in place, the company plans to offer complete packages in the Northeast, Nepal and Bhutan. One of the reasons for getting its own fleet is to maintain the quality of vehicles. “Rental cars in India are not very well maintained. So, the tyres will not be good or the insurance is not in place, or they are not clean.”

For most of the expeditions in India, most clients bring their own cars. But if they don’t have a car, a suitable car is provided for the trip. “It’s common in our convoy in India to see a combination of Land Cruisers, Range Rovers, there will be a couple of Porsche Cayennes, two or three BMW X5s and Mercedes ZLE,” says Agarwal.

A seven-night trip within India, say in Lahaul and Spiti, will cost ₹95,000 per person if guests brings their own vehicle, while a seven-night international trip, like in Iceland, will cost ₹5.95 lakh per person, and Adventures Overland will provide the vehicles, Defenders, which four guests can take turns to drive.

Creating memorable experiences for customers is something that even car makers are doing. Be it Jeep, which has recently upgraded the Wrangler to make it more comfortable for highway driving—it has been known as a hard-core, off-roading vehicle—or Lamborghini, which organises events to bring owners together at exotic locations.

(This story appears in the 14 June, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)