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Alto, the queen of Himachal

Back in December, when the pandemic had seen a reprieve, my wife and I visited a few places in the northern state of Himachal. Aside from offering a welcome distraction, that trip also challenged my pre-conceived notion of transport in the mountains.

I say that this trip was a good thing, but in the long-term a.k.a 2021, it has proven to be the one memory that itches the most And this makes my Himachal trip the most bitter-sweet experience of all my travels so far!

Anyway, I was under the gross misconception that I'd get to see fancy SUVs and mini-trucks trudging along the Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges from dawn to dusk. Boy, was I wrong!

Btw, this is me debunking another misconception.

Though most of the northern mountains are a part of the 'Himalayan' ranges, only the Greater Himalayas are what people associate with the real ones. (Think Everest and K2) Most of the other mountains in northern India are actually a part of the Lesser Himalayas, subdivided into disjointed ranges.

But that does not make them any less of a mountain. Get it? 😋

So, instead of staring at the large rear end of Jeeps and Gypsys, I found myself staring at the rather quaint derriere of the Maruti-Suzuki Alto.

Now, for those who are unfamiliar with this car, let's do a thought experiment. Think of the tiniest hatchback that you've seen in your country. Not one of those ridiculous matchbox EVs though. Think of an actual hatchback that runs on gasoline. Got it? Now squeeze that car into a shape as small as humanly possible, just so that you have enough width to seat four oversized people. Obviously, we assume that the driver is of average Asian height. Can you hold that image in your head? Great.

Now take a look at the image below.

Is this anything like the car that you imagined? If yes, then congratulations! You've got the unbridled imagination of a seven-year-old or most of the design team at Maruti-Suzuki. 😅 If the answer was no, then you simply suck at imagining things. 😂

Nevertheless, at first glance, this hardly seems like the car that should tame the Himalayas, right? I agree. But ever since my trip, I've realized that it, not the mountains themselves but the winding roads that explain this anomaly!

I kid you not, my journey from the airport to our hostel was no less than a coaster ride. The sheer sight of two cars passing side-by-side in the narrow lanes of Mcleodganj gave me the jitters. Don't believe me? Ask anyone who has been to any of the Himachal hill resorts. The world-acclaimed Old Manali is even worse!

But it is evident that the engineers who designed these roads considered two and a quarter Altos as the ideal measurement to size them up! And this is probably why an Alto can still speed through these hills as a Citroen or Ford does in a flat rally.

Also, the rally reference is not for exaggeration. Driving in the Himalayas should become an extreme sport in its own right. Only, it'll be a highly monopolized event thanks to Maruti-Suzuki being the only participating constructor! 😂

Another reason why most locals prefer this dainty car is that it is economical. And the budget car segment is where Maruti-Suzuki shines. Not just a low base cost, but the abundance of spare parts, repair garages, and the lack of modern complications makes Alto the car of choice for remote locations such as the Himalayas.

And what's more, the car packs more than enough punch for the couple of hundred thousand that you'll shell out for it! Equipped with a 0.8 to 1 litre engine, the Alto is robust enough to tackle the steep slopes on these mountains and responsive to manoeuvre the tricky lanes of the Tibetan market.

Speaking of steep slopes, do you want to know the most significant advantage for an Alto on hairpin bends? The driver can simply peer out of his window and see the entire car bumper to bumper! The only vehicle that offers a degree of visibility higher than this is the rickshaw. 😅 And believe me, the only way to ride that in the Himalayas is for four of us to push it up the hill. 🤣

In addition to its small frame and non-demanding nature, the Alto is the perfect family car as well. In fact, it was advertised as such during its launch, way back in 2000. It's just the right size for an average-sized family of four and all the luggage that they can carry, provided they have the add-on luggage carrier installed, of course! I'd go as far as to call it the frugal Goldilocks of the economy-hatchback segment.

I was sceptical of the Alto's capability until we had our paragliding experience in Bir. I'll elaborate on that in a subsequent post, but here's the point of note for this discussion. Five of us, squeezed into the Alto with two oversized rucksacks of paragliding gear, raced towards the peak of Billing, our take-off site, in record time!

Obviously, based on the Himachali driving, I did consider the eventuality of 'taking off' in the Alto itself, but thankfully, that was not to be. 😅

But it was enough to convince me.

The Alto has ruled the Indian streets for over two decades. And even though we may have replaced it with swankier alternatives in our cities, thanks to its merits as discussed above, it continues to rule Himachal to this day.

So as a final toast, I'd like to convey two messages that could probably be your most important takeaways -

  1. Go ahead and blindly invest in Maruti-Suzuki, because this company is going nowhere in the next couple of decades. For hot tips, please reach out to my wife. She's the investment banker amongst the two of us!

  2. And the next time you are in Himachal, make sure you take a ride in one of the local Alto taxis because it is a one-of-a-kind experience!

Long live the queen! 🙂

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