I love week­ends, es­pe­cially when it in­volves a fast car and a fab­u­lous hill climb… all within strik­ing dis­tance of the place I call home


Driv­ing up to Aamby Val­ley in the Mercedes-AMG SLC 43

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 ev­er­p­re­sent 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 of

this 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! ⌧

Top left: The gear se­lec­tor is beau­ti­fully fin­ished.

Above left: Dis­creet pad­dleshifters ap­peal to the man in you. Above

right: Top down is how I wanted it but alas, the rain played killjoy

Top to bot­tom: Sounds like a gun, goes like a shot; beauty lies in the de­tails. Be­low right: The 3-litre V6 bi-turbo en­gine packs a solid punch

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