In Maharashtra, post monsoon month of October is one of the best periods to experience the beauty of the resplendent Western Ghats. Actually the whole area transforms into various shades of green during the monsoon itself, but owing to the pouring rains which is more of a rule than exception in the area, tourism activities become subdued due to obvious difficulties.
Fortunately, post monsoon, for a few weeks the lushness of greenery remains intact, and therefore the month of October allows the normal tourist to enjoy the natural environmental opulence of the Western Ghats without the discomfort of continuous rainfall.
In the last week of September, a Fiat Linea was offered to me to explore the Western Ghats. I instantly fell for it knowing well that the idea held the promise of a great driving experience as well as an opportunity to explore the fabulously picturesque Sahyadri Range of the Western Ghats. On one hand there was a car which had the formidable lineage of Fiat behind it and on the other hand there was the Kaas Pleateau which had the reputation of showcasing one of the most charming landscapes full of exquisite flowers.
Fiat as a brand has been an important one in India and prior to the introduction of Maruti Gypsy, it used to rule the roost in the Indian motorsports (mainly rallies) arena. Unfortunately, the discontinuation of Fiat derived small car by the Indian partner Premier Auto more or less coincided with liberalisation of Indian economy in the last decades of the last century and the Fiat brand which was already under pressure from Maruti-Suzuki combine had to perforce fade from popular memory due to sudden onslaught of several mainstream multi-national car manufactures. But, such is the passion generated by this hardcore Italian car-maker in the hearts and minds of automobile aficionados that despite being faded the Fiat brand refused to be completely obliterated.
And as far as Fiat was concerned, it went about the business of car manufacturing with the famed Italian passion. Along the way the very competent Fiat Uno was introduced in India and then the Palio / Sienna duo came along to be checked out by Indian car drivers. However, despite being competent products, these cars didn't exactly set the market afire.
In the meanwhile something else was being brewed by Fiat which would ultimately storm the Indian car market and once again make Fiat a household name and a very valuable brand.
A 1.3 litre common rail direct injection 4cylinder diesel engine came to be developed by Fiat around 2003. This all aluminum DOHC engine broke new ground in terms of refinement, efficiency and flexibility; it went on to win the 'Engine Of The World' award in the year 2005 in the 1.0l -1.4l category. This Fiat diesel engine gained adulation the world over and came to be introduced in India as the power plant of choice for the best-selling and iconic hatchback manufactured by India's favorite car manufacturer - Maruti-Suzuki Swift. With the passage of time this particular power plant has gone on to become the most popular and successful diesel engine in India and the name 'FIAT' got permanently etched in the mind-space of Indian car drivers.
Fiat Punto (hatchback) and Fiat Linea (sedan) are powered with this most successful small diesel engine with either a fixed turbo (developing around 75bhp) or a variable geometry turbo (developing around 90bhp). The Linea on offer to me was the top trim level - “Emotion” variant which is extremely feature-rich and therefore there was no shortage of creature comforts for the driver and passengers. Now the big question was whether the expectations stoked by the beautifully designed Fiat Linea Multijet Emotion would be fulfilled by its driving dynamics and whether the destination would be good enough of to justify the drive.
Around the time when FIAT 1.3l Multijet diesel engine was gaining eminence as the best small displacement diesel engine in the world, a small non-descript plateau lying some 25 odd kilometres west, off the princely city of Satara, was also gaining eminence. This culminated into Kaas Plateau being nominated as UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) 'World Natural Heritage Site' in 2012. Kaas Plateau which is locally known as Kaas Pathar is nestled in the Sahyadri hill range of the Western Ghats. It is located at around 1200 metres (altitude) and is spread out in about 18 square km (total area including forest area). Kaas plateau is home to a wide variety of flowering weeds which are found only in this area and therefore it is considered a Bio-diversity Hotspot and as one of the seven wonders of Maharashtra.
The beauty and importance of Kaas Plateau lies in its flora which is unique and largely endemic to this particular region. This uniqueness is due to the underlying geological factors, topography and soil conditions which have evolved over many millennia on account of natural factors including erosion.
The plateau is lateritic with a very thin crust of top soil. Apparently, this thin crust of soil is one of the major factors contributing to the singular ecosystem comprising of flowering weeds which makes the whole area a veritable riot of colour. There is immense diversity in the flora and several herbs are found here, which according to local lore are supposed to have medicinal value.
The drive to Kaas Plateau is quite uncomplicated except for the bit where one has to go through the erstwhile princely city of Satara. Driving on the Mumbai – Pune Expressway and then straight south on the divided carriageway of NH-4 through Katraj Ghat tunnel followed by the climb over Khambatki ghat to reach Satara has always been a relatively hassle-free and pretty fast drive. Fiat Linea powered by the Multijet 1.3 litre variable geometry turbo was fast enough to make it to Satara in three hours flat (from Kharghar).
Navigating the city streets of Satara wasn’t much of a trouble but thereafter it was a painfully slow trudge up the narrow hilly road. Kaas Plateau’s eminence as a UNESCO nominated natural heritage site has resulted in soaring popularity as holiday and picnic spot and the huge increase in vehicular traffic is a given.
Although UNESCO nomination has meant that the area has been properly cordoned off by putting up fences and there is a proposal to limit tourists to two thousand (2000) per day, in the present situation this number would be easily exceeding by a multiple of twenty (20) on weekends and holidays. This huge increase in tourist traffic may not only be causing irreversible damage to the ecosystem but it also causes huge traffic jams on the narrow road. The existing road infrastructure gets overwhelmed by the sheer number of vehicles that it is forced to accommodate.
Several volunteers as well as local villagers (hired by local forest department) could be seen directing the tourists and clearing up the mess left behind by the picnickers but whether the fragile ecology of area would be able to bear the onslaught of the huge crowd which descends at this small plateau is debatable.
Well, despite the traffic and the crowd the day was well spent. The scenic beauty of Kaas Plateau and the beautiful Fiat Linea complemented each other and it was an enjoyable drive of over five hundred kilometers in a day (to and fro).
Fiat Linea comes across as a very sharp handling car and makes for an involving drive. In the top end “Emotion” trim, it is equipped with several high end features and provides a comfortable driving environment.
Dynamically, this sedan is biased towards a firm ride which inspires confidence at high speed on the highway.
General build quality of Linea feels very good and despite being fast and powerful it is quite frugal in terms of fuel consumption. An aggressive and fast drive of 500km with three occupants yielded a very good average fuel efficiency of 16kmpl (indicated).
The relatively long wheel base (2603mm) may not have liberated a huge amount of interior space but it has certainly endowed the Linea with excellent stability. High ground clearance of 185mm is very useful as it not only helps in saving the bottom from being scrapped on bad roads and high speed-breakers but also allows the car to be taken off-road if there is no issue with traction afforded by the surface.
High leverage designed in the clutch has resulted in long travel of the clutch pedal and has substantially reduced the effort required to press the clutch pedal; drivers navigating the bumper to bumper traffic on city roads would definitely appreciate it. Fiat Linea is a car for mature driving enthusiasts as it strikes a very good balance between well sorted ride comfort, excellent on-road dynamics and good fuel efficiency.
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