The Highest Altitude a Volvo Sedan has ever been to in the World! Volvo S60 T4 @ 16,000 ft / 4850 m.
Updated: Jun 1
The people who read my stories about the crazy driving adventures I go on, know that I have a soft corner towards Volvo cars and I love spending long hours with them every time I have them in my test fleet. They are simply, one of the best cars money can buy today. Period.
The S60 is what I refer to as the 'Underdog' of the industry. It is the car a very few, intellectual and seasoned beings understood and picked as their fort runners in India. The beautiful sedan is the epitome of sophisticated luxury, advanced onboard technology and comfort. It doesn't have the sticker that shouts 'PERFORMANCE' or 'ROWDY', it is not the tyre slayer your fashionable friend from college just bought. The S60 is meant for a relaxing cruise with your family, in or out of the city.
On one such unplanned excursion out of the city with my mother and my two cousins in the S60 T4, which had come to my test fleet for the second time, I reached the state of Himachal Pradesh, driving on a fine weekend morning with no direction whatsoever I reached Mandi, a small town in the middle of the state which is the entry point to two major tourist destinations, Manali and McLeodganj. Since Manali recently got its highways all smoothened and widened up, it was a no brainer choice. The 1,969cc turbocharged petrol engine produces 188 bhp of max power at 5,000rpm and 300 Nm of max torque that is available at a low 1,700rpm. The engine is one of the most silent petrol engines this side of the 1 Crore price tag and even if you rev it hard, you'll barely hear it.
After driving for 550 kms for 15 hours which didn't even tire me, from my house in Delhi with just food and nature calls in between, we reach Manali, which to our surprise is crowded like a vegetable market on a weekend in a small suburb in Delhi. Everyone was there! From your building's security guard to Bhumi Pandekar, everyone seems to have chosen Manali as their holiday destination the day I landed there. A quick bypass from the main Mall Road, which was insanely crowded (as seen from afar and going by google map's dark red marker for the route) I reached the upper areas of this quintessential touristy town at one of my favourite pigout spots, Cafe 1947 for a spot of Hazelnut Cold Coffee and a table with the view of the Beas River flowing below us to plan as to where we should be heading next.
Because for any luxury sedan owner, this would be the upper limit to how adventurous one can be. The higher altitude and rough terrain beckon ahead. And with my 136 mm ground clearance, I was quite perplexed in making my next move. I was already at 6,800 ft / 2,000 m above sea level at Manali and ahead lies the Lahaul and Spiti district which will open doors to one of the toughest terrains in India.
I looked into the eyes of my 58-year-old mother, sitting across the table who was looking fulfilled to have come here and called my friends in Jispa, the centre of Lahaul Valley of Lahaul & Spiti.
After a few minutes of patience, I get a call back from my old friend Rajesh, at the incredible Hotel Ibex that they have 2 rooms to accommodate my family.
Hotel Ibex besides the glorious Padma Lodge has forever been the host of the legendary Raid De Himalaya, the highest and the toughest Rally Race to happen on the face of the earth.
I was staying in one of their cosy rooms overlooking the beautiful Himalayan peaks back during the 2016 Raid De Himalaya in the last week of the month of September.
That was one of the last years Raid De Himalaya happened in the state of Himachal Pradesh, after which it was taken off the state's calendar of important events on the grounds of environmental damage and safety.
That also gave way for the easier completion of the longest tunnel in the world above 10,000 ft above sea level. The Atal Tunnel is an engineering and architectural masterpiece. Built through the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas on the Leh Manali Highway, it is 9.02 kms long and reduces the time between Manali and Lahaul Valley from 5 hours ( on a good day ) to just 1.5 hours. With properly marked lane and proper lighting all throughout the tunnel, it was a breeze to drive the S60 with the Pilot Assit system on.
The Pilot Assist, tracks the lane markers and the distance of the vehicle with the one ahead and makes for a seemeless driving experience with minimal driver inputs.
At sunset, We finally reach the south portal of the Atal Tunnel, I got out of the car to take a breath of the freshest air possible in India with an Air Quality Index close to zero and a chilly breeze from the Chenab River. The south portal serves as an important access point to both the Lahaul Valley and the Union Territory of Ladakh to the left and the Enormous and Historic Spiti Valley to its right.
Little did I realise that I was in the Lahaul Valley on the occasion of Buddha Purnima (Full Moon). And the glow of the moon was reflecting upon the snow infested peaks in sight, making it look glorious at night. I stopped at multiple instances to try and capture the beauty of what I was seeing through my naked eyes. What an event it was. Something to truly cherish for weeks to come.
After 20 hours of driving the extremely comfortable S60, we finally reached Hotel Ibex in Jispa, where the owner, also our friend was waiting with a table of lip-smacking dinner for us before we turned down to get the much-needed shut-eye.
The reason why I was able to complete this drive in 20 hours without a streak of fatigue was because of the sheer comfort level of the interiors of the S60.
The seats are designed in collaboration with orthopaedic surgeons and the cabin is one of the quietest in the entire industry.
Although it is a very unhealthy exercise and I would never recommend anyone to attempt it as it can be fatal. I am a professional tester and I have adapted the systems of my body to do so.
The next morning I woke up to the sight of the 'Lady of Keylong' a peak that lies right across Hotel Ibex. A peak named so for the visual it creates of a 'Pahadi Woman' with the natural placement of rocks and the surrounding snow. The weather was chilly, to say the least, we were touching close to 0 degrees celsius at sunrise. An experience most city dwellers yearn to have during the hot summer months of May and June when the temperatures peak above 45 degrees celsius.
With no concrete driving plan at hand and a beautiful view outside, I head on to drive around Jispa with my cousin to the local market of Jispa, where we sat for some coffee and overheard a couple from Gujarat who had just come back from a great trip in Leh. They were amused by the quality of roads that Border Roads Organisation or B.R.O. had built till Leh. It triggered a sense of insecurity as well as excitement as I was tempted to drive up to one of the highest motorable roads on the Leh - Manali highway. The thought of taking a very low sedan with a long wheelbase on a high mountain pass through some of the most treacherous routes is a fool's idea to falling into a massive problem.
After 10 kms of driving out of Jispa, through the beautifully paved winding roads we reached the Darcha check-post, the access point to the Ladakh Valley. This is where the route starts getting tougher and higher. While registering my vehicle, I was greeted by the local police officers and B.R.O. officials. After getting to know that I am taking the S60 to Baralacha La pass, they shared a laugh. 'This won't make it to the top sir ji, there are multiple water crossings along the way, one of them warned me with a smile on his face. When anyone warns me with a smile on their face I get really scared and start calculating how bad the risk could be. Lastly, I was handed over a piece of paper with the phone number of the recovery services on it, just in case I get stuck through the water crossing or rocky terrain.
Leaving the Darcha check-post, I was questioning my decision of bringing a luxury sedan with low ground clearance to a route feared by most SUV and Crossover drivers too. But at the same time, the sheer confidence of driving a Volvo on this route got my adrenaline rushing to the max. Volvo cars are built in Sweden and tested around some of the harshest terrains in the Arctic for optimum performance. They, in most cases, become a better tool than Germans cars for such unpredictable environments. I reached Deepak Taal, 12 kms from Darcha which lies at 12,300 ft or 3750 m above sea level and got out of the car for a little walk. A walk to clear my mind of any doubts and fears I had, since I was aware of the perils of the Leh Manali highway through the tens of road trips I have done on this route with offroad worthy vehicles. But never have I ever attempted something of this magnitude.
With my supreme faith in the Volvo S60 and a zen mindset, I set sail to the mountain top. I was constantly on the lookout for the summit as we progressed ahead. The route was treacherous and I was constantly reminded of the 136 mm ground clearance and my thin 45 profile tyres whenever I came across a rough patch or a water crossing. Interestingly, Volvo S60's front and rear bumpers have a very rough road-friendly approach angle. Strange for a luxury sedan but it allowed me to crawl over small to medium rocks very efficiently and without scraping the bumper lips. The complete underbelly of the S60 is covered which did protect us from any unwanted rocks and pebbles which might get shot off from the tyres.
The experience of crawling up through this terrain was much easier in real life than how difficult it was made to sound. The Volvo S60 just breezed through it all, and even when this is a front-wheel-drive only version that we get here in India, the traction control system with other driving aids worked seamlessly to keep us on track during very slippery situations. After 12 kms of driving off Deepak Taal, we reached the infamous Peace Cafe at Zing Zing Bar for a spot of Ladakhi Butter Tea and a Bowl of Maggi with fried Egg on top, a nourishing staple for most travellers on this route.
Zing Zing Bar is the south portal to one of the highest motorable passes in India. It lies at 14,000 ft / 4,270 m above sea level. Here is when I first felt the lack of oxygen, and according to a study done by Andrew M. Luks and Erik R. Swenson on Pulse Oximetry at High Altitude, anywhere above 4,000 m above sea level, the SpO2 drops to 70% which was coming to levels patients experienced during severe COVID infections. After gulping an Aspirin to save me from high altitude headaches and loads of water, I started climbing to the top.
I felt extremely elated to have made this decision to come to the top with the Volvo S60, a car built by some of the greatest minds in the automotive industry with a vision to conquer it all. Every 100 m of climbing to the summit got tougher, but the S60 made it feel like a walk in the park. Not a single instance where I thought I'll get stuck or the car with break into pieces or we'll face any technical issues. The higher we went, the most comfortable it got. After 22 kms and an hour and a half of gruelling drive, we finally made it to the summit.
The Volvo S60 T4 reached Baralacha La Pass, lying at an altitude of 16,000 ft or 4850 m above sea level is the highest altitude a Volvo sedan has ever reached in the World! The beautiful Swedish sedan parked beside the Pass's milestone was nothing short of a breathtaking sight. With the temperature plummeting to below zero at noon, it was getting harder for me to stay put in such low oxygen, but oh boy I had Joy and Fulfillment to the Maximum. A moment in life I will always cherish and the fact that the S60 made it here with relative ease, states a fact hard that 'Only a Volvo Can!'.
All the doubts, insecurities and fear I had diminished instantly. You need to build a car solidly to be able to achieve something so unthinkable. All my friends and family though that it was an absolutely crazy thing and that I will miserably fail in this attempt. But the S60 did not sweat one bit. The Volvo S60 is an example of exceptional engineering, great reliability and comfort that is unmatched in today's marketplace. A car that takes care of me like a mother, drives great and is built like a tank has my highest praises.
And with 15.1 kmpl of overall fuel economy from Delhi to Baralacha La and back carrying 4 passengers, 5 bags and packets of crisps. It is also one of the most economical cars to run.
The greatest luxury family sedan India should be talking about!