We drive the new Honda CR-V to the Kolukkumalai tea estate, the highest tea estate in the worldLiving in India today, it\’s hard to imagine a time in this country\’s past when sipping a cup of tea wasn\’t routine. Today, you can find yourself a hot cup of chai at every street corner, served at every home, and in every office. But our people hadn\’t seen a tea leaf until as recently as 200 years ago. India\’s obsession with tea has its roots firmly rooted in India\’s colonial past \— with an empire that wanted to stop importing tea from China, having found a colony perfectly suited to grow it. But we\’ve gotten rid of the shackles of this past, democratised tea and have made it the beverage of the people. Tea is now a part of the very fabric of society here.
So, we were heading out on an adventure, taking the Honda CR-V to the highest tea estate in the world. Ah, a trip to the Himalayas, I thought. I\’d have to drive the SUV somewhere beyond Darjeeling, deep into the foothills of those great, looming mountains. Imagine my surprise when I found a flight ticket to Kochi in my inbox. Turns out, the highest tea estate in the world isn\’t in the Himalayas, but on the highest peaks of the Western Ghats on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We\’d be travelling a good 700km from Kochi, up the ghats and then onward to Bangalore.
I picked up the Honda CR-V in Kochi one afternoon, and thought it wise to glide through the narrow streets of Fort Kochi. The only tea I would find here would be in tins and cups \— not exactly what I was looking for but hey, I had come so far, so I might as well have taken in the sights. The tea I wanted was actually up in the hills \— lush green and flowing as far as the eye could see. Tea bushes need well-drained soil to grow, and Kochi, with its maze of backwaters, is far from ideal. But cruising around the streets of Kochi gave me an idea of what to expect with the CR-V over the next few days. At first impression, it seemed like a spacious and comfortable car that would make a great companion for a roadtrip like ours, with refinement and ride quality to match. I was looking forward to this.
I got my first real taste of the CR-V\’s prowess the following morning, when we loaded up and set off for the hills. Kerala\’s roads are abysmal to drive on. It isn\’t that the surface is bad \— it\’s just that the roads are extremely narrow and the local buses seem to be on their own personal kamikaze missions. You can\’t really get into a rhythm because you\’re constantly avoiding the buses or motorcycles. That said, the CR-V impressed. It is an SUV that can seat seven, but it really doesn\’t feel its size when on the go. Ride quality was really good, and we took a few detours off the main highway, hoping to get some good interior roads. The CR-V\’s solid ride quality lent it a sense of robustness as it soldiered through the worst of stretches, climbing up the steep ghats.
The Honda CR-V has a 1.6-litre turbo-diesel motor under the hood and it makes 120bhp, and a solid 300Nm of torque. The throttle response is great and it can get a move on when you want it to. That\’s the beauty of downsizing, isn\’t it \— to provide uncompromising performance, from a smaller, cleaner motor? The 9-speed automatic also does a great job of making sure you\’re getting the best in terms of performance and efficiency out of the engine.
The Kolukkumalai tea estate is a good 150km away from Kochi. It might seem like child\’s play but the roads are winding and narrow for the most part, and the drive can take up to six hours. You\’ve got to make it to the town of Suryanelli, drive through the Suryanelli tea estate, up the tall slopes of Kolukkumalai. It\’s quite the spectacle. You cannot see the Kolukkumalai peak from the base of the mountain \— it is permanently shrouded in clouds. This sight makes the idea of Kolukkumalai more ominous, adding to the awe which grips you when approaching it. I was glad we had the CR-V specced with all-wheel drive by our side. The slopes of the estate are rutted, muddy and impossible to drive through otherwise. The CR-V\’s good clearance, combined with AWD, meant we could tackle these estate roads with ease.
The Kolukkumalai tea estate has tea growing from a height of 6,500 feet up to 8,199 feet in altitude. Tea is very sensitive to the elements, and having it grow at such a high altitude means the yield isn\’t as high as other plantations. However, it does mean the tea gets a very distinct flavour. The altitude brings with it its own unique set of challenges \— the slopes of the Kolukkumalai estate are the steepest I have ever seen tea grown on \— the bushes are on what seem to be near-vertical slopes. It\’s hard to imagine people working on these slopes, scouring through the estate, plucking leaves by hand. The rarified oxygen does not help. The estate has a factory built on its premises as well. It dates back to 1935, and it looks it. Built entirely of iron beams and wood, it has windows with panes missing and you are flung to the past as soon as you enter it. The wood has aged with the years of people shuffling over it, and the smell of tea hangs heavy in the air. The machines inside are the same ones that were lugged up the hill when the factory was originally built. There isn\’t a computer, or so much as a digital display in sight \– just good old mechanicals that groan like the octogenarians they are.
We spent a night at Kolukkumalai, woke up to the most spectacular sunrise, traversed the trail back down to Suryanelli and set forth towards Bengaluru. We journeyed down the other side of the mountains \– dry, and barren in comparison to the unrelenting green we had just seen on the flatlands. Once in Tamil Nadu though, the roads improved considerably and from there, it was a straight dash along the national highways. For the first time, we really got a chance to drive at highway speeds. The CR-V proved to be a great mile muncher, ploughing down the miles with ease. Even though it has such impressive ride quality over bad roads, it hunkers down on the highway and never gets floaty. The CR-V\’s cabin is also a very well-designed space \– there\’s a lot of room to store bottles, cups, your phone and all sorts of other knick-knacks you need at an arm\’s length on a trip like this. Doing away with a traditional gearknob and replacing it with buttons meant the transmission tunnel could now be optimised for better storage space. Neat touch.
At the end of the three days that I had with the car, we had conquered some formidable terrain. From the narrow streets of Kochi, to the Western Ghats and their tea estates, and even the seemingly endless highways, the CR-V made quick work of it all. I was forced to reflect \– the CR-V checks all the right boxes. It is spacious, comfortable, looks great and has the performance to match. It felt perfectly at home on the variety of terrain we put it through, and never flinched. The sheer capability that it has to cover ground comfortably was a constant reminder of why SUVs are the real deal these days. The Honda CR-V really proved its mettle, and seems to be perfect for our conditions.