The Sani Pass is the only stretch of road that connects Kwa-Zulu Natal with the highlands of neighbouring state Lesotho. It is also one of the most feared pieces of dirt road in the country, and one that shouldn't normally be tackled without a decent 4x4. It was therefore with looks of disbelief that locals recently witnessed a convoy of three front wheel drive Chery Tiggos arrive at the 2874 meters above sea level summit just short of the Lesotho border.
"Chery may be one of the largest automakers in China, but they also strive to produce vehicles to the highest quality standards. That's exactly why we chose Chery as the Chinese brand to sell to our customers," said Mr. Brett Soso, managing director of Amalgamated Automobile Distributors, importers of the Chery range of vehicles into South Africa. "Since our inception, we've attempted a number of ambitious projects with the aim of showcasing our quality range of products to the South African market. Our 48-hour endurance record is probably the best-known example." added Soso.
The event he referred to was the famous record run of September 2008, when a string of entry-level Chery QQ3 vehicles set numerous speed and endurance records at the infamous high-speed oval of the Gerotek test facility, just west of Pretoria. "During the record run, a number of 800cc and 1-litre QQ3's were driven absolutely flat-out for no less than 48 hours. In the process, we proved the endurance and reliability of vehicles within the Chery range, but for 2011, we felt we needed a new challenge. We also wanted to showcase the capabilities and versatility of our vehicles, especially the Tiggo SUV, and Sani Pass presented the perfect opportunity for us to do exactly that."
The Sani Pass is drenched in history. It originated as a route for people and mules to carry supplies to and from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, before it was finally conquered by a motor vehicle in 1948. Since then, the pass has claimed many victims and can tell many frightening stories of failed attempts to ascend the tricky road. What makes it so challenging is the fact that the pass is incredibly steep. The distance between the South African and Lesotho border posts is only 9 kilometers, but travellers will climb from a height of 1968 meters above sea level to a whopping 2874 meters, representing a vertical rise of nearly 1 kilometer. Weather also plays a vital role. It is said that you can have four seasons in less than a day, and since bad weather makes the pass impassable, border authorities often close the pass during periods of high winds, torrential rain and even snow.
"It therefore presented more than just a tough challenge for our Tiggo SUV," continued Soso. "We were fully aware that the pass is strictly for 4x4 vehicles only and therefore we understood the risks involved, but in the same breath we were confident in the Tiggo's abilities and convinced that they could go all the way, even if drive is only supplied to the front wheels." The Tiggo is a real success story for the Amalgamated Automobile Distributors group and has been a steady performer on the sales charts since its local introduction. Its success can mostly be attributed to the excellent value for money it represents. On paper, the Tiggo competes heads-on with most of its medium sized SUV competitors.
The vehicle of choice for the Sani Pass adventure was the two-litre petrol version in both 5-speed manual and 4 speed automatic derivatives. This engine develops a generous 95kW at 5 500rpm, with an equally usable 178Nm on tap. With a host of creature comforts that include everything from central locking to electrically operated windows, sound system with a 6 disc CD-player, air conditioning, electric sunroof as well as a number of storage areas and pockets cleverly distributed throughout the cabin, the Tiggo is the ideal family companion. On the safety side, the Tiggo is equipped with dual airbags, ABS as well as EBD. But its real competitive advantage lies in its price. At R194 900 for the manual and R199 900 for the automatic version, the Tiggo provides all the features that one would expect from an SUV in a much higher price bracket. Backing from both Bidvest and the Imperial Group means that Chery can offer total peace of mind by means of a 3-year/100 000km warranty, a 3-year/75 000km service plan, as well as roadside assistance for 3 years.
So the stage was set for an epic battle between the front wheel drive Tiggos and the notorious Sani Pass, and to add to the challenge, the winter's first real cold front dumped a fair amount of snow on the Drakensberg that especially covered the last and most difficult part of the pass. Although the pass is a proper dirt road in most places, and not a real 4x4 trail, the first 6 kilometers contain all the elements of an off-road route such as water crossings, steep inclines and loose stones and rocks just waiting to interrupt the traction between the front wheels and the slippery surface. But the Tiggos gracefully made their way up the Drakensberg past landmarks such as Haemorrhoid Hill, Twin Streams and Whisky Spring until they reached Suicide Bend. At 2462 meters above sea level, Suicide Bend is literally the point of no return. From here to the summit is less than 3 kilometers in distance, but the Tiggos would have to climb another 400 meters before reaching the top. It's also here in Sani's famous hairpins where the Tiggos encountered the snow that could be seen from the bottom, and as most of the pass is covered in the shade from the adjacent cliffs, the snow has turned into solid ice.
These were far from ideal conditions for the front wheel driven Tiggos. As with any other vehicle attempting a steep incline, all the weight wants to shift to the back, making the front wheels light and therefore even more difficult to fight for traction. One strategy would have been to use speed as an ally, but since the hairpin section of the pass is so tight and twisty, it simply didn't allow the Tiggos to gather any momentum. Large rocks in the middle of the driving surface also waited to have a go at the Tiggo's belly, but the ground clearance proved more than enough to sail over them without a scratch.
So slowly but surely, using the torque from the 2-litre powerplants in first gear and feathering the throttle to avoid too much wheelspin while searching for drier pieces of road with a touch more traction, the convoy of front wheel drive Chery Tiggos reached the summit of the feared Sani Pass, much to the amazement of the Lesotho border control officials. "We are quite literally on top of the world," said an elated Soso after reaching the summit. "We knew that the Tiggo is not a 4x4 and it doesn't pretend to be one either, but we were still confident that we can prove its capabilities and versatility, which this adventure surely did, snow and all!"