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Fiat Linea and Fiat Grande Punto - Frozen in Time

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llona talked to me for all of seven minutes. Well, that is the time most humans can spend without shivering like fig leaves at minus fifteen degrees even with five layers of clothes on. Inside the Hotel Silverhatten, where I stayed, a Saturday night was about to end as a rather colourful and drunken memory for some six-hundred odd people whose life revolves around grey and white. Arjeplog is not your average town. It is frozen for eight months a year and calling it habitable takes a certain degree of courage. Yet, Illona was brought up in Arjeplog. She went to school in Arjeplog and knows almost all of the 3,150 people who live there. 

‘So what is growing up in Arctic conditions all about?’ I asked Illona, starting to shiver and sucking heat out of a frail cigarette in vain. ‘Don’t really know how it would have been in India’, she countered. ‘It was okay. And in winter, officials from car companies turned up for testing… that meant we could meet people. Some became friends. Some returned and some didn’t’. 

There was a momentary explosion of colour in Illona’s eyes that lit it up like the aurora borealis, before fading as if struck by a bad memory. She continued as my cigarette went dead and my blood started flowing slowly. I could feel cold seep into my bones through the layers of clothing. And Illona had a job at hand – she was the bouncer at the party. And did I say she looked the part?   Reaching Arjeplog – the heart of Lapland, 1,000 km north of Stockholm and just 100 km south of the Arctic Circle – took three aircraft of differing sizes. A massive 747-400 to Frankfurt, an A320 to Stockholm and the final bit in a Fokker 100 that dumped us at Arvidsjaur airport (if you can call a wooden hut an airport terminal building). There was snow everywhere and I was wearing a bush shirt. Brilliant. Before the locals started worshipping me for my courage, I pulled out a double-layered jacket from my bag and clambered inside it. I am sure it comforted others around me more than my own body. It was bloody cold, for lack of other adjectives. The road was white, so were the hills around us and ditto with the thousands of Xmas trees that lined the road. It was so picture-postcard perfect that I was actually looking for a bearded guy in a red coat coming around the corner sideways in a sledge. 

To cut an hour short, we were soon feasting on er, well-done reindeer and quality liquids in preparation for the next day. The day when Fiat would let us loose on its Arctic test track which it shares with General Motors. A fleet of Grande Puntos and Lineas were ready for us, with a bunch of Fiat officials posted at Arjeplog who looked pretty relieved to see new faces.

It was in the 1990s that Arjeplog became a serious haunt for winter testing. Illona was well into her teens then. Firms like Bosch already had permanent testing stations and car makers were frequenting and leaving a lasting impression on Arjeplog’s winter. Along with masked new cars came spy photographers, who waited in the cold for scoop photographs. And car makers could not do much about it – there is no rule against photographing a car in public in Sweden. The rule continues even today, though a gentleman’s agreement prevails wherein manufacturers don’t spy on products of other carmakers while at their stint in Arjeplog. 

Stephan came to Arjeplog in the middle of a harsh winter in 1997. He was not a successful journalist but made his money by snapping prototypes at Nurburgring where carmakers tested a lot. That was his first visit to the Arctic and he was snooping around frozen lakes which became proving grounds in winter. He was on a shoestring budget and stayed with Illona’s family. Her father didn’t mind the additional income, since his job as a highway snow-mover earned only enough to send Illona and her two sisters to school. And he could use Stephan’s help when they went moose hunting on a license – an adult moose could make the main course for a good part of a winter. During weekends, Stephan took Illona dancing. And on full moon nights they went fishing when the moonlight reflected on the sparkling snow and the Lapland glowed almost as if it was daytime. As the winter got over and as the last of the Porsches that Stephan was tracking went back to Stuttgart, he took a bus to Lulea to catch a plane to Germany. With a promise to Illona that he would return next winter.

Our first full day at Arjeplog started with a briefing at Fiat’s testing centre. The facility was not different from any other proving ground – except that almost every track was made out of frozen snow. A chain of lakes were used as huge handling courses and skid plates with fluorescent markers provided a vague sense of direction. If you thought winter testing was all about having a ball of a time going sideways with a wall of snow-spray for good effect, then you could be wrong. Well, I thought that was the case and was educated that the facility tests cars for handling, ride/comfort, brakes (ABS, ESP, ASR and traction control), 4WD systems, climate systems, powertrain, body and interiors and lastly, ahem, road testing. The 500 hectares of frozen lake and forest trails are used for the above tests and we could see interesting prototypes in zebra livery sliding around as we entered the ‘secret’ facility where spy photographers stand as much chance of entering as it is difficult to escape Azkaban. We were politely told not to take pictures of the next Corsa, a small Fiat that is smaller than the 500, the Maserati GT, the next Cadillac sedan and so on. Oops!  Then we were led to the circular tracks on the lake where all mayhem broke loose. It had to happen. You fly a bunch of petrolheads halfway across the globe, give them cars to drive on a frozen lake and you don’t expect them to toe a 40 kph line, do you? So the orderly line of Grande Puntos and amazingly good looking (in snow, especially) Lineas scattered like balls on a snooker table. A very large, white snooker table. 

Stephan used to call occasionally from Germany. He talked about his life getting better, the new car he bought, the new Formula One assignment he landed. He told her he could go around the world and take pictures for a syndication house. The money was so good that he could buy a house in the first year itself. But he promised to return to Arjeplog the next winter. Then the calls became less frequent. And then there were none. The suicide rate in Lapland is very high in proportion to its population – lots of grey weather and snow make you cut your wrist, they say. But Illona was a tough one and her father told her to forget Stephan – no sane man would return to Arjeplog, he added. Illona went back to her books and stayed away from dance sessions at Hotel Lyktan and Silverhatten. Her sister got friendly with a tyre-tester, who returned next winter to take her back to Germany where they settled down. The other sister took to religion in a big way and started teaching at the local school. Illona studied and worked for a while. Then she started taking any job that came her way. But every winter she expected Stephan to return. She dreamt of moonlit lakes and the time she spent fishing with him.   Let me tell you that the Grande Punto, as its name suggests, is a big small car. From inside the car, there is no telling that you are driving a hatchback and it is not just the spaciousness that makes you feel that. The Grande Punto has big car ambitions in the way it rides and goes around corners and has enough electronics to help matters. But I was not going to have any of that come in the way of fun. I wanted to go as sideways as I could and the Fiat instructor sitting next to me decided to play along, as he pulled the handbrake as I slotted the MultiJet motor into third gear. Bingo, we were on a sideways trip that never seemed to end. I was on opposite lock alright, with the right leg floored for good measure. ‘Good thing we didn’t tell the insurance company what we were up to,’ quipped Marius D’Lima, the affable PR boss at Fiat India and a good friend for more than a decade, as the Punto did a magnificent 360 and came to a grinding halt in the middle of the lake. 

I tried to slot back to first and take off – bad move. On rock solid ice, first gear is as useful as a fishing rod in the Dead Sea. And trying to throttle hard may just result in you, the car and the (now panicking) Italian instructor keeping company with unseen aquatic life under the sheet of snow.  Forever. So back to second gear and ‘genteeele throooottle’ as the instructor suggested; we were rolling again. A brief mention of the winter tyres here – these are simply out of this universe – if rubber could grip so well in normal life, all of us could claim to be related to Alonso and co. Alas, these tyres wear off faster on normal tarmac. But to understand their worth you should see the confidence with which people in Lapland drive their machines in snow – and that includes bus drivers. Soon we were driving on a handling course, where entering and exiting corners sideways was the norm rather than the exception. By the third lap or so, we were getting pretty good at this sort of thing and the bellowing snow storm that hit the frozen lake couldn’t get us to back off. But all good fun has to come to an end and we queued up like good students behind the instructors’ car. Our next destination – a 100 km road trip to the Arctic Circle, for that obligatory photograph. 

Every march Arjeplog gets its winter market. It is more of an occasion to meet people than do any serious trading. What started off as a market for reindeer skin and assorted dry meat now has Chinese goods dominating the fare. Illona set up her own small pavilion for the 2007 winter market where she sold pickles and canned food her father brought from the wholesale market, at Stockholm. There was not much money to be made, but being part of the market was in itself a celebration and Illona had had enough of loneliness. It was as beautiful or boring a Sunday as it could get in Arjeplog and Illona and her sister were getting busy at the market when a purple Porsche 911 rolled in, its big, fat, rear winter rubber crunching snow as it came to a halt. Stephan came out of the car – he looked taller, more sophisticated and sported a stubble and natty sunglasses. Illona stood there, like an ice sculpture in the sun – pretty yet melting away. 

The drive to Polcirkeln or Polar or Arctic Circle proved more creative than I thought. On one side was a white mountain, then there was the white road and on the other side was a never-ending frozen lake. White again. Add to that hazy atmosphere, which is another shade of white, and the white Linea that we were piloting and you get the picture. Last December, I drove across Australia in a Chevrolet Captiva and was amazed at how a road can lead into a horizon. Every year I wonder how mountain roads blend into the sky when I participate in the Raid de Himalaya, and here I was wondering how a silver patch of earth can ever be called a road. Yet the speeds were good and the 1.4-litre engine of the Linea was effortlessly doing a clean 110 kph – which happens to be the speed limit, even in winter (thanks a lot for winter rubber again). It was important to keep traction though and more important to fight your instinct to hit the brakes. Not that the car would slide around, but you fear the same in any case. There was traffic coming against us in the form of cars and oversized trailers attached to them with snow sprays that blinded us for a couple seconds. And after a while it was getting monotonous – I started imagining going into a wall of snow and would lift off from the throttle – not a good thing to do when you are going downhill and there are corners to contemplate upon. 

The Polar Circle is an imaginary line, but there was a great sense of achievement as I drove the car across it. Somewhat similar to the feeling I experienced when I drove a Tata Safari across the Equator somewhere in Africa some time back. Like in Africa, I celebrated by buying mementoes – a shot-glass for Srini’s collection, a T-shirt for my wife and a sticker for my laptop. Deed done, photographs taken, we headed back to a celebratory lunch before calling it a day. The array of Puntos and Lineas held supreme and proved stunningly capable in some of the worst conditions Mother Earth can come up with. Sure, an even tougher test awaits them back in Mumbai and Delhi when these Puntos and Lineas have to be driven between Borivili and Nariman Point and Gurgaon and ITO respectively in bumper-to-bumper traffic, with the aircon switched on in a scorching summer. But that would be another day of testing for me.  

‘So did you marry him?’ I was about to freeze up all over again and was getting impatient. The party was almost over and Illona had cleaned up a few boys who wanted more alcohol and even more attention from the pretty girls at the disco in the basement of Silverhatten. Elderly couples, okay, couples danced to the live music played by a band which, I am sure, is world famous in Arjeplog. ‘Do you think I should have?’ she countered, looking more radiant and even stronger than at any time during that evening. ‘Actually I would have, if he was not married’. Her eyes went back to the bouncer look that she wore effortlessly. ‘But it was nice of him to come back,’ I muttered. ‘Yes it was nice, but it was more of a conscience attack than love that brought him back. He even showed me pictures of his family and dog. And then he went away.’ I could picture the purple 911 slithering away in the silver road to civilisation.

‘No one, no one comes back to Arjeplog,’ Illona said, as if my time was over.