Down the Sani Pass in a Kia Soul

KwaZulu-Natal - It’s one of those entries on your bucket list, that once you’ve ticked it, it becomes one for the grandkids. Especially if the conditions were poor; it was snowing, raining, foggy, or (e); all of the above.

Listed as one of the most dangerous, untarred roads in the world, the Sani is the mother of South African mountain passes - the one that separates the warriors from the wannabes.

For those of you who have made your way up (or down) the infamous Sani Pass alive, your vehicle probably had good ground clearance, and a diff lock (or three). If you plan on driving up the Sani Pass from the KZN side, the border post officials on the South African side won’t let you through if they think your car isn’t up to it.

Many have met their Maker, plummeting to the bottom of the pass when their vehicle lost traction going up the steep inclines and vertigo-inducing hairpin bends. 

Fighting cancer

At the top of the 9km pass, you’ll find the Lesotho border post, who couldn’t care less whether you’re driving a Toyota Cressida or a Land Cruiser 200. After spending the night at the Sani Pass Lodge during the Seven7 DRIVE initiative, we were headed for Port Elizabeth Provincial Hospital after visiting the Touching Tiny Lives clinic in Mokhotlong, Lesotho.

Image: AutoTrader SA / Ane Theron

The shortest route to PE would be down the Sani Pass from the Lesotho side, but our 2-Kia-Soul-convoy are hardly 4x4s, and were fitted with Ecopia tyres, more suited to assisting with good fuel economy than a hardcore mountain descent. Yet Danie Botha, Leisure Wheels editor who started the Seven7 Drive campaign, didn’t look too worried - or else he was just acting cool so we wouldn’t feel nervous. Fortunately it was a dry and clear morning, and there had not lately been snow or rain.

Image: AutoTrader SA / Ane Theron

The Lesotho border post officials didn’t give our Souls a second look, just stamped our passports and waved us on. The first section down the Sani Pass has the steepest descent, with switchbacks and hairpin bends that will send an acrophobia sufferer like me into a fit of panic. 

Therefore, I asked G.G. van Rooyen (Leisure Wheels road-test editor and co-pilot to Danie) to drive our Soul down the pass. Once our lives were in the capable hands of Gert, a blanket of calm descended as every hairpin bend offered a view more breathtaking than the next. It was not a quick or easy descent - Gert kept the Soul in first gear, and in many places we had to move some rocks out of the way to guarantee our tyres (and us) a safe passage.

Image: AutoTrader SA / Ane Theron

After hitting an assortment of potholes between Upington, Gaborone, Windhoek, and Maputo in the 5 days/4800 km leading up to this point, everyone was surprised at how well these sponsored Bridgestone Ecopia tyres were holding up! But even more surprising was the death-defying speed at which a number of loaded taxis were thundering down the Sani pass from Lesotho, grinning widely and waving as they flew past!

Image: AutoTrader SA / Ane Theron

Seven7 Drive crew

When we reached the SA border post at the foothills of the Sani, the Seven7 Drive crew looked visibly relieved, especially Danie, who admitted that he had had some doubts, not quite knowing what the Sani’s condition would be like. But we made it! With 150mm ground clearance, heavily laden, on Ecopia tyres, and in front-wheel drive.

Throughout the entire trip, the Kia Soul 1.6 CRDi Start (the entry-level, turbo-diesel model) exceeded all our expectations regarding comfort, durability, fuel economy and space. At first I was disappointed that we wouldn’t have the capability and comfort levels of the previous years’ Kia Sorento and Sportage, but the Souls proved themselves beyond the call of duty.

Image: AutoTrader SA / Ane Theron

When you’re driving non-stop for seven days, your back and bottom are thankful for supportive seats, especially when garage stops are few and far between. With fabulous fuel economy of 5.8 litres per 100 km,  a 800 km non-stop drive is very possible, especially when the expedition leaders don’t feel much need for eating or resting!

Image: AutoTrader SA / Ane Theron

Other sources of long-haul happiness definitely included solid handling, a slick-shifting gearbox, and the ambitious little turbodiesel engine. The lack of road noise meant never having to feel as though you have to shout over the (very decent) sound system to be heard, while steering wheel controls made answering phone calls via Bluetooth and toggling between audio sources a cinch.

Image: AutoTrader SA / Ane Theron

The biggest highlight for me was the amount of rear legroom that allowed sufficient stretching-out of travel-weary legs, when my driving shifts ended! It will be interesting to see what Kia Motors SA supplies the Seven7 Drive team with next year… there are also rumours of a route change that will include even more remote and inhospitable places… follow the Seven7DRIVE Facebook page for updates, or to get involved.


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The facts 
Kia Soul 1.6 CRDi Start
Base price: R 329 995
Engine: 1.6-litre, turbo-diesel, FWD
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Power/torque: 94kW and 260 Nm
0-100 km: 10.8 sec.
Top Speed: 180 km/h
Fuel tank:  54 litres
Real-life fuel consumption (combined) 5.8 - 6.5 litres per 100 km
Range on a single tank: 800km-900 km
Boot size (seats up): 354 litres
Ground clearance: 150 mm

For the entire list of specifications, click here.