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Taking on the Desert in a Merc

Taking on the Desert in a Merc

Desert Storm – Merc’s two new SUVs impress on challenging Namibian terrain…

Words: Stephen Smith

Pictures: Stephen Smith and Supplied

Oh the irony. I had left tropical Durban a day earlier, parched in the clutches of one the worst droughts in decades. The sugar cane was brown, the rivers trickling and the dams dry. I landed in Namibia and it didn’t look much different – desiccated, bronzed and dusty. But just a couple of hours later, here I am – navigating a steep, rocky pass while huge raindrops pelt down on us, streams beginning to trickle down the cliff and the dry river bed below reminding us that flash floods do happen, even in the desert.

I was in Namibia to drive two new vehicles from Mercedes-Benz, and one revamped one. The revamp was the angular legend, the G-Class (formerly known as the Geländewagen), which began life as an over-engineered military vehicle but has now been embraced by the Hollywood set. There aren’t many changes, but a car of this class doesn’t need any.

What was more interesting was the addition of two new SUVs, the GLC and the GLE. Subtract the ‘GL’ from their names and you can see where they fit into the line-up – the GLC is the SUV of the C-Class, the GLE is the SUV of the E-Class, and they both slot in above the GLA (A-Class).

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It was the GLE that I was nursing down the wet mountain, trying to keep its beautiful wheels and gleaming bumpers away from protruding rocks, and letting the clever electronics take care of the traction. The GLE is an entirely new vehicle and replaces the ML as a part of Mercedes’ plan to simplify their SUV naming convention and make every SUV a ‘G’ something or other. While there are definitely hints of the ML in its appearance, the GLE is more elegant and sophisticated, sharing much of its styling with the rest of the Mercedes range.

Permanent four-wheel drive is standard across the GLE range, and it is in this arena that the GLE surprised the most. We all knew it would be comfortable on tar, brimming with technology and touches of class, and that those with bigger engines would be ludicrously quick, but I don’t think many of us were expecting it to be this competent in, for example, a desert canyon quickly turning into a river bed.

The GLE can’t be called a rugged off-roader – despite its capabilities, it has too many shiny bits and its paintwork is too beautiful to call it that. You need to be careful when approaching and departing from obstacles, but if you do take things sensibly, it will amaze you with its prowess.

Like most modern, premium SUVs, the GLE uses electronic driving aids to make difficult driving easy. Having barrelled through the sandy river bed, we were faced with a rocky climb, now slippery from rain. We selected the ‘Slippery’ setting and crawled up the imposing slope in front of us with very little fanfare. An optional Off-Road Engineering package adds diff-lock, low range and improved ground clearance of up to 285mm, as well as reinforced underfloor plates.

There are two diesel- and four petrol-engine options for South Africa, from the 250 D (150kW) and going up to the GLE 63 S (430kW). The two cars that come closest to the sweet spot are the 190kW 350 D and the GLE 400, a 245kW V6 that is superb. The petrol models use a 7-speed automatic gearbox, while the diesels use a 9-speed.

The GLC is Merc’s first foray into the right-hand-drive, mid-size SUV market and therefore targets an entirely new market segment for Merc in South Africa. As the C-Class competes with the BMW 3 Series, so the GLC is targeted at the X3 market, and it is definitely capable of filching sales from anything in this class.

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On our second day in Namibia we tackled the dunes (with permission and in an environmentally friendly manner) in a GLC and were as impressed as we had been with the GLE. It’s not quite as 4×4 capable, but if you keep this in mind you will be blown away by the places you can go and things you can do in the GLC, all the while cosseted in C-Class comfort. On tar it is in its element, driving like a sedan with very little body roll and with the noise of the real world kept suitably at bay.

A nimble little SUV, the GLC can be had with one of two 2,2-litre diesel engines (125kW or 150kW) or two 2-litre petrol engines (155kW or 180kW), all paired with a 9-speed automatic gearbox. The interior is sumptuous, very similar to that of the C-Class, and not far at all behind the bigger GLE. Major features include Agility Control suspension and Dynamic Select, which allows the driver to select from five settings for a better driving experience.

While permanent all-wheel drive is standard, air suspension is optional, as is the Off-Road Engineering package. The handsome, athletic GLC is probably Merc’s most important car of the year and it should account for a substantial portion of their SUV sales in the near future. Prices start at R600 000 and peak at R655 000.

The GLE will no doubt carry on where the ML has left off, which is a good place to start. Prices are from R863 000 to R1 839 000 for the Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S. All Mercedes vehicles come standard with a 6-year/100 000km maintenance plan and warranty.

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Fact file – GLE

  • Name: Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 D 4MATIC
  • 8Body type: Luxury SUV
  • Engine capacity: 3-litre V6 turbodiesel
  • Power output: 190kW
  • Torque: 620Nm
  • Gearbox: 9-speed automatic
  • Price: R964 000

Fact file – GLC

  • Name: Mercedes-Benz GLC 220 D 4MATIC
  • Body type: Compact SUV
  • Engine capacity: 2.2-litre turbodiesel
  • Power output: 125kW Torque: 400Nm
  • Gearbox: 9-speed automatic
  • Price: R600 000

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