Namibia is not for sissies. I learnt this the hard way earlier this year as a media participant in the gruelling Ford Ranger Odyssey. Apart from the arid swelter of the desert, there were khaki-clad instructors to contend with — former border war types who relished the experience with a little too much enthusiasm.
But recently I experienced the country from the cushy confines of a pair of new SUV offerings from Mercedes-Benz. This affirmed just why luxury off-road vehicles have such appeal for us urban types. Everybody wants to explore the country now and then, and take the road less travelled. But why should you have to do it with only the most basic of amenities? The stars of the occasion were the new GLE, which replaces the ML, and the GLC, a replacement for the GLK, which our market never received. I know that the new naming convention Mercedes-Benz has rolled out for its SUV range is rather confusing. In fact, during the product presentation, a representative from the company mistakenly referred to the GLE as the ML, before hastily correcting himself. It will take time for customers to acquaint themselves with these titles. But the products themselves are good. The new GLC particularly impressed us. Its mandate is to sway buyers from the likes of the BMW X3 and Audi Q5; two Teutonic peers that are admittedly long in the tooth. So what does the Mercedes Benz bring to the party? For starters, it looks less awkward than the BMW and a great deal more contemporary than the Audi.
The GLC is especially fetching when equipped with the optional AMG accoutrements. The model is based on the lauded C-Class — by no means a bad thing — and the big giveaway to that is inside. The GLC interior mirrors that of its sedan sibling, with its plush surfaces, trendy fascia design and smart trim pieces. But even more remarkable is the ride quality. Usually, when a regular sedan or hatchback is repurposed for the application of an SUV, the results are not favourable. The Alfa Romeo Giulietta-based Jeep Cherokee is a good case in point. And yet, the GLC manages to feel confident — whether trekking over smooth tarmac, poor road surfaces, or even off-road obstacles. That last bit came as a surprise. Of course, most GLC buyers are unlikely to put their vehicles through anything more rigorous than gravel roads and wet grass. But the capability is there. We trundled over some of the toughest terrain Namibia has to offer. Fair enough, there were one or two minor casualties — a result of a gung-ho attitude from the drivers perhaps.
But the GLC models managed to get through the very same ruts and rocky uphill climbs as the larger Mercedes-Benz SUV models in attendance had done. Wherever the Geländewagen pace car trekked, the GLC followed faithfully. There are four derivatives that make up the range — and the 4Matic all-wheel drive system is standard across the board. First up is the 220d (125kW and 400Nm), followed by the 250d (150kW and 500Nm) and the petrol 250 (155kW and 350Nm). The 300 sits at the top of the range for now, with 180kW and 370Nm. We spent all our time in this petrol 300 version and it is, as expected, quick on its feet, with a sprint time of 6.6 seconds. Mercedes-Benz quotes a consumption figure of 7.6 litres per 100km.
As is usually the case with our German friends, the options list is extensive. You can specify items such as air suspension, a panoramic glass roof, a 360º camera, and seats with heating and ventilation. Prices start at R599 900 for the 220d. The 250d will set you back R619 900, while the petrol 250 goes for R604 900 and the range-topper 300 for R654 900. In my opinion, the GLC is the pick of the bunch in its segment. It executes the template rather well and feels more accomplished than the ageing alternatives. But I do not think the same can be said for the GLE, which we sampled briefly. While the rivals have evolved significantly, the GLE appears to feature not much more than aesthetic revisions. Compared with the old ML, it has a sleeker visage and a more striking rear end. And I am not sure it would earn your affections when compared to models such as the BMW X5, Volvo XC90 and the Audi Q7. It certainly does not feel as good to drive as those competitors. It is slightly greener, however, with a purported increase in efficiency by 17% across the range. There are a variety of engines to pick from, from the 250d (150kW and 500Nm) to the monstrous Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S, pushing out 430kW and boasting a 0-100km/h sprint time of just 4.2 seconds. Prices range between R863 000 and R1 839 000 for the AMG version.
The SUV and crossover genres are all the rage. And from the premium marque perspective, it seems like Mercedes-Benz is leading the pack, because it has such a vast array of offerings across the segments, right from the compact class GLA to the large and in-charge G-Class. Covering the bases in such a manner can only lead to a further increase in market share — and the plan seems to be working, looking at its success in countries such as China, where the SUV ambit is burgeoning.