Road-tripping the New Mercedes-Benz 400d SUV
Driving two routes from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and back to Cape Town in comfort and style.
What a pleasure! After five months of forced Covid-19 lock-down isolation, being afforded the opportunity to test drive the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 400d 4MATIC for a week in August was made all the more pleasurable by my new-found freedom.
Well, almost new-found freedom. At the time, South Africas’ government had just confirmed that domestic travel for leisure purposes would be allowed as from 18 August. However, Mercedes delivered the vehicle for review on the 14th and knowing how long it takes for new regulations to filter down to enforcement officials, it was with some trepidation that I planned my 847 km (526 mi) road trip to Kuzuko Lodge, which borders the Addo Elephant National Park, near Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape.
The best way to avoid roadblocks from Cape Town to my destination, I figured, would be to take roads less travelled.
Opting for the inland country route via Stellenbosch to the scenic Route 62 heading towards Oudtshoorn and hence along the R341 to Willowmore, R329 via Steytlerville, and R75 to connect with the R400 — a 74km section of predominantly dirt road towards Renorsterfontein — and finally along another dirt road leading through Copper Moon Game Farm and hence to Kuzuko Lodge, proved to be the right choice with no roadblocks or even a single speed trap along the way.
The 9-hour-45-minute road trip provided plenty of time to play with the GLE 400d 4MATIC’s ample features.
In terms of power, the GLE 400s six-cylinder diesel engine produces 243 kW (330 hp) and 700 Nm of torque — more than enough oomph for overtaking slower vehicles up steep road inclines or mountain passes. In fact, Mercedes claims that 0–100km/h can be attained in just 5.8 seconds. Not bad for a luxury SUV with a coefficient drag of 0,29Cd — very similar to that of the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne.
There’s a nine-speed 9G-TRONIC automatic transmission powering all four corners via the 4MATIC drive system plus the new E-ACTIVE BODY CONTROL fully active air suspension system with four settings. In “Curve” mode, the vehicle subtly leans into bends. In “Comfort” mode, the stereo camera scans the road ahead of the vehicle and activates the suspension struts to reduce body movement when driving over bumps in the road. The last two modes; “Sport” and “Offroad” are self-descriptive.
In “Offroad” mode, driving on dirt roads is an absolute pleasure. The GLE 4MATIC’s all-wheel drive uses a fixed transfer case that splits power half and half, front to rear, while braking is used to prevent individual wheel spinning. Enhancing off-road traction, the electronically controlled multi-disc clutch shifts between 0- to 100-percent of the torque to the front or rear axles. Add to that its 50.8 cm (20-inch) AMG 5-twin-spoke light-alloy wheels and you have an SUV that hugs dirt roads like sh…, well, as a Sports Utility Vehicle should.
And then there are the Intelligent Drive Assistance features. Sensors and cameras installed all around the vehicle provide data and views, which gives off-road driving a whole new perspective as the video clip below shows.
Convenience, Comfort and Safety
Ten hours on the road can become rather lonesome when travelling on your own. That’s where I found the LINGUATRONIC voice control system to be a load of fun. Just say “Hello Mercedes” and the car becomes all ears. It actually understands most instructions without having to learn commands beforehand. It’s not the greatest conversationalist, but for mundane things like changing the radio station, finding a favourite song, activating the cruise control, making a call, or changing the interior mood lighting, it works exceedingly well.
Of course, you can do all of this yourself via the massive touchscreen display. In fact, you don’t even need to touch the screen — it senses hand and arm gestures. Settings can also be controlled via the steering wheel or the centre consol, which responds to single- and multi-finger gestures (as well as handwriting, apparently).
There are so many unique features in this car that I could waffle on forever. But then, all of the comfort and safety features are well covered on the Mercedes-Benz website, so go check them out.
Back to my road trip, I arrived at Kuzuko Lodge as dusk approached to be welcomed by the General Manager, Catharina De Lange, and more than a few of her friendly staff. Apparently, word had got out that I’d be reviewing the GLE 400 and they are all car fanatics.
Needless to say, my two-night stay involved a lot of driving around the 15,000 hectare Big-5 reserve with uninterrupted views of the Karoo Plains and the Zuurberg Mountains. One of the most avid car enthusiasts, Freddie Menzwai, who doubles as a field guide and custodian of the Kuzuko Foundation Interpretation Centre, was absolutely stoked at being given a chance to drive the GLE. “It’s like floating on a supercharged cloud — so much power and so smooth on these bumpy sand roads. I can’t believe how well she handles these tough off-road conditions. It’s Kuzuko!”, he said.
Kuzuko is a Xhosa language word, meaning ‘Place of Glory’, which is a rather appropriate sobriquet for the GLE 400, and for this game reserve. Stand on the elevated main lodge deck and gaze over the never-ending expanse of the Karoo, and you’ll understand exactly why it’s called the Place of Glory. It’s soul soothing…Think superbly appointed luxury chalets, sweeping hilltop vistas, sumptuous cuisine and ‘wilderness wellness’ — all perfectly integrated into the natural surrounds. Like the GLE, the lodge has been designed in such a way that the beauty of the location is never lost.
Anyway, this is a road trip car review so I’ll have to write another story about Kuzuko and Freddies’ other passion — educating children and supporting the local community.
Heading back to Cape Town, I decided to take coastal route via Port Elizabeth and the N2 highway. According to Google Maps, it’s a 897 km (557 mi) journey that should take 10 hr 29 min to drive along well-maintained asphalt roads (and plenty speed-traps). However, as you’ll see at the end of this article, the GLE logged the route at 919 km (571 mi) and 9 hr 58 minutes.
As providence would have it, I hit a road block that had been set up just before the Tsitsikamma toll booth. Fortunately, the officer on duty seemed more interested in the GLE than the fact that I was driving between provinces without a valid Covid-19 permit. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, domestic travel for leisure purposes would only be allowed from midnight on the 18th August, and this was the 17th. After chatting about the car for a while he bid me a safe journey, saying that this was my lucky day.
I certainly felt lucky, and privelaged. This is an incredibly beautiful part of South Africas’ Eastern and Western coastline as the route passes along the scenic Garden Route. The Tsitsikamma toll road is well maintained with trimmed verges and the flowering foliage beginning to bloom at this time of year.
After a brief stop in Knysna to meet a friend for lunch, I continued along the N2 as the wind picked up and storm clouds gathered on the southern horizon. By the time I’d reached George, the heavens opened with a torrentual downpour that reduced visibility severely despite the GLXs windscreen wiper blade attempts to clear the deluge.
Just outside Mossel Bay, the GLXs flat tyre warning came on, changing the consol mood lighting from placid blue to angry red. After pulling into a gas station, discovering a serious puncture in the centre tread of the front right-hand wheel, the wheel had to be changed.
To save space in the rear luggage compartment, the GLE is equipped with a biscuit wheel. However, this ‘space saver’ is not meant to be driven long distances and I still had 389 km to go. Space-savers have a maximum recommended speed of around 80 km/h (50 mph), so the remainder of the journey became a slow progression, which was probably a good thing as rain continued to obscure visibility. Fortunately, the lockdown curfew was still in place so traffic was minimal at this time of night.
Even with the biscuit wheel in place, I could not discern any noticeable difference in steering performance. In fact, I had to engage the cruise control to keep the GLE driving at the recommended 80 km/h limit.
The total round-trip distance of 1,744 km (1,083.67 mi) used two tanks of diesel with fuel consumption averaging at 9.7 litres per 100 km.