At Autocar, we do our share of fun, crazy things. It’s true that we’re serious purveyors of all things automotive, but that does not stop us from letting our hair down from time to time. We’ve taken supercars to the highest motorable road in the world and even driven across continents in one stretch.
Fun, as many people will tell you, is addictive. As we sat, itching for our next instalment, imagine our joy when the Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 AMG Coupe came back to us for a couple of days.
The GLE 450 AMG is not the full Mercedes-AMG package (that would be the GLE 63 S), but don’t let that dampen your spirits. It is still a very capable machine, with an AMG-tuned V6 and a war-chest of high-tech equipment. It has been developed to rival the BMW X6, and thus, is as much of a style statement and fun-deliverer as it is a performance vehicle.
This special car needed a special place. So, we took it to a small town called Dhanushkodi, one that sits on a jetty-like strip of Indian land jutting into the ocean from the jagged coast of Tamil Nadu, a mere 28 kilometres from the coast of Sri Lanka. With floors of white sand flanked by clear, turquoise waters, it came quite close to the idea of paradise.
Splendour among ruins: The GLE 450 AMG Coupe rests by the remnants of what was once a grand palace.
However, Dhanushkodi offered us something far more exciting than its Polynesia-like beauty. The areas around this little town were a veritable mix of great sand dunes, shallow lagoons, straight, flat, uncluttered stretches of tarmac and forests of casuarina trees interspersed with red mud trails.
So, there we were – a stunning SUV-sports coupé crossover with a diverse variety of terrains to drive it on. Sounds like a recipe for fun? Well, yes, but no. You see, due to our line of work, sometimes even the most exotic cars and extreme terrains feel jaded. We needed something else to benchmark our car against. So naturally, we threw an airplane in the mix.
Flying in the competition
To be fair, it wasn’t a full-sized airplane. It was a remote-controlled (RC) one, with the pilot standing on the ground fiddling with buttonson a slab of plastic. Disappointed? Don’t be. The RC airplane we got was over 8-feet long and powered by a 120cc twin-cylinder two-stroke boxer engine fed by a Walbro carburettor. A scaled-down version of the EXTRA 330 SC – the World Champion Aerobatic Aircraft in 2009, 2013, 2014 and 2015 – this was no toy. And what made it even more formidable was the chap who would be standing on the ground piloting it: Harshil Mane, who is 16 years old. When he was 12, he happened to see someone flying an RC airplane, and was smitten. After doing a rudimentary course in aero-modelling, he embarked on a four-year journey of self-learning aerobatic manoeuvres until, earlier this year, he won first place at the Wings India International Aeromodelers’ Meet 2016 held at Aamby Valley City in January.
Harshil, despite his nascent age, can pilot his airplane to perform a long list of manoeuvres, ranging from simple loops and rolls to more complicated prop hangs and harriers. His yellow-and-red airplane takes off with less than 20 feet of runway, cuts through the air with the loud, buzzing noise of an engine spinning at up to 9,000rpm and flies at speeds of about 100kph. The top speed, admittedly, does not seem intimidating, but if you take into account that it weighs in at 18kg, give or take, the time taken to reach that speed is marginal.
The GLE and the RC airplane are both very exclusive. Both are principally meant for fun, but that understates their capabilities. These machines might give you the impression that they are toys, but not everyone is capable of playing with them.
Armed with the two machines, we arrived at the windswept beach at Dhanushkodi on an early January morning. Between the deep sea and its sandy bank was a shallow lagoon. The Mercedes quietly crawled into the lagoon, giant wheels making large, silent ripples as they rolled through. A few feet away, on the rough road that serves as access to Dhanushkodi, the RC airplane stood with its nose pointed towards the sky, waiting to climb aboard the strong headwind buffeting against it. In the luxurious Mercedes cabin, grips around the flat-bottomed wheel were tightened, and the accelerator pedal tapped, eliciting a snarl from the V6. On the road, the young pilot completed his checklist, flapping the ailerons, elevators and rudder with flicks on his remote control, and pushed a joystick for full throttle, responding to the GLE’s snarl with a full-blown roar.
And suddenly, both were off. The airplane climbed steeply into the sky until it suddenly looped and darted towards the waters of the lagoon. It cut through the air with astonishing nimbleness, capturing the attention of everyone, from casual bystanders to the Autocar team, as it twisted and then flew inverted, its tail almost skimming the surface of the water. This was aerobatic marvel, a sight to behold.
The GLE could be driven as the ‘crow’ or rather plane flies.
Until the roar of the AMG-tuned engine reverberated through space. Starting from a standstill, the GLE cut through the lagoon, spinning the water into large fountains on either side of the car. From inside the cabin, all we could see were walls of frothy water around us. The water generated much resistance, but the 362bhp of power and 53.03kgm of low-range torque belted out by the 3.0-litre bi-turbo V6 was more than enough to overcome it. While we sped and slid on the wet sand bed of the lagoon, the GLE stubbornly stuck to the ground. The GLE 450 AMG is equipped with Mercedes’ 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system, which works in conjunction with ABS, ESP and the 4ETS Traction System to keep us in control and out of trouble.
After an hour or so of “frolicking” around in blue waters, during which the airplane’s 1.0-litre tank had to be refilled four times, the dripping wet GLE rolled back onto the road. Its black tyres coated in white sand, the car looked resplendent in the late morning sun. As we took in its distinct form, we felt deceived by the coupé-typical profile which led one to believe that this car was meant for on-road performance only.
Racing To Victory
We ambled off the beaten path back onto tarmac. The straight and clear roads in the areas around Dhanushkodi are very inviting to any driver, especially so if the driver is behind the wheel of a high-performance car. As the GLE 450 AMG Coupe drove along smoothly in Comfort mode, we heard a sharp, familiar buzz approaching, and then saw a yellow mass whisk past above us. Refusing to be overtaken by a model airplane, we turned a knob to engage the Sport Plus mode and floored the accelerator. The Sport Plus mode lowers the ride height, stiffens the suspension and opens the throttle up, and the handy manual setting allows you to hold a gear right until the 6,500rpm redline. With every gear change eliciting a sharp splutter that quickly transformed into the nasty growl of a quick-revving motor, we shot forward. With a 0-100kph time of 5.71 seconds, the GLE 450 AMG Coupe is undoubtedly quick. Soon enough, the Merc had caught up with the airplane, and with a quick tug of the flappy gear paddle, the GLE surged forward, leaving its competition trailing behind. In the plush, well-appointed cabin, we did not feel isolated from this action; all the exciting noise was allowed to percolate through to us.
Straight roads and clear skies allow us to eke the most out of these big toys for big boys.
PLUCKING THE DESERT ROSE
Eager to test the capabilities of the GLE Coupe further, we found ourselves at the start of a few square kilometres of yellow desert dunes next. Driving on sand, especially the loose sand that makes up dunes, is substantially more of a challenge than driving on wet sand, or wading — nay, torpedoing — through shallow lagoons. Wet sand is clumped together by the cohesive effect of water, allowing the car to move over it easily. Loose sand, on the other hand, causes the car to sink in, especially if it weighs 2.2 tonnes. But with massive 21-inch wheels covered by wide tyres, a permanent four-wheel drive and oodles of torque in its arsenal, the GLE seemed capable of taking on dunes with ease, at least on paper.
As the airplane took off, climbing several metres into the clear blue sky, some problems became apparent with the car. Tackling sand requires substantial low-range torque, which the GLE had. Unfortunately, to extract all of it at a moment’s notice required you to engage the Sport Plus mode, which lowered the car by 55mm. This was a bit of problem because in sand, a car tends to sink, making a lowered ride height counterproductive. Moreover, the tyres were optimised for on-road and not off-road performance, causing a substantial amount of wheel spin.
The GLE displaces sand by the tractor load as we corner around desert shrubs.
However, after the initial spinning of wheels had spewed billows of sand from underneath them, the car really took off. The previously mentioned alphabet soup of electronic wizardry – ABS, ESP, 4MATIC and 4ETS – came into play as the car cornered around desert shrubs. The active damping system worked well too; sitting behind the wheel, we felt little body roll even as the car made sharp turns. Through all the climbs, slides, descents and turns, the steering remained responsive, allowing us to stay in control at all times. And as the car swerved and lolloped on uneven ground, the AMG sports seats held the driver and front passenger in place with their high side cushions and body-hugging design.
The GLE was certainly imposing to look at – everything about it was a tad bit oversized – but it was manoeuvring on difficult terrain with the same ease with which the airplane was turning and twisting in the air. It climbed dunes as the airplane climbed into the sky, and it scrambled down them as the airplane plunged towards land. Every twisting manoeuvre of the airplane was mimicked by a turning manoeuvre of the car, every throttle thrust matched.
AND THAT’S A WRAP
It is difficult to avoid romanticising the entire episode. As you watched and felt the action unfold in front of you, you could not help but feel wonder at the mechanical and technical achievements of mankind. Both the airplane and the car were powered by the internal combustion engine, a piece of engineering that has remained virtually unchanged since its inception. For decades now, the same mechanics have powered F1 cars, motorboats, propeller-aircraft, FedEx delivery vans, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, trucks, buses and little hatchbacks, but layers of advancement applied onto them have given us the formidable and fun machines we stand in front of.
The three-pointed star shines bright in the wilderness.
The GLE makes easy work of roads, whether tarmac or red mud, of wet sand and water-logged lagoons, of sand dunes and forest floors lain with pine needles. While doing this, it seats you in sumptuous luxury, pampering you with a temperature-controlled cabin, seats that move in any direction at the press of a button and a music system which will let you hear every note of De Colores. Alongside, you have a model airplane flown using a remote control by someone who is not even old enough to drive his competition. The fun we had while chasing airplanes, climbing sand dunes and creating fountains out of lagoons transitions into an epiphanic moment as the setting sun bathes the three-pointed star in saffron glory. My only complaint was that the GLE did not have grab handles – try being in the passenger seat while the car is making molehills out of mountains.
Dhanushkodi sits on the southern tip of Pamban Island in Tamil Nadu, a mere 28km from Sri Lanka. It was completely ravaged by a cyclone in 1964, and has remained a ghost town ever since. Mythological accounts say that Ram built the legendary ‘Ram Setu’ bridge from here, using floating stones, to access Lanka and rescue Sita from Ravan. After returning victorious, he destroyed the bridge using one end of his bow, thus lending this place its name. ‘Dhanush’ means bow and ‘kodi’ means end. These deserted ruins receive few visitors, mainly pilgrims, and is littered with remnants of battered churches and other buildings. Access to Dhanushkodi is difficult - only 4x4 vehicles can get in and out.