Recre­at­ing old rally routes in our back­yard with the GLE 43 AMG Coupe


The Mercedes-AMG GLE 43 Coupe goes ex­plor­ing old rally routes in western In­dia

TTHE BRIEF WAS SIM­PLE, FIND NEW DRIV­ING routes. The car was also a no-brainer, some­thing that blended mo­tor­sport her­itage but with the go-any­where chops to deal with un­known roads — which in In­dia usu­ally means no roads. And so it was that I found my­self with the keys to the black Mercedes-AMG GLE 43 Coupe and a bunch of dog-eared road books from the old MASA rally days. The task? To find some of those old rally routes which, by their very def­i­ni­tion, will be ideally suited to belt­ing a fast car over.

You will be for­given if MASA doesn’t ring a bell. It has been years since they did a na­tional cham­pi­onship rally but back in the day, the MASA rally used to be among the most pop­u­lar in West In­dia. In fact the Mum­baiPune re­gion used to be a ma­jor cen­tre of all kinds of mo­tor­sport: rac­ing, ral­ly­ing, mo­tocross, ev­ery­thing. In the eight­ies the Hi­malayan Rally started off in Mum­bai be­fore head­ing to Pune to take in the old MASA stages, and then mov­ing north to Delhi and then the Hi­malayas. One of those rally cars was the leg­endary Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC that was to be driven by the Kenyan ace Jogin­der Singh, but his pace in re­con­nais­sance so un­nerved his co-

driver Al­bert Pfuhl that the lat­ter took over the ’wheel — be­ing the owner of the car al­lowed Pfuhl to pull rank.

To­day I’m trac­ing the tyre tracks of those rally leg­ends of the eight­ies, in some­thing equally pow­er­ful but a mas­sive sight more com­fort­able. The GLE 43 AMG gets the twin-tur­bocharged V6 putting out a mighty 362bhp, but more to the point is the 520Nm of torque that makes progress ef­fort­less as we cross Pune city, the bur­ble from the quad ex­hausts hint­ing at the per­for­mance po­ten­tial while the coupe-pro­file of the SUV, along with the sin­is­ter black shade, mak­ing heads turn. We are driv­ing east to the Bopdev ghat where both the MASA and Hi­malayan ral­lies used to run, and where I did my first shoot as an in­tern in April 2000. Traf­fic was noth­ing back in those days, the sur­face was not too bad, and it took barely half an hour to get there from our of­fice. To­day the traf­fic, even early in the morn­ing, makes it im­pos­si­ble to even con­tem­plate go­ing back and forth for the cam­eras. Where once were we warned of leop­ards and ban­dits, to­day the city is not just at its foothills, build­ings are com­ing up at the top of the hills. Con­crete is swal­low­ing up ev­ery­thing. It serves as a stark re­minder of how dif­fi­cult it is to or­gan­ise ral­lies in In­dia; find­ing empty roads that can be shut down for the week­end is next to im­pos­si­ble, and life is get­ting equally dif­fi­cult for us mag­a­zine testers with scenic and iso­lated roads to both drive and pho­to­graph cars over be­com­ing even more sparse. It’s why al­most ev­ery mag­a­zine shoots in the Lavasa area, roads that were in­tro­duced to us when the APRC rally came down a decade ago. Rally routes do make for great driv­ing roads.

The roads have also changed mas­sively since the eight­ies and fol­low­ing those old road books be­comes im­pos­si­ble because ev­ery­thing has been tarred, widened and turned into high­ways. Luck­ily we have with us Ajay Ad­hiya who used to spec­tate on those ral­lies and who has made it his life’s mis­sion to ex­plore ev­ery sin­gle road and its off­shoot around our parts. He points to the Pu­ran­dar fort peek­ing out of the clouds, way in the dis­tance, and says that’s where we will be head­ing. And then we turn off onto a track no wider than our SUV. This isn’t go­ing well I mut­ter un­der my breath.

In­dia is SUV coun­try and fast SUVs work bril­liantly in our en­vi­ron­ment. Where you wouldn’t even con­tem­plate tak­ing a fast car, with the GLE 43 AMG you’re not wor­ried. Pot­holes, bro­ken roads, ev­ery­thing is taken within her stride as we trun­dle down nar­row vil­lage paths. The Air­matic sus­pen­sion de­liv­ers gen­uine com­fort and our pho­tog­ra­pher and videog­ra­pher nes­tled in the back are rocked to sleep.

Cou­ple of kilo­me­tres is all it takes be­fore we hang a right at an an­cient banyan tree (how rare it has be­come to spot one!) and are greeted by smooth tar­mac and a hill climb all the way up to the Pu­ran­dar fort. There’s an Army train­ing cen­tre at the top, I as­sume they’re re­spon­si­ble for the su­perb sur­face as well as the fresh armco hug­ging the hair­pins, and we say a silent thank you be­fore slot­ting it into Sport +, switch­ing the 9G-Tronic to Man­ual mode, and giv­ing it the beans.

Now the GLE 43 AMG is a large SUV but the twin-turbo V6 does de­liver mas­sive per­for­mance, while the 4Matic all-wheel drive en­sures there’s no slip, no hes­i­ta­tion, just a re­lent­less surge of bite and thrust. In Sport + mode the ex­haust gets loud and fruity, even let­ting off pops and bangs that ric­o­chet off the moun­tain walls and fill the air with a mo­tor­sport vibe. Ajay though sug­gests the Army guys won’t be too happy with all the fire­crack­ers and sug­gests we take an­other route to the back of the fort.

Back the way we came, left at the banyan tree, past the vil­lages, stop for break­fast, and then we’re past more vil­lages and pot­holes that again makes us thank the GLE’s com­fort­able seats and sus­pen­sion. What we don’t re­alise is these ap­proach roads are a bril­liant cam­ou­flage, no body will ever ex­pect great roads and vis­tas on the other side and hordes of mini-buses and their com­ple­ment of rab­ble rousers on their off­site will turn around within ten min­utes. Ajay tells us to be pa­tient and sure enough the roads mag­i­cally sort them­selves out and we are on an­other hill climb, this one a lit­tle more grad­ual with great sight­lines and cor­ners that you can cut and straight-line like you would in a rally. Again

Sport + mode. The sus­pen­sion com­pli­ance lets you put two wheels off the tar­mac, open up the cor­ners, carry more speed and with the added ad­van­tage of no­body to dis­turb, we charge. The high seat­ing po­si­tion of the GLE 43 AMG gives great vis­i­bil­ity, there is next to no body roll in the firmest sus­pen­sion set­ting. The steer­ing tells you what’s go­ing on. And it hus­tles. A while later Ro­hit, our pho­tog­ra­pher, spots an off-road track and that’s where the third as­pect of the GLE 43 AMG comes to the fore. We raise the air-sus­pen­sion, tip-toe down the track, and are greeted by rolling green hills that put you in mind of Swiss mead­ows. The mon­soons ab­so­lutely trans­form our part of the coun­try; brown hills turn green, the lakes are over­flow­ing with wa­ter, the dams are full, small streams gush by the road side and car­pets of flow­ers wel­come you into na­ture’s open arms.

Mo­tor­sport might seem at stark odds to any en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness but I'll point out that by unearthing great driv­ing roads, ral­ly­ing ac­tu­ally draws en­thu­si­asts away from the mess of our cities, eases them in to the lap of mother na­ture, puts front and cen­tre the per­ils of cli­mate change, and show­cases con­ser­va­tion ef­forts that are mak­ing vil­lages self suf­fi­cient – stuff that we should be adapt­ing and im­ple­ment­ing in the cities. Most of all, a great car on a great road gives you a rea­son to go Ah My God. ⌧


Right: Coupe-pro­file of the GLE 43 AMG lends for a dra­matic and dis­tinc­tive stance, made all the more mus­cu­lar by the 21-inch wheels

Top: Al­bert Pfhul’s Mercedes-Benz 450SLC at the Pune po­lice grounds af­ter end of Leg 1 of the 1980 Hi­malayan Rally. Above: At the Alandi time con­trol out­side Pune

Be­low: Com­pli­ant sus­pen­sion means you can cut cor­ners in the GLE 43 AMG just like in a rally car. No­tice the lack of body roll too. Fac­ing page: Raise the air sus­pen­sion and the GLE 43 AMG, along with 4Matic all-wheel drive will eas­ily go off-road

Engine 2996cc, V6, twin-turbo Trans­mis­sion 9-speed au­to­matic Power 362bhp @ 5500-6000rpm Torque 520Nm @ 2000-4200rpm Weight 2280kg 0-100kmph 5.7sec (claimed) Top speed 250kmph (lim­ited) Price `99.20 lakh (ex-show­room, Delhi)

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