ROAD TRIP | The Mercedes-Benz X-Class bakkie is a ‘Stranger’ in the dunes

Images: Gerhard Groenewald
Images: Gerhard Groenewald

While the German brand with the three-pointed star makes tough off-roaders like the G-Class and Unimog, the products from the Stuttgart based luxury vehicle manufacturer are not normally associated with tough and hard-core off-road adventures.

So, imagine the surprise of his diehard 4×4 companions when 4×4 expert and avid off-roader Gerhard Groenewald recently arrived in Namibia with a stock standard Mercedes-Benz X350d on 18-inch high-performance tyres (they are called “slicks” by the desert experts, who prefer fitting specialised off-road tyres on their mounts) – ready to take on the monster dunes of the Namib Desert.

With all the amenities and luxuries in the Mercedes, the trip from Worcester to Namibia along the N7 was a breeze, as the X-Class was in its element on the long stretches of tarmac; with its powerful V6 turbodiesel serenely humming all the way to the desert town of Lüderitz. 

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Image: Gerhard Groenewald

Here, however, many people enquired about this “foreign” vehicle wherever we stopped, and numerous selfies with the Mercedes-bakkie was taken … But, despite the present-day perception of the finest from Stuttgart, is a Mercedes-Benz taming the African bundu really such a foreign concept? 

The first African crossingNot really. You see, the first “horseless carriage" on South African soil was a Benz Velo, displayed here for the first time 124 years ago. Even more telling, the first crossing of the African continent by car was in a special vehicle produced by Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau, a company that became Benz-Werke Gaggenau at a later stage. Nowadays the plant belongs to Mercedes-Benz and is utilised to produce the indomitable Unimog.

More than a century ago, on 10 August 1907, the German adventurer Paul Graetz set out on his trans-African journey in a specially built Gaggenau. It took Graetz 630 days to complete the passage over 9500 km, arriving in Swakopmund, in the former German South West Africa, now Namibia, on 1 May 1909. Back then it took Herr Graetz six days to cross the Khomas Hochland and the Namib Desert before reaching his destination on the Atlantic coastline. We expected to traverse the desert from Lüderitz to Walvis Bay in four days with our Navara-based steed, including visits to abandoned, forlorn places like Saddle Hill, Meob Bay, Conception Bay, and Sandwich Bay. 

1. Mai 1909 in Swakopmund ,Paul Graetz durchquert

Paul Graertz in the Gaggenau he used to make the first vehicle crossing of Africa in 1909.

After the initial interest in the top-of-the-range Mercedes bakkie wore off, we loaded and readied it for its ultimate test in the sand … It turned out our first obstacle was to deflate all four tyres to the same pressure, as to prevent the alarm bells of the Tyre Deflation System going off all the time. Not an easy task with the road-biased 18-inchers.

On our way across the first dunes towards Saddle Hill in the 14-vehicle convoy we encountered the second hurdle – finding a way to override all the electronic systems stunting progress through the loose sand. At first, we struggled, and only the brute 190kW of power and 550Nm of torque from the OM642 3.0-litre V6, and the deft workings of the seven-speed auto transmission saved us from disgrace.

By now we were close to Saddle Hill – made famous by the efforts of German-born prospector Mose Kahan to revive the Namibian diamond operations after World War II – and visited “Suzie”, a stump-nose Ford F60L (it was built by Ford Canada during WWII) abandoned in the dunes over sixty years ago.

Fitted with high-flotation, low-pressure Dakota DC3 aircraft tyres, Kahan used the military surplus Fords to ferry supplies to his claims, but poor Suzie did not make it and is today still awaiting the return of a rescue crew. The Merc also did not need rescuing – up to that point, at least. 

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Image: Gerhard Groenewald

Overriding the systems

On the second day Gerhard found a way to override the irritating electronics of the Dynamic Select system, and it transformed the vehicle. With some further experimenting he found the groove and by using the oodles of power of the X-Class, it became virtually unstoppable – even on the highest dunes. 

It did not have to yield to the hard-core, specialised and modified V8 Cruiser and V6 Amaroks anymore but, even so, we did not participate the more extreme stuff of the challenging route, as the Merc was hampered by its tyres and subsequent lack of ground clearance.

We visited the desolate mining settlements of Charlottenfelder and Grillenberger, established between Conception Bay and Meob Bay at the turn of the previous century, to take in the spectacular scenery, experience the untouched beaches, and enjoy the miles of sand driving. However, it was unsettling to see how the few remnants of the diamond activities are rapidly deteriorating.

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Image: Gerhard Groenewald

By now it was clear that the X-Class was a more than capable dune rider and with proper high-profile tyres fitted (giving it a bit more ground clearance as well) it will outperform most vehicles in this environment. However, we found the paddle shifts on the steering wheel difficult to work in tight turns, and would have loved more cabin storage space, cup holders … and a larger fuel tank.

Groenewald enjoyed the comfort, raw power, and smoothness of the V6 engine in the X-Class and complimented its handling, stability on gravel roads, and large loading area. “I would love to spend more time in this vehicle, getting to know all its features and experience it in different scenarios. I have never driven a vehicle that attracts so much attention and excitement wherever I went,” he said.  The Merc bakkie made it out of the desert with no scratches or damage … and its reputation intact. However, Stuttgart has now decided to stop production of this vehicle, probably due to flagging sales. Given our experience in the dunes, this is a real pity.

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Image: Gerhard Groenewald

Our vehicle: Mercedes-Benz X350d 4Matic Power

Engine: 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel

Maximum power:  190kW @ 3 400r/min

Maximum torque: 550 Nm @ 1400-3 200 rpm

0-100km/h: 7.9 seconds

Top speed: 205 km/h

Transmission: seven-speed auto

Kerb weight: 2190 kg

GVM: 3250 kg

Towing capacity: 3500kg 

Fuel tank: 80 litres

Consumption: 8.8 l/100 km

CO2 emission: 236 g/km 

Price: R973 188 including VAT and CO2 tax

We like: Smooth, powerful engine, good handling, stability on gravel, 4×4 capability 

We do not like: Price, limited cabin storage, messy ergonomics, needs a bigger fuel tank

RoadTrip rating: 82%

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Image: Gerhard Groenewald

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