Can a car handle gradients of 70 per cent uphill and 80 per cent downhill? Well, last week I found out that the answer is yes, having put it to the test in the latest Mercedes SUV on the off-road track The Rock.
I’m met by Claus Krudop in the Mercedes customer centre in the east of Bremen. Standing in front of a 3D model of the huge car factory, he tells me a few impressive facts and figures about it. More than 12,000 people work here, and up to 1,400 cars are produced every day on this 1.3 square kilometre site. The site includes old and new production halls, a training facility and a fleet car park, and in 2008 The Rock was added – a course for testing the off-road capabilities of SUVs.
When we get to the course, the recently launched GLC SUV is already waiting for us. It’s crammed full of the latest technology, and it takes hills, humps and side slopes in its stride. Before we set off, Mr Krudop shows me the settings you can choose from. He switches from automatic to manual transmission, as that way the GLC will always stay in first gear, unless you change gear yourself. He also turns on the automatic brake assistance for downhill slopes, and sets the maximum speed to 10 km/h. I find out exactly what that means later on. But first, Mr Krudop takes us around the course and points out what to look out for as he calmly steers the GLC over the various side slopes, steps and hills.
I’ll take the stairs – Bond-style
Apart from the gradients, some of which reach 30 degrees, it’s all a bit underwhelming so far. OK, so here and there you do feel the odd shudder, and driving up the steps could be straight out of a Bond movie. But the sound-proofing of the interior is so good, and the ride so smooth, that the images I had in my head of mud splashing everywhere and wheels spinning are starting to fade. Then we get to the ‘pinnacle’ of the course. In front of us is the path to the highest point on the course – and it looks pretty steep. Mr Krudop puts his foot on the gas a bit more and the GLC takes on the 70 per cent gradient as if it were nothing. After just a few metres, all we can see through the windscreen is the grey autumn sky. At the top, you get a great view of the Mercedes factory, but the descent looks a bit scary. However, the GLC also manages that pretty comfortably.
Time to swap seats – now the fun begins
I’m getting quite excited, as it’s time to swap seats. I get behind the wheel and adjust the seat position to suit me. I feel the urge to don a leather flying cap and goggles, and to let the engine roar – I’m not sure if that’s because it would make a great photo, or because I’m so nervous ;-)
And we’re off. I carefully steer the vehicle over the hills and side slopes, and even negotiate the steps and the elephant tracks. The latter is quite a challenge: you drive across a hump with the front right-hand wheel, while the left-hand side passes through a dip. That is followed by a hump on the left -hand side, causing the front right-hand wheel to come off the ground. As soon as the left-hand side is at the top of the hump, I carefully step on the brake. The centre of gravity shifts. The whole vehicle tips to the front and to the right and lands with a bump in the next dip. We go through the same process again, only this time I manage to land a little more softly. I’m quite enjoying this.
Shaken, not stirred on The Rock
And now we’re at the foot of The Rock. Even the second time around, I still can’t believe that the GLC can tackle the climb to the top. Once again, the sky fills the windscreen, and I have to navigate using only an image on a small screen on the dashboard. Once we’ve reached the top, I carefully make my way towards the downhill slope. As I creep forward, the vehicle dips further and further. I keep on braking, thinking that we must have reached the maximum downhill gradient by now. But the GLC keeps dipping further as soon as I take my foot off the brake. At some point – we are virtually hanging in our seatbelts – it almost feels like we are clinging to a wall. In front of us we only have the steep descent and this view:
“OK, now take your foot off the brake,” Mr Krudop says with a grin. I laugh and say that I won’t do that, of course, because we’ll reach the bottom far quicker than we want to. But he sticks to his guns: “Go on, do it.” He seems to be quite serious, and my adrenaline levels are maxing out. Too late to get out now, though, and I reluctantly follow his instructions. I’m sure he’s up to something. As soon as I take my foot off the brake, the GLC shoots towards the bottom. At least, that is what I am convinced will happen, and I close my eyes. But not at all. To my surprise, we slowly descend the hill, and it takes me a few seconds to grasp what is happening. It’s the automatic brake assistance! So that’s what it’s for. It’s set to 10 km/h, and we are driving downwards at exactly that speed, without me having to do anything.
Just like a rollercoaster
After just over ten minutes, I complete the course and get out feeling pretty pleased with myself. But Mr Krudop has another surprise for me in store. “This car is also good for the road,” he says. Fair point, most people who buy a GLC will probably never go off-road anyway. He drives out onto the test track, which is used to test a vehicle’s roadholding, cornering and braking capabilities on different road surfaces. Mr Krudop puts his foot down, and in a few seconds we hit around 90 km/h. At the end of the straight, there’s a small right-hand turn followed by a left into a banked corner. No sooner have I realised what will happen, than we’re right in the middle of it. At just under 100 km/h, the vehicle literally sticks to the steep bank thanks to the centrifugal force. I try to take a photo, but we’ve already come out of the corner. I feel a little dizzy. Mr Krudop laughs when I tell him that I don’t want to do that again. After all, I’m no great fan of rollercoasters. But despite my reservations, I let myself be talked into another, slower drive through the banked curve. Anything for a good photo opportunity.
Later that evening, I suddenly find myself in high spirits. I guess it must be the after-effects of the adrenaline rush. After all, you don’t get to speed around a banked track and negotiate humps and steep hills every day.
Individuals and groups can book a drive on The Rock here.