Chasing ghosts in the Mercedes-AMG GLE 43
The 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 Mumbai-Pune 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