Our convoy advanced inexorably towards its end goal. Three shimmering, low-flying objects stirred up high-speed dust devils as far as the eye could see. At an unspecified point on the R355 that connects Ceres and Calvinia, we crossed the provincial boundary to the Northern Cape entering the Tankwa Karoo. To the west, ominous storm clouds engulfed the Cederberg. To the east, the earth remained unerringly parched, with powerful rising thermals painting tell-tale stratus clouds across the sky. Three amigos posed in the middle of this beautiful, turbulent nowhere: the Volkswagen Touareg, Mercedes-Benz GLE400d and Volvo XC90 R-Design.
The route to the summit of Ouberg Pass mimicked a rugged weekend away that anyone with a luxury SUV could conceivably enjoy; although one somewhat removed from the comfort zone of the shopping-centre car park these vehicles will usually frequent. We turned off the N1 highway after the Huguenot Tunnel and took Mitchell’s and Theronsberg passes in our stride before swapping smooth bitumen for the corrugated gravel of the R355 and the hundreds of dusty kilometres that followed. The end destination was one of the most impressive gravel mountain passes in the Northern Cape. Draped along a ridge of the Roggeveld Mountains, the summit of Ouberg Pass promised spectacular, never-ending views of the Tankwa Karoo valley floor below. Assuming we could get there, of course.
MR NICE: Volvo XC90 D5 R-Design Geartronic AWD
The Volvo XC90 is the oldest vehicle of the trio insofar as the current generation was launched back in 2014. In those six years, it has solidified an enviable reputation as one of the few big luxury SUVs without an image problem. Forget big BMWs and Mercedes; if you want to be the belle of the parent-teacher association, arrive in a trustworthy Volvo and enjoy the admiring glances. However, this newly introduced R-Design model, which comes in at the top of the existing Momentum and Inscription trim lines, is technically the newest car here. With its more individualistic attitude, according to Volvo, the R-Design makeover appears to be mostly aesthetic, with gloss black roof rails, a new front grille with additional detailing to the lower sills and bumpers, and classy five-spoke black diamond-cut alloy wheels. To judge if these subtle additions have in any way altered the unflappable Swede, I started the journey in the Volvo.
As before, the interior is constructed around Volvo’s signature portrait-style touchscreen which is available in every vehicle the firm sells. When this largely buttonless facia first debuted, it was lauded (and maligned by some) for its cutting-edge minimalism, but six years on, it is difficult to remember what all the fuss was about. The interminable forward march of touchscreen technology and digitalisation in modern cars is such that the Volvo’s configuration feels familiar, conventional, maybe even old-hat. The cabin layout is intuitive, to-the-point and opulent with this vehicle’s optional R-Design Pack (R72 500) which adds niceties like head-up display, keyless entry, heated seats and steering wheel, and a Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system. Like all XC90s, there are plenty of practical touches for a family vehicle, seven seats come standard; and figure-hugging R-Design sport seats up front are perfect for six-foot-tall occupants. It may not be finished with the extravagance of the Mercedes-Benz or the gadgetry of the Volkswagen, but it is supremely comfortable. Its ride over rough gravel on its 20-inch rims with 45-profile rubber is plush, thanks to optional air suspension (R26 750). This is a must as the regular steel-sprung XC90’s ride is a touch firm. Combining air suspension on the rear end with adaptive dampers at all four corners that can be tuned by the driver (the modes are Comfort, Eco, Dynamic and Off-road), the XC90 provides the best seat at the back of the pack to observe the epic cross-country trip take shape.
There was good reason for the Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen being out in front. They both boast six-cylinder turbodiesel engines, while the sensible Swede makes do with just a 2,0-litre four-cylinder. Producing 173 kW and 470 N.m, it’s no slouch; however, the torque band is narrower than the others, running from just 1 750 to 2 500 r/min. On the move and in its sweet spot, the smaller motor pulls strongly, equipping itself well against its beefier combatants. Interestingly, in an impromptu decibel test, the Volvo – with a third less cubic capacity than the others – was the loudest under full acceleration, proving correct those who argue refinement is impacted as a consequence of smaller downsized engines working harder to motivate larger vehicles.
THE ALPHA: Mercedes-Benz GLE400d 4Matic 9G-tronic
The virtue of driving through a great deal of emptiness for a long time is when you do finally come to anything – anything at all – you get disproportionately excited about it. After soaking up hundreds of kilometres on our journey, this was the result when the Tankwa Padstal popped into view. The farmstall is notably billed as, “a little bit of everything and a whole lot of something in the middle of nowhere”. This was also the perfect description for our trio of SUVs as we pulled in for a quick rest stop and a cup of their fan-favourite moerkoffie. Parked next to the others, each with an appreciable layer of dust on its white bodywork, the Mercedes-Benz GLE400d – with 21-inch twin-spoke alloy wheels (R39 700) and even lower 40-profile Pirelli tyres – really did resemble something Lewis Hamilton might use on safari. Unfortunately for Lewis’ entourage, this was the only vehicle here without seven seats. Dressed in the optional AMG Line exterior package (R48 000) which adds the firm’s popular diamond grille and other exterior trinketry, it has all the bling to match its swagger. Even if, subjectively speaking, the overall proportions appear out of balance. The “tumbledown” – a term car designers use to describe the line from the top of the glasshouse to where the tyres meet the road when viewed from a front-on position – is highly pronounced on the GLE, giving it a pinched cabin and wide stance. An overt tumbledown line works well in a sportscar or low-slung sedan, less so in this high-riding-SUV execution in our opinion.
Stepping from the Volvo into the Mercedes-Benz for the next leg of the journey was like trading in an old cassette player for Spotify. Twin high-resolution MBUX screens make up the infotainment and instruments which are exquisitely integrated with the rest of the cabin. Elegant switchgear, aeronautical-style air vents, touchpad controller and the few dedicated hard controls on the centre console are tastefully juxtaposed to all the digitised elements. Granted, with a vast array of backlighting colours to choose from – the interior might be too extravagant for some conservative buyers – but for sheer lavishness, the Mercedes interior doesn’t disappoint. Less spectacular was the big Benz’s ride quality. Unlike the Volvo – lending credence to the idea that this test vehicle was largely intended for urban use – it was not specified with the Off-Road Engineering package (R33 000) which would have added a low-range transmission and additional underbody protection, nor did it have the Airmatic air suspension package (R29 000).
As a result, it had the tightest suspension, the least amount of wheel travel and the firmest ride quality of the group. The fear that one or more of its large, expensive P Zero tyres would puncture somewhere along the rough R355 was more prescient in the Merc than it had been in the Volvo. Thankfully, as part of the broader MBUX Innovation package, a handy tyre-pressure monitor keeps you updated on the status of your tyres. Despite the occasional jarring impact, all was well aboard the HMS Lewis. Which is as it should be because in terms of sheer grunt, like the firm’s Formula One team, the Benz was in a class of its own. Thanks to its strong, silken inline-six engine, it is by some margin the most powerful – 243 kW and 700 N.m – and quickest vehicle here. Performing the 0-100 km/h sprint in a claimed 5,7 seconds, it is 1,5 seconds faster than the Volkswagen claim of 7,2 seconds and more than 2,0 seconds quicker than the Volvo claim of 7,8 seconds over the same benchmark sprint. The twinturbodiesel gets up to speed with plenty of low-down punch courtesy of peak torque arriving at just 1 200 r/min. It is surprisingly sonorous for a diesel, too and was more economical than even the smaller-capacity XC90 at a cruise. Great motor!
UP FOR ANYTHING: Volkswagen Touareg V6 TDI Executive R-Line Tiptronic
The further we ventured into the Tankwa, the more sparse and eerie the backdrop became; as if we were leaving planet Earth behind altogether (along with cellphone reception). After surviving rather than striving over the rough gravel in the Mercedes-Benz, by mid-afternoon, we had reached the sign for Middelpos/Sutherland (R354) and Tankwa Karoo National Park where we had to turn right. Another 90 km of gravel strafing past Jakkalsfontein before the final steep ascent to the summit of Ouberg began. We had been chasing the sun the whole afternoon hoping to capture Peet’s photographic “magic hour” on top of the pass. With the briefest exchanges between the team along with a final vehicle swap, we knew we were up against it.
I climbed into the VW Touareg, plainly the most off-road-focused vehicle with electronically controlled air suspension and rear-axle steering fitted as standard. Although, you could be forgiven for overlooking its off-road credentials. Its optional Black Style Package (R43 400) adds 21-inch black Suzuka wheels (also shod in low-profile Pirelli rubber like the Mercedes), black wing mirrors, roof racks and a whopping great black radiator grille. The makeover divided opinion among the testers; some said it added drama to an otherwise conservative SUV, and others felt everything looked almost aftermarket as if fitted by a third party.
Whatever your perspective on the aesthetics, its off-roading prowess was beyond doubt, something that became abundantly obvious mere kilometres down the road. The gravel trail we encountered after Jakkalsfontein as we climbed the pass was a tricky sun-baked and flood-damaged affair. The VW’s front wheels were pulled this way and that, down into unavoidable ruts on the careworn route and required pronounced steering input to break out again. However, excellent wheel travel and compliant air suspension instilled confidence and the workmanlike V6 TDI motor and 4Motion permanent all-wheel drive simply got on with the job of getting us up the pass.
Producing a relatively modest 190 kW and 600 N.m compared to the GLE400d, it does lose out to the Benz in the 0-100 km/h sprint stakes in ideal conditions. However, in this environment, the Touareg left the Mercedes in its dust. From behind the wheel, the turbodiesel is arguably less refined, a little more audible than the GLE’s inline motor, as peak torque arrives 1 000 r/min later, at 2 250 r/min and requires more throttle input to get up to speed. Likewise, the eight-speed Tiptronic felt less eager to shift through the gears. On this trip, however, it was difficult to fault. A quick check on the fuel consumption readout in each vehicle showed that up to that point, it was sipping the least amount of fuel: 9,50 L/100 km versus 9,60 L/100 km for the Benz and the Volvo’s 9,70 L/100 km.
There was no time for the Touareg to rest on its laurels. The final push to the summit was demanding. This was no time to rush and take liberties, especially in a trio of luxury SUVs. As maddening as it was when the sun dipped, we knew we had to stay the course and proceed cautiously. Sections of the road were unstable, muddy and churned up from recent snow and rainfall, and there was the ever-present danger of clipping a sharp piece of shale and tearing an expensive tyre to shreds. Yet, thanks to generous clearance and touch-of-a-button four-wheel-drive systems, the vehicles adapted to the terrain, maintained their composure and emerged from the shadows of the Roggeveld Mountains just before sunset. We pulled up to let Peet leap from the car and try to capture the vastness of the Tankwa Karoo valley as the rays of sunlight slowly faded. Our convoy wore the camouflage of dust and mud with honour.