Mercedes Leh-Ladakh SUV drive

Team OD  | Published: December 03, 2011, 12:53 PM IST

Happy birthday to me! Beat this. Getting to drive one of the world's most coveted off-roaders on top of the world. On your birthday. The SUV in question? A mind-numbing 507PS and a gut-wrenching 700Nm of torque on offer. The same one that left Sirish speechless near Pune, left villagers outside Pune wondering why there was a Rs 1.1 crore Sumo in existence. The Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG. And for my birthday instead of hanging out with family or girlfriend, I got to drive the beast in the Himalayas.

In India we add the suffix 'ji' out of respect. You know, like Sirji or Soniaji. The G 55 AMG is so impressive, G is its prefix! And since AMGji sounds weird, I'll just point out that its one of the few names where 'ji' is both the prefix and the suffix. That's the sort of respect 507PS and 700Nm deserve. The G has remained unchanged more or less for the past three decades and part of its legend is its off-road ability. And Mercedes-Benz, bless their souls, decided that the tough Leh terrain would be perfect to experience the G as well as its more normal cousin, the GL-Class.

Which is why I had a beaming smile on my face while standing in queue to board my flight to Leh. As I stepped into the G Wagen, the interiors felt pretty much in contrast to its old-looking, yet imposing styling â€" very modern, very Mercedes oriented. But the gamut of buttons and switches in the centre console was confusing to say the least, or at least I thought so. I turned the swanky looking key and the V8 growled to life. As I waited to roll off I could already imagine that rumble ricocheting off the tiny lanes of Ladakh's beautiful capital. As we exited the town, the streets were dotted with exuberant, red-cheeked Ladakhi kids, who instantly turned around on hearing the sound, and once the frowns subsided, the kids did not fail from smiling and waving out at us.

Humongous amounts of power going to the rear wheel call for careful acceleration, but not for too long. Soon we were out on the open road, which though dusty, was smooth, allowing the compact yet crazily powerful AMG to stretch its legs. The ride quality felt stiff, but I was hardly complaining (thankfully neither were my co-passengers). Kicking up a cloud of dust behind, the G55 gave me the feeling of being at the wheel of a battle tank with a rock solid feel, on its way to charge into enemy territory. I was pretty close to that, given that I was in Ladakh, wasn't I?

The G55 has been serving the armies in several countries abroad for years now, and I am quite certain whoever is the lucky soldier to drive it around must feel like God. And that V8 roar, always that thundering, hair-raising roar. Despite the chilly air, I rolled down my window down just for kicks. And only put them up once my near-frozen co-passengers offered me kicks of their own.

The Wagen's compact dimensions were a boon, especially over small river crossings where only one vehicle could go at a time. Spotting a promising looking off-road trail, we quickly got off the road and rolled down to a river bank for a quick photo-op. This is what I was waiting for, I whispered to myself. The G55 is one of the very few SUVs in the world that boasts three locking differentials â€" centre, rear and front.

The only drawback here were the Wagen's low profile tyres, this being the AMG version, the G55 was sporting 275/55 street tyres that robbed it of slightly better ride quality, apart from making me a bit uncomfortable as I tried clambering over a rocky hill. I am quite certain proper off-roading tyres would make off-roading an even more wonderful experience with this beast and after descending down to the river bank and driving around searching for a good spot to wield my camera, my belief in the G55's abilities off tarmac was cemented further. Even today, the G55's styling creates an aura around it that is unmistakable. An aura that has made it a cult automobile around the world.

Day two wasn't my birthday â€" you get only one a year â€" so I had to let the G 55 AMG go and take station in the GL500 instead. The GL was instantly more car-like, and it felt comfortable right from the word go. Given its large dimensions, I am not surprised that this is one SUV that was designed for the American market. As I started driving, I could sense how much softer than the G55 it was. Give it the stick and this brute accelerates with a surprising urgency, is quick around corners, and still manages to ensure that its occupants are ensconced in luxury. Compared to the G55, this one had higher profile tyres, making for a plusher ride on broken roads, a Ladakh specialty. The day and the drive ended at Srinagar, and as we rolled into town, I sat recollecting the experiences of the past two days. And it's true. The GL500 may be more spacious, more practical, cheaper and all that. But the G 55 AMG takes the lion's share of the experience and memories for me.


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