Mercedes-Benz X-Class takes on Albania
By Khulekani Dumisa
Recently we got invited to experience the Mercedes Benz X-Class in Albania. Why Albania, you may ask, well the country is one of the last places in Europe that allow for proper off-roading. And it offers plenty of that as we were to find out.
It’s open secret that the X-Class hasn’t been the success that Mercedes-Benz had hoped it would be. The promise of a premium bakkie taking over the world by storm has not yet materialized. There are a number of factors – the poor global economy which makes the pricing hard to justify for some consumers. Additionally, although a good choice, the association with the Navara hasn’t gone down well with some consumers. It’s clear that Mercedes-Benz will need to put a lot of work to turn around the fortunes of this bakkie. They actually should do this. The entry of niche and similarly priced bakkies shows there is space in the market for a premium bakkie like the X-Class. The marketing and finance teams will have to consider options like compelling incentives to get the public to give the X-Class a chance.
X-Class in Albania
Upon arrival in Albania, we were told that we were to pilot the X-Class in V6 form. This is the most powerful engine in the range. It kicks out 190 kW and 500 Nm of torque from its 6-cylinder 3 litre engine. This was music to our ears. We’d experienced the bakkie on launch here at home and its power delivery and comfort had stood out. Not only that, it had tackled an off-road course that had been set-up as part of the launch without breaking a sweat.
Albanian – a country of mountains and lots of water
Flying over Albania and in particular, close to Tirana, the capital city, you are struck by the imposing mountains. They make Table Mountain seem like a bit of a picnic. The mountains and small farms that surround Tirana really set-up the scene for challenging off-roading.
Navigating small farm holdings and scaling mountainous terrain was to be the order of the day for the next two days. Fortunately we were given some rest on arrival after a long flight and got to enjoy a relaxing stay at the Ark Hotel and Bar situated near the airport.
We started day 2 of our visit pretty slowly. The road trip only started after 1pm. On offer were the Progressive and Power trims of the X-Class. We were offered the latter and more luxurious bakkie. It had a tasteful maroon leather finish which added a level of sophistication to the bakkie. 45 minutes later and just over 10 kms later, we had our first stop. We had driven past some small holdings at the bottom of the glorious mountains but had achieved a fair amount of elevation as the spot offered beautiful views of the city. Navigating through the city had been a sport of sorts. The drivers are a bit on the erratic side and make our taxi drivers seem accommodating.
Approaching Bovilla Lake
We proceeded on our route approaching the Bovilla Lake on narrow roads where there was construction. Our initial reaction was that it was construction of the road but we were told the untarred and rocky road is fine and all that was going on was the laying down of the pipeline for water to be drawn from the lake to the city. Crazy we thought but we proceed with the X-Class taking in the rough terrain without any complaint and the 4-Matic all drive system coping without needing the assistance of 4L or 4H.
Before we knew we were at our lunch stop. A few kilometers before the dam at the bottom of the magnificent Bovilla Lake. Our lunch spot was a picnic site that is run by a father and his daughters. They set up for us under a shelter that is next to a stream and we enjoyed our lunch there. Our guide then hurried us back to the road as it appeared as if the weather was changing and we still had a long way to go. When I mean long, I mean time-wise. The roads are so bad and narrow that you can barely drive past 20 km/h. This means it takes very long to make your way to the top of the mountains.
Eventually we arrived at Bovilla Lake. We stopped just past the dam at the bottom of the lake. What a beautiful sight. The turquoise water made the lake seem like something out of a fairytale.
Prior to arrival in Albania, the country had experienced some earth quakes and the city had felt some aftershocks. That didn’t pose any threat to our trip. The biggest challenge would be heavy rain. The forecast was moderate rain but we experienced heavy downpours. Before we get there, let’s pick it up from after the lake. The terrain got quite rough and challenging and we found ourselves having to engage 4H for improved traction off-road and 4L for rough terrain more often.
We stopped to take a break and some pictures at least an hour after driving past the lake. The scenery was beautiful but the clouds indicated some heavy rains were upon us. It wasn’t soon after that it started bucketing. We were happy to soldier on as the X-Class had no issues clearing past pools of water along the way.
A brave but correct call
At around 6 pm, we approached another steel and wooden bridge. A bit of sand and rock had fallen and was obstructing the approach. The cars had to get on the bridge at an angle. Again, nothing hectic for the X-Class with approach and departure angles of up to 29 and 24 degrees respectively. Soon after we had crossed the bridge, the convoy was asked to stop. The guides got off and went to assess the next crossing. They made a brave but necessary call to make the convoy turn back. The flooding wasn’t too bad and the cars could have crossed if the road was wider but attempting that on single carriage roads high in the mountains would have been asking for trouble.
The way back to Tirana
You’d be forgiven for thinking the call to turn around was easy but that would be far from the truth. It was just the safer option. Remember it had taken us almost 5 hours to get to where we are and now we had to drive back in heavy rain.
The way back had to be hastened to avoid being trapped in the mountains. The weather would not make it easy though. We experienced more heavy rain, mist and hail. The roads also started getting water logged and the rocks started falling down from the mountains. In fact the bakkie in front of us lost its front bumper and sustained damage to its passenger door due to rock falls.
The trip down was quick and before we knew it we’d gone past the dangerous mountain bits. The next part involved making our way past the small holdings on the outskirts of the city. Finally, we drove through Tirana. The drive was easier although the traffic was hectic due to the rain and the drainage system wasn’t coping with the hectic downpours.
After some spirited driving, we made our way to the hotel, safe and sound.
Day 2 of drive – more mountains and castles
The guides were adaptable and instead of cancelling the trip, soon found another route. We are on our way just after 9 am.
Day 3 of our X-Class adventure in Albania was less hectic. We spent the day navigating tight and twisty roads. We actually even got the X-Class in sport mode for more dynamic driving. That proved to be exciting as it made the steering more responsive and the car more agile around tight corners. In no time we were at Shkreli Resort where we would have camped the night before had the rain not scuppered our plans. The resort is beautiful and worth a visit. We even saw our tents and it would have been proper camping. A part of me was grateful that didn’t happen due to the rain.
We were not to be spared from more off-road driving with an opportunity to employ hill descend control which ensures your vehicle speed doesn’t increase, managing the braking to provide a controlled, smooth descend. The peace of mind from this system and occasional use of 4L ensured an enjoyable drive in the Albanian mountains. The mountains are quite scenic and to top it off we had a picnic up there with unbeatable views.
The next stop were seaside restaurants where we enjoyed some delicious local coffee which comes highly recommend. The final stop was the castle-inspired Chateau Fasel where we enjoyed a delicious dinner.
We got up early the following day to make our way to the airport. Tirana traffic can be daunting but the X-Class proved to be at home here as it was in the mountains. Before we knew it, we were at the airport and ready to bid Tirana farewell. The country comes highly recommended if you are looking for an off-road adventure of a lifetime. Hot tip: get a local guide and a car that is as capable as the X-Class.
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