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  • Driving through South Africa in a GLE 500 e 4MATIC.
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    Driving through South Africa in a GLE 500 e 4MATIC.

    He says, she says – He loves the wine, she loves the clean air. Taking this car for a spin is a completely new driving experience.

    Fuel consumption (l/100km)*: combined : 3.7–3.3;
    CO2 emissions (g/km):combined: 84–78;
    Electricity consumption (kWh/100 km): weighted: 18.0–16.7

    Text: Marc Bielefeld | Photos: Paul Cocks

Generation conflict.

The generation conflict is kicked off with the decisive question: Who’s driving? The answer is quickly found: Dad is! Franz Joseph and Jacqueline Blomendahl are outside of their house in Grabouw, South Africa, 50 kilometres away from Cape Town. They get into a brand new Mercedes-Benz GLE 500 e 4MATIC and shut the doors. The scent of leather. The large, central display. Franz Joseph Blomendahl takes hold of the steering wheel, his daughter runs her hand over the touchpad on the centre console.


Franz Joseph Blomendahl has always driven Mercedes-Benz.

Daughter: How long can we keep it?

Father: We’re allowed to drive it for two days.

Daughter: Wherever we want to go?

Father: Yes. We can just cruise around, through the vineyards, down to the sea. I can’t wait to experience what it feels like to drive it.

Franz Joseph Blomendahl has always driven Mercedes-Benz. At the age of 18 he bought his first 240 D, a “Stroke 8”, nowadays the winemaker owns several cars. Two SL Cabriolets, a white S 500 of the 221 model series, a C-Class Estate.


A step into the future.

But now he wants to test and experience something new. A car that is making a step into the future. A car that is ushering in a new generation of vehicles on the street with its hybrid technology. Various modern assistance systems and also the ionisation of the interior air: the GLE 500 e 4MATIC has many new features that make driving safer, more efficient and more pleasant. In particular, the car thinks ahead when it comes to protecting the environment.


A luxurious off-road vehicle.

This is Franz Joseph Blomendahl’s first time sitting in a car with a combined electric drive and V6 petrol motor. A plug-in hybrid. A luxurious off-road vehicle with a lithium-ion battery under the hood to power the car for 30 kilometres of electric driving at speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour. A car that can be charged via a normal power outlet and achieves a local CO2 emission figure of zero grammes per kilometre when being driven electrically. Blomendahl puts his foot on the brake and presses the starter button. The car is ready to roll.


A clever car.

Father: Listen, you can’t hear anything. Absolutely quiet. I can’t believe it.

Daughter: It’s about time then. It’s a clever car. A car that uses less and less fuel. That’s where we’re heading. That’s the direction we have to head in.

Father: When you brake, you gain energy. The principle is called recuperation. The battery also recharges itself while you’re driving. Brilliant, isn’t it? If you so choose, you won’t waste any more energy.


Daughter: Clever. But they could’ve thought about it earlier.

Father: Do you know how complicated it is to develop technologies like these? Your generation is always demanding an emission-free future, but you can’t just drive off into it like it’s the easiest thing. It takes time. Thousands of people are working on it.

Daughter: I think you can start driving now.


Soundlessly, the car glides onto the street.

Franz Joseph Blomendahl steps on the right pedal, the accelerator. But he doesn’t hit the gas; he hits the electricity. Almost soundlessly, the car glides out of the gate onto the street, out into the wine region of Grabouw and Elgin. Cypresses, cacti and blossoming proteas are growing up the mountainsides – the world folding itself into the mountains to the east of Cape Town is almost Mediterranean. South Africa in winter. A flattering image.


A huge relief.

The fact that father and daughter are on a low-emission voyage is particularly significant to Jacqueline Blomendahl. When her family was living in their old home town of Osnabrück, in Germany, she suffered from bronchitis and asthma, as well as from various allergies. Jacqueline wasn’t able to drink milk or orange juice. On her way to school in the morning she had rattling coughs.

Her doctor recommended a lengthy period in a dry climate with clean air. So, the Blomendahls travelled to South Africa for a long holiday. And, lo and behold: after a week Jacqueline was without any complaints and could breathe freely for the first time in her life. This was a huge weight off her back, and indeed a huge relief for everyone.


He felt the sun.

Franz Joseph Blomendahl, a trained wine engineer, winemaker and whiskey producer looked for opportunities to relocate his business. He saw the vineyards, the hills and mountains near Cape Town. He felt the sun. The Blomendahls didn’t hesitate for long: they packed their bags and moved to South Africa. The country has long since become Jacqueline’s home.

She went to school here, studied here. And she’s breathing the clear air of the Cape Province. For her, the word “emission-free” is not some kind of slogan, it carries meaning in itself. And she can feel that. In the last 17 years she only returned to Germany a few times. The same thing happened each time: after three days she was wheezing again.


The wild South Atlantic.

They turn west, following the country road to Gordons’s Bay. The wild South Atlantic appears in the vista of the windscreen. A swell several metres in height is rolling in from the Antarctic. But the Blomendahls aren’t distracted by this natural beauty; their attention is completely immersed in the GLE.

Daughter: What’s that? Something red is shining in your wing mirror.

Father: The Blind Spot Assist. It tells you when something is coming diagonally from behind that you cannot see without looking over your shoulder.

Daughter: I’m telling you, the car thinks for itself. It’s got its eyes on everything. Can I please drive now?

Father: Yes, in a moment. Jacqueline Blomendahl, of the digital generation, swipes the touchpad with her fingers, accessing the various functions of the GLE on the screen.


Graphics appear, displaying the consumption, energy flow. The car basically explains itself. The car’s smart technology accompanies driver and passenger as they roll through the Cape Province along the coastal cliff towards Sparks Bay and Mermaid Pool.

Daughter: Look, I can control and recognise everything from here – all of the colours of ambient lighting, Crosswind Assist, Traffic Sign Assist. Dad, the battery is at 70 per cent. We’re driving in hybrid mode.

Father: I didn’t do anything.

Daughter: It does it by itself. Is it my turn now?

Father: Yes, in a moment.


A mild breeze gently blows in through the window.

They drive along Ocean Road. Breaking waves crush against the shoreline, the coastal cliffs glow in the east, a mild breeze gently blows in through the window. Blomendahl drives the car onto a dirt track, around a rock, and stops at the sea. In the grass by the road is a light-coloured stone with the inscription “David Lilienfeld – Warrior”. Lilienfeld was one of South Africa’s best body surfers. When he was surfing the waves here in the Koeël Bay on 19 April 2012, a four-metre-long great white shark tore his right leg off. Lilienfeld died shortly afterwards. South Africa isn’t always mild.


Distinguished wines.

Franz Joseph Blomendahl looks out to the open sea and breathes the air. As a winemaker, he appreciates the South African climate – for the vines – more so than the perfect waves. He has been producing his own wines here for many years. Each year he exports some 50,000 bottles to China, Africa and Germany. Distinguished wines, high-quality brandy, whiskey and liqueur, such as the “Old Swede”, which he makes in his own distillery.


A quiet purring.

On the trip north, the Hottentots Holland Mountains – the range’s actual historic name – rise into view in the hinterland. Thanks to the hybrid drive, the GLE alternates between electricity and petrol mode. First a quiet purring, then the full sound of the petrol engine. Blomendahl steers the car along the curves with precision, glides along serpentines and country roads. Suddenly, a plain becomes visible through the windows. A large, ochre basin, from which individual trees are growing like skeletal remains, comes into view. It is the Theewaterskloof Dam, one of the largest water reserves in South Africa.


No more water.

Father: Now look at that! The reservoir is empty. No more water.

Daughter: Yes, it was on the news this morning. The water shortage is really bad now because of the drought. How can anyone believe that there are no problems with the climate?

Father: This view is unbelievable, scary even. It’s as if you’re standing at Lake Garda – and suddenly it’s empty.

Daughter: Luckily we have our own well at home. So, now I can drive!

Father: Okay, okay. I’ll get out.


Currently, water shortage is indeed high. The authorities have instructed the population not to use more than 100 litres per day. No more showers, no more baths, no more watering the lawn. Water is only to be used for drinking, cooking and washing. There are checks. People who use too much have to pay a fine.


Jacqueline is now in the driving seat.

They have swapped seats, Jacqueline Blomendahl is now in the driving seat and drives away.

Daughter: It’s crazy, we are only using electricity at the moment. There, look at the display. Our battery level is at 50 per cent. And in a full-fledged SUV no less.

Father: But you can step on the gas a bit, then you can feel what it can do.

Daughter: Why not … you know how much I like to drive fast! Jacqueline Blomendahl steps on the pedal. The V6 motor gets put into action and now shows its full strength. The GLE dashes north on the motorway, which was converted from country roads. When kickdown is activated, the electric drive kicks in, giving an extra big boost.


A gang of monkeys.

Soon the famous wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek with their gently rolling hills bathed in the rosé-coloured afternoon sun will rise up in front of the bonnet. But then Jacqueline Blomendahl brakes, blinks, turns left on to a dusty track and stops at the side. She has discovered a gang of monkeys.

Daughter: There are baboons climbing around. An entire family.

Father: Yes, I see them. A really large male, and the mother with her infants. Let’s see what they’re doing.

Daughter: Normally, they would escape into the trees, but I’ll drive towards them carefully. Then we won’t disturb them.


Silent through the wilderness.

Father: Beats any clattering safari bus. Silent through the wilderness. There, the male is approaching.

Daughter: I told you so. Quiet and clean, that’s the direction we are heading in. Even the monkeys can’t say no to that. Look at his muscular body. A real macho!

Some of the powerful primates sit motionless on the ground, others climb up the trees. Another monkey can be seen through the panoramic sunroof; it is curiously viewing the humans below. The GLE glides past the animals almost without making a sound.


Travel tips.

Living in a vineyard: The luxurious “Delaire Graff Estate” is situated among the vineyards of Stellenbosch. From the lodges you have a view that reaches far into the hinterland. There’s a spa, an art gallery and the gourmet restaurant “Indochine”, which serves South Africa’s best wines.

Time travel: The District Six Museum provides haunting insights into the racist policies of apartheid. The house is dedicated to the district,
which was cleared with force in the 60s.

E-Bike tour: The fast e-mountain bikes from Venture South are great fun, especially on a guided tour through the most beautiful wine regions.

Seafood: “Panama Jacks” in Cape Town’s container port is the most original fish restaurant in town. You will need your ID for access. Here you will be served delicious oysters, lobster and even abalones.