The GLE under way on the support route of the Dakar Rally.

Sand, rails, rubble: in the GLE at the 2016 Dakar Rally.

The South American challenge: we joined Ellen Lohr on the support route of the world’s toughest rally.

Photos & Text: Jörg Sand
  • Sand, rails, rubble: in the GLE at the 2016 Dakar Rally.

  • Ellen Lohr behind the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz GLE.

    Behind the wheel: Ellen Lohr.

    No less than 14 days, 9,000 kilometres of ultra-tough rally routes and the best drivers in the world: the Dakar Rally is something of a legend. This year, it takes the drivers from the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires to Uyuni in Bolivia and back. We were given the chance to accompany Ellen Lohr on the rally. The self-proclaimed Monegasque has driven just about anything with four wheels during her time in motorsports – from a DTM Mercedes to Race Trucks and even a Dakar Rally car. Now she drives our press vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz GLE. The journalists aboard it report on the sporting progress of the rally and thus at the same time also set themselves a huge challenge, because even the so-called support route for press and service vehicles is an adventure which calls for a true professional like Lohr behind the wheel.

    Off-road adventure.

    The car has to transport four people including camping and photographic equipment for two weeks over this 7,000-kilometre-long support route across South America. It’s a tough challenge: on-board are also two spare wheels, a 20-litre fuel canister, two sand boards, a roof box for luggage and, as you never really know what to expect on such a route, rescue equipment including a towing belt with a break load of nine tonnes and two shovels are also part of the luggage. And that’s all in the roofbox.

    The Mercedes-Benz GLE alongside the rally version of the ML 63 AMG from the Argentine Colcar Mercedes-Benz Racing Teams.

    The GLE has a gross weight of 2,900 kilogrammes with all this equipment. The maximum vehicle payload of 770 kilogrammes is used to the full.

    Bolivien, Ruta 21.

    We arrive in Bolivia via a series of spectacular mountain passes through the Andes. Argentina had well-built infrastructure, but here things look a lot different: anyone who is keen on getting around problem-free and having fun at the same time should look to equip themselves with an all-wheel-drive vehicle. There are still plenty of unpaved main roads here which, depending on the weather, are more or less easy to drive on. Road maps show main roads which, upon reaching them, turn out to be the most evil of rubble roads. One such example is the legendary Ruta 21 to Uyuni. The 220-kilometre-long route is covered with crushed rocks and leads from Tupiza along riverbeds before turning into mountain passes at an altitude of 4,600 metres. The road connects small villages and some former silver and copper mines. Bolivia doesn’t get much more primeval than this. We never cease to be amazed: even the villages at an altitude of 4,000 metres are equipped with football pitches, some even with stands for spectators. Playing football in the anoxic conditions at this height is unimaginable for us.

    The Mercedes-Benz GLE under way at the Dakar Rally.
    The Mercedes-Benz GLE off-road.

    Extreme off-road.

    After 160 kilometres, Ruta 21 is blocked. We have no choice but to drive the remaining 60 kilometres off-road in order to keep to our planned arrival time in Uyuni. The GLE is equipped with robust off-road tyres. But we didn’t anticipate having to cross such extreme terrain until this point. Ellen Lohr sets the drive programme and thus also the suspension of the GLE to “Off-road” mode. We cross a railway embankment and several small streams in order to get down into the valley in which we can drive parallel to Ruta 21. The “Off-road” mode offered us the additional ground clearance we needed to get on with some serious climbing. Ellen Lohr also found it “a tough challenge” and it won’t be the only one on the route.

    GLE 400 4MATIC

    Fuel consumption combined: 9.2–8.8 l/100 km;

    combined CO₂ emissions: 215–209 g/km.*

    On the rails instead of on the road.

    After twelve kilometres, we are again in front of a set of railway lines. The terrain around us looks completely unmanageable and so Ellen makes an executive decision: we’re going to continue the next ten kilometres on the tracks in order to give us a good speed. The air suspension of the GLE makes for a safe and even comfortable ride over the railway sleepers. As we reach a small, decrepit railway bridge leading over the riverbed, Ellen confidently crosses it at walking pace. However, ahead of us, the second bridge causes us to surrender – it has already collapsed.

    The Mercedes-Benz GLE on the rails.

    Ellen drives the GLE off the tracks and into the river bed where our only orientation comes in the form of the GPS navigation system stipulated by the Rally regulations. Also called for at this point is the traction of both the all-wheel-drive system and the tyres.

    What a journey!

    Ellen follows the river bed for a further 20 kilometres – what a journey! Every now and again, the ground beneath us changes: deep sand turns into mud. We press on through waterholes such that the cloudy water only lightly sprays on the dusty windscreen and windows. We hold our breath, but the 4MATIC drive system in “Off-road” mode confidently masters every type of terrain and Ellen is truly in her element: “The GLE does a really good job of it. It’s great fun here!” The 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system’s “Off-road” mode allows for some slip on loose ground so that all four wheels can build up the greatest traction possible. Accordingly, the GLE offers ideal propulsion even under the toughest of conditions. And that’s exactly what we need here.

    The Mercedes-Benz GLE in a river bed in Bolivia.
    The Mercedes-Benz GLE in Bolivia

    Dunes up ahead.

    We arrive at a plane with a number of sand dunes. Ellen navigates us through the dunes in the direction of Uyuni with the help of GPS coordinates. Here, too, we benefit enormously from the masses of ground clearance available thanks to the air suspension being extended. It allows us to simply drive over smaller dunes. Shortly before darkness falls, we make it: we’re driving back on Ruta 21.

    Mission accomplished.

    The last five kilometres to Uyuni are like child’s play in comparison. In the evening, in the bivouac next to the campfire, we celebrate with Ellen Lohr how we championed the off-road test. It was an exhilarating journey even for experienced off-roaders, but left us cheerfully enjoying a unique feeling which can only come as a result of such a journey off the beaten track. It’s a special mix of adrenaline, liveliness and inner calm. But what is causing us the biggest problem right now is the altitude. For us Europeans, it’s extremely strange. Uyuni is located at a height of 3,600 metres on a plateau. It stretches for as far as the eye can see and has an immense salt lake in its centre. An impressive view. But it does have a price to pay: at this altitude, oxygen is scarce.

    Rear view of the Mercedes-Benz GLE at an angle.

    As a result, we struggle with headaches, insomnia and, at its worst, nausea. That said, our GLE still has sufficient power – 60 percent of its 333 hp remains available to us regardless of the anoxic climes.

    Diagonal front view of the Mercedes-Benz GLE.


    Even the return journey demands all we can give: it’s extremely hot in Argentina, where we experience temperatures of up to 47 degrees and can’t bear to get out of our comfortably cooled GLE. You can really rely on this vehicle: we arrive in Buenos Aires having covered 7,000 kilometres door-to-door without a single problem on the vehicle – not a single failure, not a single flashing warning lamp, nothing. It stoically did as was asked of it. It will certainly stay in our memories, just like the almost surreally beautiful landscapes of South America. We’re exhausted, there’s dust and sand everywhere, we’ve spent two weeks sleeping in tents and have had to endure the heat, days of continuous downpours, high altitudes and extreme tracks. Despite that, or should we say, because of that: it’s so hard to say goodbye. But it surely won’t be the last time we see each other!

    Image gallery.