Thunder and Lightning

WORDS BY JOSH NEEDS

How does the Mercedes-Benz X-Class X350d deal with earthquakes, torrential rain, rock falls and tracks being washed away before our eyes?

Earthquake. A 5.6-magnitude earthquake. Near Tirana. Thirty-seven people injured. That was the teletype-esque text message I received from home when I switched my phone back on with several hours left before the plane landed at Tirana International Airport in Albania. Gulp.

Yep, about 35 kilometres away from Tirana, my destination, in the seaside village of Durres a 5.6-magnitude earthquake had torn buildings apart and sent rubble crashing to the ground crushing vehicles and injuring people.

And then I looked at the weather report. I shouldn’t have done that.

See, I was about to be handed the keys to a Mercedes-Benz X-Class and pointed towards Mount Datji. A perfectly good bitumen road runs from Tirana to the 1613m summit, but we weren't going to be driving on the road. Instead, we'd be driving on a goat track clinging to the side of the mountain. Great.

Bet you don’t know too much about Albania. It’s all thieves and mobsters, who’ll sooner snip out a kidney than give you the time of day, or so I thought. Only that isn’t the case. At least not in the areas I went walking around in Tirana. Sure, there are unpaved roads in the city co-habiting with beautiful strips of bitumen. And a mixture of weird, re-painted Soviet buildings next to brand-new builds, and while this might sound like a tourist brochure, with more than 3000 years of history, Tirana, Durres and Albania are worth a look-see. Think Adelaide, only better.

See, and take a deep breath, Albania has been a cross-road from eastern to western Europe for centuries. As such, it’s been conquered time and time again by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantians, Slavs, Bulgarians, Sicilians, Serbians, Ottomans, Italy during WWII and then the Communists. The result is a mish-mash of cultures and architecture.

The place was, in the 1990s, following the collapse of Communism, an economic mess. Sitting on the Adriatic Sea, Albania is surrounded by noisier and more noticeable neighbours, like Greece, Macedonia and Serbia…it’s why it’s often referred to as the orphan of Europe. But things are changing.

TRAVEL Mountain climbing in Albania

Disclaimer: The photos you're looking at were taken two weeks before, and a couple of days after, the events in this story took place and in no way represent what I experienced.

Every week there is a new competition and new prizes to be won! Plus, all participating Darche premium retail suppliers will have weekly in-store specials on select Darche products! Click on the button to enter and for full T&C's.

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

But our road wasn’t the Kings Road. Ours was the peasant’s road. A goat track paved with dirt and jagged rocks designed to rip and tear at tyres, filled with wandering livestock and a sphincter-tightening lack of barrier fences from the bottom to the top. Indeed, the track itself is barely wider than our X350d. And I’ve never driven on the left-hand side of the road before. And the drizzle has given way to proper rain.

But the call from our guide is to press on up the side of the mountain. The track zig-zags higher and higher. I'm behind the wheel of the X350d Power and driving in a convoy with journalists from all around the world. None of us is feeling comfortable right now. Well, the German writers in our group clearly are as they've careered off ahead of the main group. I'm sure you can guess what happens next.

With the rain giving way to more torrential rain, and even more thunder and lightning, the track has changed from damp and dangerous to literally running with water and falling apart. Bits of the mountain are now starting to give-way and tumble down across the track. But we push on.

From Tirana to Mount Doom...
Back to the earthquake. While Tirana escaped unscathed, the ground continued to shake for days following the main quake. I was shaken awake on my first night in Tirana, promptly falling out of my bed and onto the floor of the hotel room.

Mount Datji (part of the Sakander mountain range) looms over Tirana like Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, and it's even more menacing today with the top barely visible through the low-hanging clouds. There's even the odd flash of lightning and clap of thunder.

Considered a weekend-escape location for the locals, Mount Datji is, in winter usually covered in snow and is home to little more than a few TV repeater towers, bears, wolves, waterfalls, caverns, forests, a lake and a ruined castle. The main road up the thing is called the Kings Road. Why? Because a king lived at the top and made the road. Simple.

We're all breathing more heavily now, and rockfalls and mudslides are now taking turns at trying to send us for six. We’ve been crawling up the side of Mount Datji for around five hours, and we're still some way from the summit.

We’d come here to see the sights and give the Merc’s 3.0-litre V6 a proper workout, but we’ve been barely travelled faster than a heavily-laden packhorse for hours. And while our road-oriented rubber was excellent on the highway, things are becoming slippery. Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the mountain and the fact we didn't air down for the track the tyres hold together.

A few twists and turns later and the track resembles a stream; the call is finally made to turn back. But how. There are no turnout bays, and the road is barely wider than the vehicle. Do you remember that scene in Austin Powers where he tries to turn the electric cart around in the corridor? That was the six X350d Mercs.

Our convoy has slowed to a crawl and then comes to a halt as we make it around a bend when our German colleagues start yelling over the radio that they've been hit. From behind we couldn't see what they were talking about. But, braving the weather we walked around to the front of the X-Class to see the bumper had been taken clean off by a rock tumbling down the side of the mountain. And there was a big, fist-sized dent in the door too. If the stones had been bigger, then the Germans would have been nothing more than smears on the Albanian countryside.

“My heart skips a beat as the branch slides off before disappearing somewhere down the side of the mountain. Sweat starts to bead on my forehead, and I grip the steering wheel a little tighter.”

It's bad enough having to dodge falling rocks, but now tree branches are crashing across the track as the rain becomes hail, the vehicle peppered with icy stones. See Albania, the boss had said to me. Drive an X-Class up a mountain. I'm starting to wish I'd never left the office.

It takes longer to get back down the mountain than it did to drive up. And it's well and truly dark by the time we arrive back at the hotel; we had intended to camp on the mountain. We pile out of our vehicles and make for the hotel, becoming soaked through in the few short metres it takes to cross the carpark.

The worst storm in 60 years
Inching our way back down the mountain, with visibility down to just 10 metres it's my vehicle's turn to take a hit. A tree branch falls from an overhanging tree and lands on my bonnet. My heart skips a beat as the branch slides off before disappearing somewhere down the side of the mountain. Sweat starts to bead on my forehead, and I grip the steering wheel a little tighter.

With roads flooded and people needing to be evacuated, we spend our day driving around the countryside near Tirana. And the place is stunning — properly breathtaking stuff. With noses pressed against the windows, every corner reveals a new vista, from rivers to forests, lakes and mountains.

Sitting in the leather passenger seat of the X350d; my mind wandered to thoughts that Mercedes-Benz is considering killing off the X-Class. Sure, it hasn't sold in the sort of numbers the German company had hoped, and it had copped a lot of negative press about being little more than a trumped-up Nissan Navara. That might be the case with the four-cylinder models which are more Nissan than Mercedes, but this X350d with its 190kW and 550Nm V6 engine is a lot more Mercedes-Benz than it is Nissan.

The next day dawns and the horror of the night before is revealed. The TV news is showing widespread devastation from flooding, roads are closed, and homes have been cut off by rising waters. All this in a city that only a day or two before had been shaking and wobbling after an earthquake. Turns out it was the worst storm in 60 years.

Out in the carpark, our vehicles are looking dishevelled and dented; having barely survived its machine vs nature stoush.

The X350d looks good on the inside with its contrasting brush metal trim panel across the dashboard and X-motif air vents. But, the interior isn't overly practical with a lack of storage and too much hard plastic for a vehicle costing as much as it does.

When it comes to driving, the X350d has plenty of grunt but accessing it isn't always easy or comfortable because the throttle lacks feel or progression and there's a lot of turbo lag. That isn't such an issue once you're up and running, but from a standing start, you tend to lean a little too heavily on the throttle.

The ride is one of the best of any pickup on the market, but your ear tells you differently thanks to the squeak and rattle coming from the tray as you bump along rough roads. But the permanent all-wheel drive means grip is never an issue.

A closer look at the X350d
So, this seems about the right place in our story to take a closer look at the X350d. There are three variants in the X-Class line-up: Pure, Progressive and Power, but the X350d option is only available in Progressive and Power spec. The top-spec X350d Power costs $79,415+ORCs and adds lots of chrome to the exterior, 19-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and push-button start, fake-leather seats (as standard), eight-way electric adjustability to the front seats, mirrors that fold when parked and a 360-degree reversing camera. It gets an infotainment system with native sat-nav but no Apple or Android connectivity. The controller for the infotainment system, not a touchscreen, is awkward to use and looks like an afterthought.

The X350d has several driving modes which tweak the throttle and transmission; there's even an off-road setting which further dulls the throttle and holds onto gears for longer and only activates when you're in 4H or 4L. Despite the torrential rain we stuck with 4H, but from previous experience, we know the X350d's Achilles heel is that turbo lag which makes it a little ungainly in slow terrain.

This X350d, like Albania, bear with me, is ignored because of its noisier neighbours. Like the X-Class the countries around it are better known. There’s Croatia (the HiLux) been around longer, Greece (the Ranger), is more respected, Italy, (the Navara), and possibly cheaper, Montenegro, (the BT-50), but that doesn’t mean neither Albania or the X350d are not as good those around it. While it may not necessarily be the most capable, the most affordable, or the most sensible 4X4 pickup, the Mercedes X-Class does have a certain style about it. And with its stonking V6 engine it’s got power too.

But, more important than all of that stuff. The X350d suffered the worst the weather and Mount Datji could throw at it and got me home in one piece.

Plenty has been made out of the similarity between the X-Class and the Navara, but that's only true of the four-cylinder models. At least as far as mechanicals are concerned. See the four-wheel-drive system for the X350d is all Mercedes-Benz. This thing is permanent all-wheel-drive with a 40:60 drive split when in 4MAT which is for bitumen and well-graded dirt roads. You shift into 4H once onto slipperier terrain. Selecting low-range locks the drive into 50:50. And there's a rear diff lock and hill descent control, too.

TRAVEL Mountain climbing in Albania

Thunder and Lightning

How does the Mercedes-Benz X-Class X350d deal with earthquakes, torrential rain, rock falls and tracks being washed away before our eyes?

WORDS BY JOSH NEEDS

Earthquake. A 5.6-magnitude earthquake. Near Tirana. Thirty-seven people injured. That was the teletype-esque text message I received from home when I switched my phone back on with several hours left before the plane landed at Tirana International Airport in Albania. Gulp.

Yep, about 35 kilometres away from Tirana, my destination, in the seaside village of Durres a 5.6-magnitude earthquake had torn buildings apart and sent rubble crashing to the ground crushing vehicles and injuring people.

And then I looked at the weather report. I shouldn’t have done that.

See, I was about to be handed the keys to a Mercedes-Benz X-Class and pointed towards Mount Datji. A perfectly good bitumen road runs from Tirana to the 1613m summit, but we weren't going to be driving on the road. Instead, we'd be driving on a goat track clinging to the side of the mountain. Great.

Bet you don’t know too much about Albania. It’s all thieves and mobsters, who’ll sooner snip out a kidney than give you the time of day, or so I thought. Only that isn’t the case. At least not in the areas I went walking around in Tirana. Sure, there are unpaved roads in the city co-habiting with beautiful strips of bitumen. And a mixture of weird, re-painted Soviet buildings next to brand-new builds, and while this might sound like a tourist brochure, with more than 3000 years of history, Tirana, Durres and Albania are worth a look-see. Think Adelaide, only better.

See, and take a deep breath, Albania has been a cross-road from eastern to western Europe for centuries. As such, it’s been conquered time and time again by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantians, Slavs, Bulgarians, Sicilians, Serbians, Ottomans, Italy during WWII and then the Communists. The result is a mish-mash of cultures and architecture.

The place was, in the 1990s, following the collapse of Communism, an economic mess. Sitting on the Adriatic Sea, Albania is surrounded by noisier and more noticeable neighbours, like Greece, Macedonia and Serbia…it’s why it’s often referred to as the orphan of Europe. But things are changing.

Disclaimer: The photos you're looking at were taken two weeks before, and a couple of days after, the events in this story took place and in no way represent what I experienced.

Every week there is a new competition and new prizes to be won! Plus, all participating Darche premium retail suppliers will have weekly in-store specials on select Darche products! Click on the button to enter and for full T&C's.

SCROLL TO CONTINUE
ADVERTISEMENT

From Tirana to Mount Doom...
Back to the earthquake. While Tirana escaped unscathed, the ground continued to shake for days following the main quake. I was shaken awake on my first night in Tirana, promptly falling out of my bed and onto the floor of the hotel room.

Mount Datji (part of the Sakander mountain range) looms over Tirana like Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, and it's even more menacing today with the top barely visible through the low-hanging clouds. There's even the odd flash of lightning and clap of thunder.

Considered a weekend-escape location for the locals, Mount Datji is, in winter usually covered in snow and is home to little more than a few TV repeater towers, bears, wolves, waterfalls, caverns, forests, a lake and a ruined castle. The main road up the thing is called the Kings Road. Why? Because a king lived at the top and made the road. Simple.

But our road wasn’t the Kings Road. Ours was the peasant’s road. A goat track paved with dirt and jagged rocks designed to rip and tear at tyres, filled with wandering livestock and a sphincter-tightening lack of barrier fences from the bottom to the top. Indeed, the track itself is barely wider than our X350d. And I’ve never driven on the left-hand side of the road before. And the drizzle has given way to proper rain.

But the call from our guide is to press on up the side of the mountain. The track zig-zags higher and higher. I'm behind the wheel of the X350d Power and driving in a convoy with journalists from all around the world. None of us is feeling comfortable right now. Well, the German writers in our group clearly are as they've careered off ahead of the main group. I'm sure you can guess what happens next.

With the rain giving way to more torrential rain, and even more thunder and lightning, the track has changed from damp and dangerous to literally running with water and falling apart. Bits of the mountain are now starting to give-way and tumble down across the track. But we push on.

Our convoy has slowed to a crawl and then comes to a halt as we make it around a bend when our German colleagues start yelling over the radio that they've been hit. From behind we couldn't see what they were talking about. But, braving the weather we walked around to the front of the X-Class to see the bumper had been taken clean off by a rock tumbling down the side of the mountain. And there was a big, fist-sized dent in the door too. If the stones had been bigger, then the Germans would have been nothing more than smears on the Albanian countryside.

We're all breathing more heavily now, and rockfalls and mudslides are now taking turns at trying to send us for six. We’ve been crawling up the side of Mount Datji for around five hours, and we're still some way from the summit.

We’d come here to see the sights and give the Merc’s 3.0-litre V6 a proper workout, but we’ve been barely travelled faster than a heavily-laden packhorse for hours. And while our road-oriented rubber was excellent on the highway, things are becoming slippery. Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the mountain and the fact we didn't air down for the track the tyres hold together.

A few twists and turns later and the track resembles a stream; the call is finally made to turn back. But how. There are no turnout bays, and the road is barely wider than the vehicle. Do you remember that scene in Austin Powers where he tries to turn the electric cart around in the corridor? That was the six X350d Mercs.

“My heart skips a beat as the branch slides off before disappearing somewhere down the side of the mountain. Sweat starts to bead on my forehead, and I grip the steering wheel a little tighter.”

The worst storm in 60 years
Inching our way back down the mountain, with visibility down to just 10 metres it's my vehicle's turn to take a hit. A tree branch falls from an overhanging tree and lands on my bonnet. My heart skips a beat as the branch slides off before disappearing somewhere down the side of the mountain. Sweat starts to bead on my forehead, and I grip the steering wheel a little tighter.

It's bad enough having to dodge falling rocks, but now tree branches are crashing across the track as the rain becomes hail, the vehicle peppered with icy stones. See Albania, the boss had said to me. Drive an X-Class up a mountain. I'm starting to wish I'd never left the office.

It takes longer to get back down the mountain than it did to drive up. And it's well and truly dark by the time we arrive back at the hotel; we had intended to camp on the mountain. We pile out of our vehicles and make for the hotel, becoming soaked through in the few short metres it takes to cross the carpark.

The next day dawns and the horror of the night before is revealed. The TV news is showing widespread devastation from flooding, roads are closed, and homes have been cut off by rising waters. All this in a city that only a day or two before had been shaking and wobbling after an earthquake. Turns out it was the worst storm in 60 years.

Out in the carpark, our vehicles are looking dishevelled and dented; having barely survived its machine vs nature stoush.

With roads flooded and people needing to be evacuated, we spend our day driving around the countryside near Tirana. And the place is stunning — properly breathtaking stuff. With noses pressed against the windows, every corner reveals a new vista, from rivers to forests, lakes and mountains.

Sitting in the leather passenger seat of the X350d; my mind wandered to thoughts that Mercedes-Benz is considering killing off the X-Class. Sure, it hasn't sold in the sort of numbers the German company had hoped, and it had copped a lot of negative press about being little more than a trumped-up Nissan Navara. That might be the case with the four-cylinder models which are more Nissan than Mercedes, but this X350d with its 190kW and 550Nm V6 engine is a lot more Mercedes-Benz than it is Nissan.

A closer look at the X350d
So, this seems about the right place in our story to take a closer look at the X350d. There are three variants in the X-Class line-up: Pure, Progressive and Power, but the X350d option is only available in Progressive and Power spec. The top-spec X350d Power costs $79,415+ORCs and adds lots of chrome to the exterior, 19-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and push-button start, fake-leather seats (as standard), eight-way electric adjustability to the front seats, mirrors that fold when parked and a 360-degree reversing camera. It gets an infotainment system with native sat-nav but no Apple or Android connectivity. The controller for the infotainment system, not a touchscreen, is awkward to use and looks like an afterthought.

The X350d looks good on the inside with its contrasting brush metal trim panel across the dashboard and X-motif air vents. But, the interior isn't overly practical with a lack of storage and too much hard plastic for a vehicle costing as much as it does.

When it comes to driving, the X350d has plenty of grunt but accessing it isn't always easy or comfortable because the throttle lacks feel or progression and there's a lot of turbo lag. That isn't such an issue once you're up and running, but from a standing start, you tend to lean a little too heavily on the throttle.

The ride is one of the best of any pickup on the market, but your ear tells you differently thanks to the squeak and rattle coming from the tray as you bump along rough roads. But the permanent all-wheel drive means grip is never an issue.

Plenty has been made out of the similarity between the X-Class and the Navara, but that's only true of the four-cylinder models. At least as far as mechanicals are concerned. See the four-wheel-drive system for the X350d is all Mercedes-Benz. This thing is permanent all-wheel-drive with a 40:60 drive split when in 4MAT which is for bitumen and well-graded dirt roads. You shift into 4H once onto slipperier terrain. Selecting low-range locks the drive into 50:50. And there's a rear diff lock and hill descent control, too.

The X350d has several driving modes which tweak the throttle and transmission; there's even an off-road setting which further dulls the throttle and holds onto gears for longer and only activates when you're in 4H or 4L. Despite the torrential rain we stuck with 4H, but from previous experience, we know the X350d's Achilles heel is that turbo lag which makes it a little ungainly in slow terrain.

This X350d, like Albania, bear with me, is ignored because of its noisier neighbours. Like the X-Class the countries around it are better known. There’s Croatia (the HiLux) been around longer, Greece (the Ranger), is more respected, Italy, (the Navara), and possibly cheaper, Montenegro, (the BT-50), but that doesn’t mean neither Albania or the X350d are not as good those around it. While it may not necessarily be the most capable, the most affordable, or the most sensible 4X4 pickup, the Mercedes X-Class does have a certain style about it. And with its stonking V6 engine it’s got power too.

But, more important than all of that stuff. The X350d suffered the worst the weather and Mount Datji could throw at it and got me home in one piece.

Contact us

Drop us a line, let us know if you've found any bugs, want to write a story for us, or even just say G'day.
Please enter your name
Please enter a correct e-mail address
Please enter a comment
Thank you! Your message has been sent.
Something went wrong while submitting the form. Try again.

Share this article

Forward this page by e-mail or share it directly on social media.

Search this issue

Enter text in the search field below
Minimal length to search is 3 characters

Welcome to Unsealed 4X4

Are you hungry for the latest in 4X4 news, reviews and travel?

At Unsealed 4X4, we’ll give you up-to-date 4X4 news, reviews and how-to's to keep you in fine form.

Fullscreen