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Mercedes-Benz Actros vs Range Rover Sport - Duel!

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In the Range Rover Sport, we had the world’s best luxury sports utility vehicle, even if this one sipped diesel. And that meant nothing short of a Hummer H2 would have challenged it at our annual slushfest. Not that we didn’t try, but one of the dudes who has an H2 in Mumbai decided that it was raining too much for him to get his baby Hummer out. Poor sod. The regular beat of the said jet black H2 is from his posh home in Bandra, Mumbai to a posh club, a few km away at Juhu – and the thing is not allowed to play big-foot in traffic.
 
But as BSM regulars know, our slushfests normally have a minimum of two vehicles and we had to find a suitable foe to do battle with the mighty RR. As luck would have it, DaimlerChrysler called and asked us whether we would like to drive their brand new Actros. Some neurons transmitted with each other and we, rather calmly, asked whether they could send it to our top secret slushfest arena. That is why you see it splashing mud like a baby elephant in these pages. 

The Actros 4840K is not a baby elephant. It is bigger than the biggest elephant you can ever imagine. No photograph can do justice to the sheer girth of this machine. And did we tell you it is big? Some numbers will help you comprehend better. The Actros you see here has a 12,000cc engine that develops 394 bhp of power and over 185 kgm of torque. Its gross vehicle weight is 25,000 kg and its fuel tank can hold – hold your breath – 300 litres. You are pardoned if you thought those numbers belonged to a locomotive. 

The Zambesi Silver (what a name for a shade!) Range Rover Sport you see here is powered by a 2700cc turbodiesel V6 that delivers 187 bhp at 4000 rpm and 44 kgm of turning force as early as 1900 rpm onwards. Of course, it features permanent four-wheel drive, adaptive automatic six-speed gearbox with Steptronic, Command shift and high/low range. Like a good Range Rover, it has got Hill Descent Control (even the Actros has it!) and four-wheel electronic traction control.

In case you have any doubt who is the winner on paper, here goes the final nail in the coffin – the Telligent gear box of the Actros has 16 forward gears and two reverse, including the high and low ratio options. Should we rest our case?

Presence wise, our choice of competition for the RR Sport was hard to beat. The Actros just dwarfed the massive SUV. On our way to the slushfest location, I was driving our test Honda City and was stunned to see the sheer size of the Sport as seen in the rear view mirror. But the scale of things dramatically changed as the brilliant white tipper with a Mercedes star joined the convoy. 

Normally we would have laid out a slushfest PET course for our machines. By now you know that the contenders – a Rs 55-odd lakh tipper and a Rs 60 lakh-plus SUV were not normal and that meant a slightly modified course where the impetus was to learn to pilot the big truck and have some serious fun with the RR Sport. The course comprised a two-kilometre loop without a single tree in sight and enough slush to make a pig think twice about stepping into action. 

Let us take a closer look at the RR Sport. The clean, hewn-from-a-block-of-ice kind of look belies what’s underneath. This is not a soft-roader that you pussyfoot around central business districts of the world. Still, it features interiors that make you think that someone from Rolls-Royce was moonlighting on the RR Sport project. It is extremely well organised and the quality of materials is absolutely top notch – as in, the wood looks like real wood. The Brits were always good at creating plush cabins and at Land Rover they perfected the art when they created, arguably, the world’s first SUV as we know it today. Alpaca premium leather seats in ebony black and cherry wood trim in the test-car blended as if they were kissing cousins. And in case you are interested, the rear seat room is very impressive. 

The 2700cc common rail direct injection unit that powers the RR Sport, found under the hoods of some Jaguars too, is based on a graphite iron engine block. A variable nozzle turbo ensures economy as well as performance and the fuel feed system and engine mapping has been designed with rigorous off-road duty in mind.

Now that we know the contenders, let us get on with the three interesting challenges that we set up for them.   Gravel, water and slush
The first test was to drive the machines through an arrow straight but unruly bit of gravel. It had been raining heavily and the stretch of gravel had puddles big enough to be called ponds. The test also gave us a chance to get familiar with the Actros and the RR Sport in their very own environment. 

The RR Sport is a quick car despite its two-tonne bulk and diesel sipping manners, and it can manage 100 kph from standstill in 13 seconds flat. And it will do a clean 193 kph on tarmac. But our agenda involved gravel – lots of it. When you floor the throttle, the car gets into serious action without much drama and you know very well that it is trying its best to behave and not spin its wheels. Quick steering corrections (to avoid the boulders strategically placed by nature) let you sense the rear-biased split power delivery for a nanosecond before the car’s intelligent gearbox takes torque away from misbehaving wheels. Yes, that means you can get your car to behave like a rear-wheel driver if you so wish. One of the best braking systems in the business halts your proceedings without even a squeak as you slam the pedal – even in the middle of an 80 kph corner. I found the steering a tad alien and feel-less for an SUV with serious sport-roading potential. That said, there was no deviation from the intended course when confronted by puddles at speeds in excess of 100 kph. 

The RR Sport’s supercharged petrol powerpack would have impressed even more, but the smallish diesel cannot be blamed for lacking in performance. But what makes the RR Sport different from other SUVs that we have thrashed before is its near sublime ride quality. The car seems to have a separate brain to handle pitch and roll and the routine laws of motion. 

Given the space, we can talk at length about axle-load compensation and various other things associated with serious mining trucks. Instead we will tell you how successful we were at taming it. 

Fire up the Actros and you get vicious. From that height (ten feet off the ground?), you think you are the master of the universe and everything else around you as much lesser beings. That includes, ahem, the Range Rover too. It took us a while to master the Telligent gear shift. That involves a knob not dissimilar to the one you have beneath your office chair and playing around with a button embedded in that. So you change, de-clutch and accelerate. Simple? Like baking a cake for the very first time.

So what if I stalled the monster a few times. Once I got the hang of it, I was piloting the Actros with just a few drops of sweat rolling down my forehead. The test truck was not loaded and that meant being quick to shift through the box was a necessity. Once you get everything correct, the Actros hisses, grunts and starts trundling forward. Another thing that you have to get adjusted to is the driver’s seat, that has its very own suspension system. Every time the Actros hit a gutter I felt like a joker connected to a spring and hidden inside a box. Sure it is not a breeze to drive, but this is no fighter aircraft that needs special tuition. As long as you don’t try cornering it at speeds! Despite the fact that the power assisted steering steers two sets of front wheels, you need to really plan your U-turns with this one. Needless to say, the Actros gobbled up the gravel test as if it was a starter served at a seven-course dinner and hissed more in anticipation.   Grass, water and slush
Driving on wet grass patches requires a certain degree of ability (ask our two-wheeler slushfest mates), since invariably there will be stagnant water beneath the surface, which can throw traction logarithms out of the window. But as we found out, the RR Sport is an exception to the rule. I have never driven a four-wheel drive machine so fast without inciting unruly behaviour. The car feels perfectly composed at most speeds and correcting its progress with short dabs of steering comes naturally. You see, there are cars that feel all right on slushy grass but you end up fighting with them most of the time. The RR Sport, instead, teams up with you and conquers the terrain with ease. The diesel engine never lacks low end grunt and is a great accomplice to have when you are bent on driving fast on terrain like this. Sure, the technology overload has made driving on such conditions pretty easy, but the makers of this car have ensured that you still feel proud of your ability to handle muck. 

The grassland did not make any difference to the Actros. Actually we stopped driving it, fearing severe environment damage. You see, we have been enjoying this location for almost a decade now, and I didn’t want the local authorities to step in and say, ‘Hey thanks for digging up the land using that tipper of yours, now we will sow some seeds and harvest next year.’ That said, we were a bit disappointed that the truck didn’t come loaded – in that case we could have tried the exceptionally capable low-ratios of the Telligent box.

Slush, slush and slush
This is that stretch of the slushfest location that we use to severely test our 4x4 machines and we had to do some serious thinking before we subjected this year’s participants to it. For one, the RR Sport is not another mud-plugger – it costs a lot of money and we didn’t want to abuse it. At the same time, it came wearing the best SUV in the world tag and it would be a terrible shame not to subject it to some serious off-roading. And boy, did the RR Sport live up to the legend.

The water was axle-deep and the overgrown grass ensured that we couldn’t see where we were treading. We attempted the first run with the default all-wheel drive mode and hoped against odds that the car made it. It was not the four-wheel drive system that we were worried about, but it was the electronics! We didn’t want the traction control system to go berserk, fail, and beach the car in the middle of a swamp... which meant carrying a decent speed on the approach.

Our fears were just what they were. The RR Sport entered the swamp at a good enough clip to wade through the watery stretch (quite a sight it would have been, as it sent birds scattering in all directions) in a hurry. As the muck thickened there was a serious drop in power but the momentum was good enough to take it through without stalling. Towards the end of the stretch the wheels really grappled for traction and there was a nanosecond of hesitation from the diesel motor, prompting some help in the form of animated steering inputs. That did the trick and the RR Sport emerged out of the muck victorious. We repeated the runs and found that more than the car, it was the driver that needed training. Gentle throttle inputs, timely corrections and bingo, the Range Rover was laughing its way through. 

DaimlerChrysler had sent an experienced test driver with the Actros and he accompanied me as I took the RR Sport for another run. Big mistake – he decided, (and correctly so) that it may be a risky idea to run the truck on the swamp since it didn’t have power going to the front wheels. Quite an anti-climax to our story, but something that couldn’t be avoided. 

So the truck or the car? Well, both, if I owned a mine somewhere in the middle of nowhere – I would happily drive the RR Sport to the location and then spend a day transporting gold or iron ore in the Actros. Both promise certain virtues and deliver brilliantly. The Actros is a true workhorse that is easy to live with (they last over twenty years in a mine without serious maintenance!), while the RR Sport is a genuine luxury car with great off-road cred. Both are masters of the game in their very own way and provided us with a brilliant day of mud-plugging. Let  BSM traditions  continue!