Across Scotland in a G-Class (the hard way)

How hard can it be to cover the 65 miles from the Cromarty Firth to Ullapool? Use the A9 and A835 and you should knock it off in about an hour and a half without troubling any speed cameras. So why have two days been allocated for this trip? Simple, really: we won't be touching a single piece of open public road.

G Wagen actually off-roading? Whatever next?!
G Wagen actually off-roading? Whatever next?!
The plan has been 18 months in the making and has required the permission and help of 11 landowners, as well as a bit of help from the Scottish government. Not your average green lane excursion, then, and to add to the sense of adventure we're using a Mercedes G-Class.

As you'll probably know the artist formerly known as the G-Wagen has been around since 1979 and we have the latest G350d model here, complete with 245hp 3.0-litre V6 diesel and seven-speed auto. To help when the tracks turn into bogs, the Mercedes has three locking differentials, a low-ratio transfer 'box and Atturo Trail Blade tyres. There's also 442lb ft of torque from 1,600rpm and, aside from the optional paint, heated steering wheel and sunroof, the only other change to this £104,000 SUV is the removal of the sidesteps to aid ground clearance.

Ascending difficulty
That's the car, so what about the route? It starts on the rocky shore of the Cromarty Firth, complete with sleeping oil rigs in the background. From here, it's across fields, under the A9 and on to the first of many forest tracks. Our initial goal is the Fyrish Monument that we can see on top of a nearby hill.

GLE and GLS also tagged along for the ride
GLE and GLS also tagged along for the ride
The route up is relatively easy and our convoy of 12 Mercedes SUVs, including GLE and GLS but mostly G-Classes, is unstressed. A quick stop here so the local dog walkers can wonder what we're up to and then it starts to get much harder. A very steep descent requires low ratio and a locked centre diff, which isolates the ESP and ABS to provide more traction when these systems might otherwise hinder progress.

Unlike the GLE and GLS, the Gelandewagen doesn't have nearly as many sophisticated electronics to keep it moving forward in a controlled manner. It doesn't need them, either, as throughout our whole 12-hour-a-day stints it never once scrabbled for grip. It also helped that the chunky tyres were running lower pressures than would be possible on normal roads, to broaden their foot print and spread the 2.6-tonne weight of the Mercedes more widely.

Bog standard
Dropping down into the glens, the freezing cold at the Fyrish Monument gave way to milder temperatures, but this also meant wetter conditions. Deep ruts, standing water and boggy stretches offered the first real tests for the G350d and it came out muddy but unbowed. The ground clearance of 235mm was sufficient to avoid damage to the underside of car, while bash plates protected the sump and fuel tank.

Side steps removed to boost ground clearance
Side steps removed to boost ground clearance
After a spot of lunch beside a loch, it was off towards our evening destination, which was the Alladale Wilderness Reserve. The estate's owner, Paul Lister, helped arrange this trip and he's a leading exponent of restoring the Highland region to its original appearance. This has involved planting 800,000 indigenous species of trees and encouraging wildlife such as red squirrels, pine martens and wild boar. His plans go even further, though, as he wants to reintroduce wolves and bears to the environment to control the expanding deer population.

The next morning, we set off early to beat the weather that's forecast the first heavy snow of the Scottish winter. Driving out of Alladale, we headed on to a section of tarmac road that felt alien after the previous day's tracks. Closed to the public, it offered the perfect opportunity for a bit of competitive driving in the form of a regularity trial.

Regularity as clockwork
With a target average speed of 18mph, co-driver Matt Prior from Autocar and I set a reasonably brisk pace to compensate for the slower sections. We didn't know where the finish line was going to be, but nearly three miles later we crossed it and were back onto unmade lanes. Thankfully, PH and Autocar honour was upheld and we beat the other 11 cars to claim first place.

35 years old it may be, but it's still mega out here
35 years old it may be, but it's still mega out here
Slower progress ensued and then we came to the biggest, sloppiest bog you're likely to see. If one of us had tried to stand in this mire, we'd still be getting pulled out now. Luckily, we had sand ladders and waffle boards to help spread out the weight of the cars. Even so, it required low-ratio, locked diffs and a very gentle touch on the throttle and steering to guide the G-Class through. It doesn't have the best turning circle in the world, but it beats a Land Rover Defender 110's and the Mercedes eased across this obstacle in a manner that defies its weight.

After that, we spent the rest of the day picking a path through jagged rocks that would shred the tyres. This goes a long way to explaining why it took two long days to cover 65 miles from east to west coasts, but every minute was enjoyable. The level of concentration required to keep the G-Class moving in the right direction is just as absorbing as driving on a track day. Different disciplines, but the same sense of satisfaction.

Rolling into Ullapool as night closed in, we tip-toed over the local golf course to dip our tyres in the west coast's water. Knackered, yes, but also with a rejuvenated respect for the off-road ability of a vehicle more recently associated with urban posing than the job it was built for. And can still perform.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (57) Join the discussion on the forum

  • richs2891 15 Nov 2016

    Would love to have been invited to do this.
    Some fantastic scenery around there

  • Osinjak 15 Nov 2016

    £104,000? Utterly ridiculous.

  • S10GTA 15 Nov 2016

    Very cool

  • Schermerhorn 15 Nov 2016

    Osinjak said:
    £104,000? Utterly ridiculous.
    If people are ready to pay......

  • FN2TypeR 15 Nov 2016

    Osinjak said:
    £104,000? Utterly ridiculous.
    True, but it is still awesome!

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