There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as treading the raw terrain of Corbett National Park, the most beautiful forest in the country, in search of its magnificent wildlife. The early morning breeze that hits you in the face with its damp jungle aroma, rays that insist on peeking through the dense canopy and casting tiny pools of sunlight on the rugged forest floor, and a lingering sense of a big cat presence round every corner–it’s every bit a nature lover’s dream. How about doing it in a luxury SUV? That’s exactly the test we decided to put the Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 4MATIC through. But first, we had to get there.
The drive from Delhi to Corbett is over 260km of featureless roadway. A crossover between its GL-category SUVs and the C-Class sedans, the Mercedes- Benz GLC 300 had to deal with both extremes on the way– silken smooth national highways and small-town roads with potholes the size of lunar craters. The five dynamic drive modes of the car made a huge difference. Each mode comes with its own setting of the engine, transmission, steering and suspension. Now, I have always driven a manual transmission on Indian roads so I am a bit of a control freak. Driving a nine-speed automatic over six hours took away my job of switching gears and gave me a terrible itch to control something else about the car. (Although there is a paddle switch available, just in case.) Hence, I kept switching between the modes whenever the road transformed drastically.
The ‘comfort’ mode let me glide through busy roads without effort. This mode puts in what feels like three mattresses between you and the controls, and you and the road. Tight corners feel like falling on to a wall of velvet. But this also produces a certain lag when you’re trying to accelerate rapidly. Hence, I call this the babysitting mode– the car takes care of you like it knows better. (It probably does.) In fact, the one or two times I failed to spot a speed breaker and brake in time, the car’s suspension seemed to iron it out for me. (Except the stretch from Moradabad to Kashipur, where the road has disappeared and the potholes could swallow a man whole. Here, I switched to the discreetly placed off-road mode.)
But what happens when you want to do a sharp, quick overtake on the highway? In the Sport and Sport+ modes, the engine truly unleashes itself. The cushioning is not entirely gone, but it’s significantly reduced from the steering and the acceleration, and you can feel the engine that produces a maximum torque of 370Nm. Flooring the accelerator then slams you back into the seat, the car breezing to 100kmph without so much as a sigh. Its 1,991cc petrol engine that delivers 245bhp goes from 0 to 100 kmph in an astounding 6.5 seconds. By the time you hit 150kmph, the engine begins humming its favourite tune, almost callously. No emphatic roars, just a silent arrogance that slices through traffic like a hot knife through butter. It was only the blurry eucalyptus trees on both sides and the bugs that smashed to a pulp on the windscreen that suggested how fast we were really going.
The sheer number of controls on the central panel and around the wheel can make the interior look like the cockpit of a jet. But the ivory and brown palette of the spacious interiors lends it a warm, cosy feeling. Add electronically adjustable seats which memorise four sets of settings for different drivers (or moods?) and we’ve got ourselves a lounge. In fact, Shiv and I were having so much fun cruising that we decided to put on the ultimate Indian road trip song, Dil Chahta Hai, to commemorate the ride. It looked like we’d make it to Corbett in just four and a half hours when we decided to check the navigation and realised we had missed a turn. And so, as every interesting road trip goes, we ended up on an unknown detour through a small town. The proximity sensors of the car worked wonders when it came to tight traffic jams and in avoiding pedestrians who couldn’t help staring at a Mercedes-Benz SUV trying to dissect village traffic. The sensors also detected bushes and pavements while reversing and parking, which made them integral to maintaining the car’s picture-perfect finish.
By noon, we made it to Aahana resort near the Bijrani zone of Corbett. In this 12-acre property, Victorian-style architecture is supplemented with wood-and-stone room interiors interspersed with breathtaking wildlife photographs. Their sumptuous buffet and array of drinks turned out to be the perfect way to recharge after the six-hour-long drive.
Next morning, we headed to the Sitavani route, towards Patkot village. This nearly 25-km road goes right through the wilderness of Corbett and is open to private vehicles. Beautiful, tall sal trees line up on both sides and form a green canopy overhead. As I wished for an open vehicle, Shiv remembered the sunroof. Oh, the sunroof! A click of a button rolled it back, two layers sliding off elegantly to give us a peek into the crystal-clear blue sky dissected by the rain-washed green.
One of the best things about the jungle is its curious mix of sounds. So, for once, we did not need the ambient sound-blocking of the car. The music system was switched off, so was the AC; the windows were rolled down. The hum of the engine was so low that the car was quieter than the jeeps built for safaris, letting in the birdsongs and the clamour of crickets that are so integral to the jungle experience.
The car turned like a dream on the winding roads of the jungle and splashed river water with aplomb. In cruise mode, we ran into an elephant on its evening stroll and a tractor. As we stopped to take pictures of the tusker, it swivelled around and raised its trunk in greeting, appearing spectacularly scaled down in the rear-view mirror. The farm hand driving the tractor, on the other hand, wasn’t so pleased having to wriggle his way out of a sticky spot. Coming back to the chaos of Ramnagar’s streets, we realised where the real jungle lay.
Besides arranging safaris into the wild, Aahana has a spa offering ayurveda treatments, and a host of recreational activities. A friendly bout of basketball later, we headed out on a safari into the Jhirna zone, one of the two jungle areas open to tourists during the off-season. We had no luck with the big cats but sighted a sambar deer pair, herds of chital, a jackal in the middle of an afternoon nap, and some wonderful birds including the streak-throated woodpecker and oriental pied hornbill. As much as I enjoyed the jeep safari, a nagging sense of longing kept clawing at me en route. You can’t keep a petrol-head on the back seat for long.
The next morning, as the sun rose over the forest, I got back behind the wheel adorned with the Merc star. “Right as rain,” crooned Adele on the stereo. I couldn’t have put it better myself.