Surviving Albania in a Mercedes-Benz X-Class

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Image: Constantin Iandolino

The Mercedes-Benz X-Class is facing some tough and uncertain times. Calls are made for the bakkie to be cut from the automaker’s line-up, and Mercedes itself, behind closed doors, is considering the thought of doing just that.

A reasonable thought to entertain? Maybe, but the bakkie is in a wilderness of uncertainty that it simply has to come out of.

Hence why Mercedes-Benz International invited media representatives to Albania to drive the X-Class V6 through one of Europe’s last untouched wildernesses. But Albania? Does anything even happen there? Well, apart from primitive agricultural methods and the stereotypical locals roaming the streets, not much.

But off we went to put the X-Class through some of the most grueling and harshest conditions it will probably ever encounter.

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Image: Constantin Iandolino

Albania, Europe’s stepchild

Albania can probably be described as Europe’s stepchild. This Eastern European country has changed hands numerous times over the years, moving from Greek ownership to the Romans, and somewhere in between, they were under Russian control, too! At one point the country sought independence, but after three years that idea also went bust.

Its capital, Tirana, is the economic hub from where everything happens, but judging from what you see from the airplane window, you would not think it. Farms, widespread empty lands, and solitary houses overwhelm your sight from above. And once on the ground, you get an even greater impression of just how tough things are here. Tirana’s city center and the surrounding farms are literally worlds apart and it was the latter that would be our proving grounds over the next couple of days.

The itinerary was simple: explore the mountain range East of Tirana, spend one night in the wilderness camping, head back and sleep at the hotel on day two, and get on the flight back home on day three. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Well…

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Image: Charlen Raymond

Albania, wild and free

Mercedes-Benz availed its X-Class V6 for the three-day trip. The bakkies, available in Progressive and Power trims, were ready and waiting for the adventure to begin, but so were we! After a quick debrief and speedy acquaintances, it’s time to go. It’s strange at first driving on the opposite side of the road at first – given it’s been more than 12 months since my last left-hand experience – but it quickly turned into second nature navigating through the locals’ lawlessness on the road.

The X-Classes, all fitted with the automaker’s 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, soon turned off onto a dirt backroad. It’s a bad stretch of tarmac that has more potholes than you could ever imagine! But we push through; passing smallholdings, dodging herds of cattle, crossing iffy-looking bridges, and trying to avoid scooter riders who gave no hoot about road safety nor personal safety!

These people! They literally have no chill!

Finally, we reached our lunch spot next to the dam that provides Tirana and the surrounding towns with water. We’re literally in a valley surrounded by mountains and rocks that look as if they could fall at any moment. it’s a bit chilly down here, but before it could really get cold we’re in the bakkies and back on the road. We continue to scale the mountain at a leisurely pace. Not too fast, because construction workers are rebuilding the road to bring it up to safer standards. Oh, did I not mention? Most of Albania’s roads are in poor condition and you’ll not find it otherwise.

Still we scale, until moments after our descent the heavens open up. We were not ready for this!

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Image: Constantin Iandolino

Albania, wet and wild

The weather forecast did predict rainfall, but 7mm as opposed to the 50mm we are experiencing! Now it’s all about navigating the X-Class through muddy water, making way for oncoming traffic in one-way gravel roads, and staying close – but not too close – to the bakkie in front.

The X-Class does allow for its 4×4 system to be operated on the fly so, with the flick of a switch, we engage 4High. To a degree this allows for a greater grip in the slippery conditions, but the trick is to maintain momentum instead of building up a lot of speed. It’s a slow progression and going around bends with mudslides a few meters away from you is not the most comforting thought. But we continue, making our way around bends.

At times you get tempted to exploit the 3.0-litre engine’s 190kW and 550Nm of torque, but too much power could send you off the drop. And if you should put a wheel wrong, you might not be alive to talk about it when the bakkie comes to a standstill. The thoughts run through your mind as contemplate the extremes and you know that you are responsible for you and your driving partner’s lives. We were never ready for this. We were never ready for Albania to show its wild side. We expected to see snakes and other creatures that could possibly bring out the medical kit, but not this.

After crossing another bridge and thunder rumbling above as the rain loosens the sandbanks next to the bakkies, the call is made to turn around. We’re going back to Tirana. What?!

We were in the mountains for almost five hours! It’s just after 18h00! Come on, guys!?

But this is the right call and we’re about to hightail it out of here.

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Image: Constantin Iandolino

Sh*t, mind the rocks!

The convoy of six X-Classes begins the big trek back to Tirana. The wipers are in the highest setting as we try to clear the windscreen for the best vision possible. Hail and rain beat down on the vehicles as we navigate through the dark forest, driving through pools of water, and scaling arduous rocks. The X-Class does have proper ground clearance of 222mm, which gives drivers enough confidene to scale the peskiest of rocks. The tyres, standard units fitted to 18-inch rims, had no choice but to withstand what the mountain threw at them.

The longer we drove, the harsher the conditions became. Suddenly, the second bakkie in the convoy slams on its brakes! To its right, two massive rocks came rolling down the mountain. One rock hit the front bumper and destroys it, while the other hit the passenger door and leaving a massive hole in it. The scariest thought: it those rocks were any bigger, it would have sent the X-Class down the slope to its left.

Nah, we can’t hang around here. The group drives a bit faster until finally reaching the dam. It’s the final push before we’re through and out of harm’s way, but not yet. As we’re driving on the new road the construction team is building, underneath the overhangs, a big rock is suddenly washed down from above. It lands between our X-Class and the pace vehicle, leaving a massive splash. Again, avoiding action had to be taken, but the group pulls through.

Bar the one X-Class sustaining damage with the mudslide, the rest of the convoy got out clean.

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Image: Constantin Iandolino

You did well, Albania

We made it through the treacherous conditions and reach civilisation. Though we didn’t cover that much distance, off-roading in the mountains often requires a lot of time for short distances. It was no different in Albania, but the experience will stick around for quite a while.

The X-Class proved itself a capable off-roader and did not put a single tyre wrong. It dealt with the bad weather conditions and offered ample comfort over the shaky terrain. And when you sit back and think about what had transpired, you can’t help but think that the X-Class was judged even before it had a real chance of proving itself. It’s based on the Nissan Navara, but it makes a case for itself in these trying times. And powered by Merc’s proven 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine, the bakkie can hold its own when the chips are down.

Albania may fall short in many regards and its people may pull at the shortest end of the economy, but the environment is of the best in the world. An almost-forgotten country brought new life to a bakkie most want to forget.

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Image: Constantin Iandolino