My throat is parched, my peripheral vision is going dark and to top it off, the soles have quite literally melted off my shoes. I always thought I could handle the heat, but this, this is something else. I guess its hot enough to make one of those YouTube videos where you crack an egg on the bonnet and it fries itself. Ive just finished walking over a couple of large sand dunes and Im now licking my lips, dying for a sip of water, plodding along in shoes that weigh thrice their usual weight thanks to all the sand that has seeped into them. As usual, the photographer has picked the farthest point he could find on the dune and wants the car to be placed there, all two-and-a-half tonnes of it. Fortunately though, the SUVs waiting at the bottom of the dune are maintaining perfect ambient temperatures in their respective cabins and are stocked with cold water. Oh, the joy of opening the door and having the temperature drop by half.
In case youre having trouble telling which is what, the one dressed in white is the Mercedes Benz GLS – essentially a GL now aligned with the German manufacturers range of saloons, while the grey one is Volvos XC90, a new incarnation of the plain Jane SUV that remained mellow-looking for years. And, of course, we are in Rajasthan, tooling around on a patch of sand and working this pair out in the hottest part of summer, trying to see if either of them will melt or survive the test. My phone sure seems to be suffering – it keeps flashing a warning that says too hot to operate camera. Who wouldve thought that would be the first casualty? The cars, however, dont seem the slightest bit bothered, even though theres heat haze rising off their bonnets, the horizon and everything in between. Or maybe its just my vision going blurry.
Mercedes has had the GLS around for a while, although formerly called the GL, and if theres one thing that has remained unchanged, its this cars massive proportions. Its over five metres long and is imposing in every possible way. With the massive panels, the fat slats on the grille and a big three-pointed star in the centre, it all looks and feels like the near two-and-a-half tonne weight that is stated on paper. The Volvo, on the other hand, looks superbly stylish. Its not small, its only a shade under five metres, but it manages to disguise its bulk rather well.
The modern design and the cool touches with various elements in the lamps and grille make it look appealing, while you can clearly tell the Merc has aged and looks rather bulky. Its the sort of difference between a traditional straight-fit pair of jeans as opposed to the new-age skinny ones. And judging by all the women who turned their heads and let a wow escape their lips, the skinny jeans, er, the XC90s design works well.
Inside the cabin, things are much better matched between the two. There is little to find fault with in the Mercs cabin. The soft man-made leather upholstery, the large central display, the wood inserts in the dash, the classic styling on the rotary knobs for the air con – they are all finished brilliantly and have a certain amount of classic charm about them. However, driving the GLS, especially if you are used to driving anything else, is a real challenge. There isnt a gear lever where it should be, and the functioning of the lights and the wipers is controlled using the same stalk. It sort of makes you look stupid and I doubt too many people shelling out close to a crore appreciate that sort of treatment. The simple solution, of course, is to have only Mercs in your garage and I suppose that is the master plan of ze Germans.
The Volvo, too, is brilliantly comfortable. It becomes quite apparent that something special (read design by Bentleys ex-interior design head) went into the making of this cabin. They have managed to pull off something rather amazing\: a cabin that feels more luxurious than the Mercs and is more stylish, too. The front seats can be heated or cooled, and can be extended for better under-thigh support, apart from having adjustable lumbar support and side bolsters. And that touchscreen that has replaced the 500-odd buttons that Volvo dashes used to come with earlier is simply stunning. Even the engine start/ stop knob and the drive mode selector stand out like pieces of art. What you do miss, though, is electric adjustment for the steering column. Both cars have reclining second row seats with dedicated climate control and also a third row of seats, in case you want your children to disappear from sight.
On these superbly paved Rajasthan highways, both these SUVs go about munching miles like they could do it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, without ever breaking a sweat. The Mercs 3.0-litre diesel motor dishes out 258 horsepower along with 620Nm of torque and works with a nine-speed automatic gearbox to deliver all that power to the all-wheel drive system. There is a distinct surge every time you put your right foot down, especially if the tacho needle happens to be hovering around the 2,000rpm mark. It still isnt the quickest gearbox, even in Sport, but it does deliver a wave of power that I appreciate. The suspension works well, too, but leaving it in Comfort seems like the right thing to do, despite the body roll and everything. The Volvo, despite its smaller 2.0-litre engine, manages to follow closely every step of the way. This is partly because it is lighter than the Merc and mostly because the Swedes have managed to squeeze an amazing 225 horses out of that tiny engine. Sure, it doesnt make as much torque – 470Nm is what you get – but the twin turbocharger setup along with the eight-speed auto box ensures seamless delivery of power. It is only when youre trying to overtake at triple-digit speeds that you feel pinched for power in the XC90, but then again, you dont get to do that often outside the superb road network of Rajasthan. The driving experience, trying to stay in sync with its styling, feels better in Dynamic, with the suspension stiffened slightly and the gearbox holding revs longer. You do miss paddle-shifters, though, pushing the engine close to the redline before every gear change. Body roll is better controlled in the XC90, although the suspension seems to run out of travel pretty quick and it thuds through potholes and over tall speed breakers.
What catches me out every time on these brilliant back roads are the steep corners, usually hidden behind a blind crest, that appear out of nowhere. Not a problem for this pair, though. The light but direct steering points the car in the correct direction, while the fat 275-section rubber lets out a squeal, but never loses grip. In case the corner tightens further, there are a host of electronics waiting to lend a helping hand as well. All said and done, though, the better body control on the Volvo does give it an edge over the GLS here. Where the GLS wins back some points is when you treat it to the rough stuff. Although both SUVs have an Off-road mode and height adjustable suspension, the GLS offers better clearance, visibility and alters gear ratios quite noticeably to aid off-road driving. It also has cameras all around to let you know whats around the car at all times, something that can be very useful in tight spots.
The Swedes and the Germans may be close geographically, but the design language theyve chosen with these two SUVs is as poles apart as it can be. While the GLS is as faultless as a Merc can be, it carries on with an old-world theme. There is little doubt that it has great ride quality and massive amounts of torque that make it a hoot to drive, but in these times of compact everything, it may be losing its appeal. The XC90, on the other hand, is a makeover you could hardly have anticipated from what essentially used to be a rather dull soccer mom-mobile. It feels fresh and looks crisp with a cabin worth a million bucks. The attention to detail simply overshadows the brilliance of the Mercs cabin, and that is no mean feat at all. There are bells and whistles aplenty in both, but the easier driving dynamics and general chicness of the XC90 makes us lean towards it just a little bit more. At least right now, in this sun-baked desert, it does. And oh, these ventilated seats with a cool breeze blowing up my... damn, thatll be all for now.