Ultimate road trip test: Jozi to Cape Town

A road trip: an adventure that involves a journey by car. For the 2017 Leisure Wheels Adventure, we took a bit of a road trip… 16 vehicles, from Johannesburg to Cape Town, via a variety of routes, driving nearly 1 700km. And then, to round it off, we headed back to Gauteng in a train. This is what happened.

Allen Toussaint’s On your way down fills the luxurious cabin like Marilyn Monroe used to fill up a low-cut evening dress. Fully, completely, beautifully, the Bang & Olufsen surround sound system creating the effect that we’re sitting in the front row of a live Toussaint performance. The leather-clad M Sport seats hug you in all the right places. The three-spoke steering wheel is perfectly weighted. The suspension, hinged on massive 21-inch wheels riding on ultra-low profile performance tyres, sticks to the road like a half-eaten lollipop sticks to the carpet of your car. And then there’s the engine. The 423kW and 750Nm twin-turbo V8 engine. It can catapult this two-ton behemoth from 0–100km/h in just over four seconds. And it has the sound effects to match.

Blaarb-crackle-blaarb-crackle-blaarb! With an overrun snap, crackle and pop, the eight-speed automatic ‘box snaps the next gear. The front windows are open, the air-conditioning switched off. The V8’s tune reverberates off the high cliffs surrounding us near the town of Oudtshoorn, egging us on. Thank goodness for Allen’s cool and calm blues, we had purposefully skipped past ACDC’s excitable Thunderstruck for this section. All this power does corrupt. It’s a bit like a drug: once you’ve experienced the full shove, sprinting from 0–100km/h, you need more, and more. Monroe in a figure-hugging evening dress springs to mind again. Wait, we’ve got to get that Marilyn picture out of our heads. Focus, focus… oh yes, we were busy elaborating about driving an intoxicatingly brilliant high performance SUV on a mountain pass. But there’s much more to this story. About 1 700km more, in fact.

We were on a road trip between Joburg and Cape Town. This year’s Leisure Wheels Adventure took on a new twist: first, a 1 700km drive over three days, on both main routes and some lesser-known B-roads. Then, a two-day journey back to Jozi on the famous Blue Train. So ‘road tripping’ was our focus for this year’s adventure. And we had amassed 16 vehicles to tackle the open road. They included a crossover, compact SUVs, medium SUVs, large SUVs, double cab bakkies and three high performance SUVs. Before we get to the vehicles, a bit more information about the route…

A little bit of this and that
Driving on the main N1 drag between Jozi and the Mother City takes around 12 hours if you work in a few stops along the way. This 1 450km route may be the most obvious one to take, but it’s certainly not the most interesting. After all, the N1 is supposed to be efficient, not exciting. So we came up with some detours, taking in lesser-driven towns, roads, passes and lunch stops along the way. The trip started off on a Sunday morning at the Gras-mere Engen 1 Stop South. After a breakfast, and with radios fitted to all the vehicles, the group departed for Kroonstad, and the turn-off to Steynsrus and the R76. At the Wonderkop Train Station, situated next to the R76, the car company representatives had their first taste of gravel for the trip: a short gravel detour back to the N1, with a drive-quiz to complete.

Back on the N1, the 16 vehicles continued south to Gariep Dam, and the snazzy De Stijl Hotel, perched upon a hill overlooking the impressively full Gariep Dam. Day one’s driving distance totalled about 615km. The next morning the vehicles continued, in their own time, to the nearby town of Colesberg. Just after the town they hooked a left on the main N9, heading in the direction of Middelburg. It must be said that, even though there may not have been so many corners on this stretch, it was a rather scenic section. The group swept past Middelburg, then Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen and arrived in the three-horse town of Willowmore for lunch. Lamb pie and chips proved to be the popular choice at the quaint little Kapoet Restaurant.

After lunch and an impromptu donkey cart outing – the group departed for the town of Klaarstroom and the Meiringspoort Pass via a dirt road. On this beautiful stretch of road we had our first drama: both the VW Touareg and the Mercedes-Benz GLE 43 AMG picked up punctures. The puncture on the Touareg’s tyre proved fixable. The Merc’s low-profile tyre, less so. We had no option but to return to Willowmore with the Benz, continuing on the dirt road with a Marie Biscuit spare wheel would have been foolhardy. If we had another puncture, the next step would have been to call Mercedes-Benz’s call centre to come and collect the AMG on a flatbed. And that would not have been cool. In Willowmore, we arrived at the town’s biggest filling station with one Mercedes wheel and tyre. A quick inspection revealed that there would be no plugging or saving the high-performance low-profile tyre, and a 265/40 R21 tyre was nowhere to be found in this small establishment, of course.

So we bypassed the dirt road and drove the AMG the long way round on tar to Klaarstroom. We followed the same route with the BMW X6 M, which had even lower profile tyres. Just in case. Finally, we arrived at the Surval Boutique Olive Estate near Oudtshoorn. It had proven to be an interesting 650km of driving.
The last day was a 430km dash all the way to Cape Town and the Portswood Hotel at the V&A Waterfront. There were no fixed routes for the day, so everyone took the route they preferred… some headed to Cape Town via Laingsburg, others made their way to Worcester and then to the hotel, while some aimed further south, taking in Swellendam along the way.

By late afternoon, everyone had arrived at the hotel. We had covered almost 1 700km over the three days and there were many stories to tell around the dinner table that evening. That was our road trip, done and dusted. Early the next morning we boarded the Blue Train, heading back to Jozi over two days. That would prove to be an adventure all by itself. Read more about the R20 000-per person luxury train at the end of this feature. Time to talk more road tripping first. And the respective segments of vehicles.

The crossover
We had only one crossover on this trip. The little Suzuki Vitara is a funky little crossover with a cool paint job, a cool and practical interior – and a very cool asking price. The Vitara is available with either front-wheel drive or Suzuki’s Allgrip permanent AWD system. Most customers will opt for 2WD only; they simply want a cool little family car that can handle some gravel and look the off-road part.

The compact SUVs
Here we had three players: the popular Hyundai Tucson, the quirky but cool Kia Sportage, and the big-on-value Mahindra XUV500. All three compact SUVs tick a lot of ‘yes please!’ boxes. This segment represents a popular option for sedan drivers who are looking to buy into the more practical (and fashionable) SUV segment. All three of these models feature car-like rides and very reasonable levels of refinement.

The medium SUVs
This is the most popular SUV segment by far. The Toyota Fortuner range recorded 1 312 unit sales in March. The Ford Everest managed 577 units in the same period. Based on tough bakkie underpinnings, both the Fortuner and Everest offer a more hardy rough-road option than the road-biased compact SUV brigade. Even the 4×2 Fortuner and Everest models, armed with a rear differential lock, can handle tough gravel road conditions and a little bit of dongas and ditches better than the compact SUV 4×4s. However, this is a long-distance driving test, on reasonably good tar and gravel roads. So, would the ladder-frame underpinnings count against the Fortuner and Everest over 1 700km?

The double cab bakkies
These days, double cab bakkies are as popular as free cold beer at a rugby game. In recent times, bakkies have evolved from no-nonsense workhorses to luxurious, comfortable and (dare we say it) refined daily runners-weekend adventure vehicle. So we had to include a few examples of the double cab species here, too. They were the well-proven Isuzu KB300 Dteq 4×4, the big on savings JMC Vigus 2.2TDCi 4×4, the new Mitsubishi Triton 2.4Di-D 4×4 and the recently facelifted Mazda BT50 3.2TDCi, now no longer manufactured in Pretoria but in Thailand.

The luxury SUVs
On the lah-di-dah side of the coin are the luxury, high-end SUVs. The ones that retail for the price of a cool flat, and that come with all the bells and whistles, power and safety. In this line-up we have the 2016 SA Car of the Year, the innovative Volvo XC90. Volkswagen’s solid VW Touareg 3.0TDI and the suave Audi Q7 3.0TDI completed the three car line-up. With retail prices in the R1 million ballpark, these vehicles represent the upper crust of the SUV market. And it’s quite a popular crust, too, judging by the sales numbers.

The sporty SUVs
Sometimes enough is just not, well, enough. Sometimes you need more, and more, and more. And this is where this segment fits in: the we-don’t-give-a-damn-about-the-fuel-price, the mine-is-bigger-than-yours, the when-in-doubt-floor-it brigade. All three of the SUVs in this segment fall into that brigade. The newest model is the Mercedes-Benz GLE 43 AMG, or as some of us referred to it, the GLE AMG Lite. The 43 is powered by a twin-turbo V6 petrol engine, and slots in below the mad-cap GLE 63 AMG, with its turbocharged V8 engine. Not that it is a mobile chicane by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, the blown V6 delivers a handy 270kW and 520Nm.

It gets all the AMG garnish, too. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is not new, but it remains a mighty horizon hunter. The naturally aspirated 6.4-litre Hemi V8 delivers 344kW and 624Nm of torque. It has all the drama and sound effects a real driver’s car needs on its résumé. And then there’s the BMW X6 M. With its twin-turbocharged V8 engine that pumps out 423kW and 750Nm, the two-ton M seems ridiculously overpowered. That’s because it probably is. But is it just a lumpy SUV with a big engine, or is it the real ‘M’ deal, with the handling, the brakes and the feel of a proper performance vehicle? Let the road trip commence.

Photos: GG van Rooyen and Deon van der Walt