First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The modern habit of shielding our delicate eyes from jarring scenes of poverty with the use of anodyne allegorical Nivea cream is noteworthy but not important. Where people are rich, emissions standards and crash safety standards are rigorous, modern and enforced.
In the Global South – sorry – where people are generally poor and live in crappy conditions, automotive products are designed around affordability and automotive regulations that are weak and poorly enforced, if at all.
This means that cars developed for poorer countries are often unsellable in rich countries because they do not meet emissions and crash safety standards.
Usefully for us in South Africa, that global inequality is represented on our own roads. That’s because South Africa is a poor country, rotten with corruption, that happens to have a few super-wealthy enclaves with historical infrastructure that connects them. If you live in one of these, you might mistake this for a rich country.
As a result of our poor fuel quality and lack of direction on electric mobility, South African drivers do not have the biggest choice of cars available to them, but it is possible that they have one of the widest. After all, this is a country in which you can buy a Suzuki S-Presso or a Renault Kwid, neither of which would be allowed anywhere near a European showroom, as well as a Mercedes-AMG GLS 63.
A tycoon’s land yacht
We need to talk about the GLS 63, because obviously to many it represents everything that is wrong with the world. This is, after all, a gigantic, V8-powered, insanely luxurious seven-seater SUV with dimensions that challenge the USS Ronald Reagan for naval supremacy. A true tycoon’s land yacht, with all the toys associated, except – and I really think this is an oversight – the lack of a helipad.
The flipside of this grotesque expression of wealth and inequality is that the GLS 63 is, well, a giant V8-powered luxury seven-seater SUV. It is really rather lovely to live with.
The GLS is absolutely huge. All three rows accommodate adults comfortably, and a clever microphone system means that people speaking to front-row passengers from the rear seats have their voices piped through the front speaker so they need not yell.
It’s not that the GLS is a loud car to live with. Despite its gargantuan dimensions, it’s a slippery thing, and wind noise is well controlled. The AMG-fettled version I drove came shod in optional, properly pimping 23-inch (count ’em!) forged black wheels, which gave the car a Sea Point gangster vibe to it, but probably didn’t help road noise and allowed minor road imperfections to crash into the cabin, while the automatic suspension handled the bigger imperfections, as you would expect the “S-Class of SUVs” to do.
Fast off the mark
Being the AMG model, this car comes with a four-litre V8 good for 450kW, which is not far off what the South African grid lost when Eskom’s recently “completed” pride and joy Medupi exploded the other day. The car may be vast, but it’ll still crack 100km/h in just a shade over four seconds, the sensation of which can be fairly likened to sitting in the drawing room at Kensington Palace while the whole building is dropped off a cliff. It’s properly quick, this car, and does a pretty good job of masking its sheer weight when you need to turn the wheel, but truth be told, while the GLS 63 will devour a hot hatch at any traffic light showdown, the best way to drive it is to set the exhaust to “loud” (you can do that), stick all the settings into “Comfort” and just waft about the place listening to Mozart and the nine-speed gearbox does its job.
If you ever need the shunt to dispatch somebody who dares impede your stately progress, flexing the right foot will engage a bellowing, snorting furious warp drive and despatch Ford ST drivers and other automotive ordure.
Technology in spades
The GLS 63 is dripping technology, of course, and the operating manual must be like the Encyclopaedia Britannica and stands as a pretty magnificent family car for those who have it all and are willing to have more than R3-million less after buying one. There’s not a lot it can’t do and, somehow, losing the silly wheels and the worst of the look-at-me bling, it manages to look reasonably inoffensive while doing it.
If it was my money, I’d have a base model GLS on lots of flubbery rubber, but perhaps I’m not the target market.
Simplicity and lightness
What, in our unequal automotive landscape, might be the polar opposite of the GLS 63? Well, an affordable, light, front-wheel-drive hatchback, of course, and the one I’d like to talk about is the new Suzuki Swift, really just a face-lifted model, but a good reminder of the genuine joy that simplicity can bring.
How you measure luxury depends on who you are. For some, it’s measurable in dollars, for others in massaging seats and infrared cruise control or wheels like 1960s architectural futurism.
Another interpretation of luxury can be – and I am in this camp too – in simplicity and lightness.
Armed with a simple 1.2-litre naturally aspirated motor and a five-speed manual gearbox, the Suzuki Swift does nothing new on paper that hasn’t been done since the 1980s, but let me tell you how good this car is.
With 61kW underfoot, the Swift has less than one seventh of the power of the big AMG but, with its 800kg weight and immaculately designed manual box and pitch-perfect clutch progression, the little Suzuki feels light, chuckable and as agile as a mosquito. In the mix is light and lightning steering, a superb driving position and a little engine that likes to rev.
In an urban environment, the little Swift is a dream. See a corner, drop the clutch, blip the throttle, grab the gear and then give it all those few beans out of the corner. It is an absolute hoot to drive, a testament to Colin Chapman’s exhortation to his Lotus engineers to “add lightness” in everything they do. In its lightness, the Swift has a smallish boot and a small petrol tank, but it’ll seat four in reasonable comfort and safety. You can throw into the mix light fuel consumption, a 200,000km, five-year warranty and the apparently excellent service from Suzuki dealers, and for those of us not in the SARS-avoiding classes, the Swift is an absolute must for a test drive.
Both the GLS 63 and the Swift exhibit the nigh-on perfect execution of automotive planning. They are, of course, an absurd comparison – a R200,000 light runaround and a billionaire’s plaything – but they share a certain kind of excellence.
I’d love a GLS 63, don’t get me wrong, but owning a Swift would never feel like a bad thing.
The Suzuki Swift is up there with the GLS 63, the Porsche Taycan and Porsche 718 Spyder in the top five cars I’ve driven in 2021. It’s really that good. DM168
Alexander Parker is a journalist, author and consultant.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.