Test drive: Mercedes-Benz Zetros, Actros & Unimog
James Morgan joins Mercedes-Benz to test its off-road line-up across 18km of the UAE's toughest desert
The Middle Eastern wilderness is no place for the faint of heart. With summertime temperatures topping 50°C and barren expanses that stretch for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, it takes a tough individual to feel at home in the region’s vast sandpit.
With this in mind, I felt as nervous as I did excited when the folks at Mercedes-Benz invited me to join them on a desert test drive. Four trucks, a backup GL Class, and a few shovels were all we had to take us through 18km of the UAE’s toughest terrain. If the German automaker hadn’t offered assurances that its crack team of instructors would be accompanying us on the trek, I might well have developed a mystery ailment at the last minute.
Valour intact, I headed towards Bab Al Shams to see what all the fuss was about. From there, the Mercedes-Benz team drove me out to a desert camp, which had been hosting a selection of the firm’s regional customers.
Flanking this temporary outpost were four of Mercedes-Benz’s flagship commercial vehicles: a pair of Zetros units, an Actros tractor head, and a Unimog. This was shaping up to be an entertaining morning.
The instructors informed me that the difficulty of the terrain would increase over the course of the trail. The opening segment had been selected to ease us into the drive. Given the choice between an automatic and a manual Zetros, therefore, I opted for the latter. I thought it best to give myself at least a fighting chance during the latter stages of the trek.
The Zetros’ cab is nice and roomy, and the truck’s iconic L-shaped nose doesn’t detract from the driver’s
visibility. The unit features a nine-speed, manual transmission system (including one crawler gear), and a GF 395 Kerasinter clutch. Even with my bulky safety boots, it was simple enough to find the biting point.
It’s important to note that in contrast to its road-faring cousins, the Zetros is built exclusively for off-highway use. Indeed, many of these models are sold for military applications, so it’s hardly surprising that comfort represents a core pillar of the truck’s design. As one instructor put it, this is the Mercedes-Benz S Class of off-road vehicles.
A plethora of features signpost the model’s rough-terrain pedigree, not least the vehicle’s cab configuration. In the Zetros, the operator is positioned a foot or so back from the front axle to deliver a smooth off-road ride.
The driver’s seat rests approximately half-way between the rear of the cab and the front of its L-shaped nose, meaning that the person behind the wheel isn’t catapulted into the air every time the front tyres meet a spot of camel grass.
The machine’s 7.7-litre, 370 hp engine offered sufficient pull for us to make a brisk start even in loose sand, and the manual-shift gearbox didn’t pose too much of a challenge in terms of upper-body strength.
The Zetros also sports a selection of diff locks, but I decided to concentrate on keeping the truck’s wheels facing downwards; the complexities, I left to my co-pilot.
I soon realised that I shouldn’t stop needlessly, and never harshly. I was a little trigger-happy with the brake on several occasions, and pulling away after I’d dug the front axle a foot into the sand was easier said than done. In the realm of desert truck driving, momentum is your ally and maintaining it can mean the difference between passing smoothly over a dune and sliding excruciatingly back from whence you came.
Luckily, it didn’t take long to figure out that the Zetros’ manual transmission was pretty adept at getting me almost everywhere in fourth or fifth gear. I felt my confidence swelling. By the time I’d surmounted another five-or-so dunes without incident, I was convinced of my abilities as a truck-driving Sir Wilfred Thesiger.
No incline was too steep. No descent too temperamental. Nothing could stand in my way – until, inevitably, it did.
I clumsily adjusted the steering wheel during the downwards portion of a dune crossing, and to my slowly-unfolding horror, the offside front axle wedged itself neatly into the sand.
No sooner had it dawned on me that I’d beached a Mercedes-Benz Zetros on its nose, than I heard a firm but polite voice in my right ear, say: “I think that I’d better take over.”
I sheepishly dismounted the cab – not as simple as it sounds when the steps point roughly towards the horizon – and my patient instructor expertly removed the vehicle from its sand trap. Afraid that I’d caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, I asked whether the truck was still in working order. He just laughed my question off, jovially pointing out that it would take more than the likes of me to destroy a Zetros.
Sheepishly, I shuffled over to its automatic sibling, which proved to be just the thing to restore my dented confidence. When the gearbox takes care of itself, amateur drivers like me can concentrate on the path ahead – and, of course, on not crashing the truck.
Following the mostly-enjoyable-but-ultimately-humbling Zetros portion of the journey, I hopped into the Mercedes-Benz Unimog. This was by far the smallest of the four trucks on offer, and felt much nimbler than its muscle-bound counterparts.
The off-road utility vehicle featured the German automaker’s electronic pneumatic shift (EPS) gearbox; a system whereby the driver must select his or her next gear prior to shifting up. At first, this seemed counterintuitive, but after approximately five minutes of familiarisation, I started to unconsciously plan ahead – a distinct advantage in the sand.
Personally, this was my favourite vehicle of the four in terms of the core driving experience. It felt more akin to a generously-proportioned pickup than it did a hauler, and being lower to the ground lent a feeling of added stability.
Indeed, when the GL Class support vehicle found itself stranded in the sand (at least it wasn’t just me), it was the Unimog that was chosen to free it. With applications that range from desert driving to agricultural use to firefighting, this really is the Swiss Army knife of the Mercedes Benz fleet.
For the final portion of the trek, I climbed into the cab of the Actros. I was joined by two-time Dakar Rally-winning co-pilot, Andreas “Andi” Schulz, who guided me across some breath-taking, unspoilt flats. As the driver’s seat is situated directly above the truck’s front axle, the Actros delivered a much bumpier ride than the Zetros, even across this relatively smooth stretch of desert.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that this model is a stalwart of the highway. The fact the Actros was able to cope with 18km of the UAE outback should be seen as a bonus feature, regardless of the ride. It’s certainly testament to the build quality of the vehicle.
As a final treat, the Mercedes-Benz team had organised an “extreme” dune circuit to show off exactly what their trucks could do. Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to experience this thrill ride from the passenger seat.
Schulz took me around the course twice, and by the time we’d drawn to a halt, I was in absolutely no doubt as to the Actros’ off-road ability. I was, however, seriously questioning my own ability to keep hold of my breakfast.
Fun though the morning had been, the Mercedes-Benz fleet proved itself a heck of a lot tougher than this editor will ever be.
Zetros 2733A 6x6
Engine: OM 926 LA – six-cylinder inline
Power (Euro 5): 326 hp (240kW)
Torque: 1,300Nm/1,200 at 1,600 rpm
Clutch: GF 395 Kerasinter
Gearbox: nine (eight and crawler)
Transfer box (modes): MB VG 1700 - 3W/1.6
Fuel tank capacity: 300 litres
Steering: ZF 8098