Just call me Leadfoot
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Liz Dobson unleashes her inner Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes mid-size SUV
The annual Leadfoot festival at Hahei is an invitation-only event where race drivers from all motorsport disciplines get to test their skills on rally legend Rod Millen's mile-long drive.
Throughout the weekend a huge array of vehicles -- from Millen's famous Toyota Celica to drift cars, V8 Supercars, quadbikes and even a 110-year-old grand prix car -- strut their stuff.
This year's guests included motorsport legends Scott Dixon, Tanner Foust, Alistair McRae, drifter Mad Mike Whiddett and eventual winner Rhys Millen, Rod's son.
And testing her skills up the famous driveway was an outsider -- me and my long-term loan Mercedes-Benz GLC mid-sized SUV.
Mercedes had given me the chance to experience what it is like to "own" a vehicle for longer than the usual weekly-long test period for press cars.
While the GLC had shown its skills for my work commute via inner-city Auckland roads and, during the summer, visits to the beach and day trips, it was time to test the crossover on a long weekend away.
With my son Henry as passenger and fellow Leadfoot festival guest, we loaded the GLC's boot with gear needed for our farmstay accommodation near the Leadfoot Ranch. Packed were two bags of clothes, a chillybin, a bag of swim gear, a box of food, a few pillows and — after a last-minute dash to the shops when the weather forecast predicted rain -- umbrellas and wet-weather gear.
(While Henry and I had numerous raincoats at home, they were branded with car company logos. For the sake of diplomacy, as there would be quite a few manufacturers at the event, we bought plain jackets.)
Photo / Liz Dobson
Leaving Auckland at Friday lunchtime, to avoid the Waitangi weekend traffic, I used the voice-activated navigation system to guide me to Hahei.
A press of a button on the steering engages voice control and (unlike another European brand) I didn't need to speak like Prince Charles to make it understand me.
During city driving I usually had the dynamic select programme in economy or comfort mode. This time I could test the sport mode. This changed the performance from the 2-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged (155kW/350Nm) engine, firmed up steering and suspension, and gave a faster response while the nine-speed transmission held longer ratios.
Hitting the ever-present traffic jam heading south of Auckland, I engaged distronic cruise control to set the speed for the GLC and the distance between me and the vehicles ahead.
It's a system found in more and more vehicles and one that can go unappreciated, especially by me. But damn it, it's great -- and again, with the long-term loan, allowed me to really test the vehicle.
Heading across to Tairua via the winding Kopu-Hikuai Rd, traffic was punctuated with tourists, fellow Leadfoot-goers and locals, but on a few overtaking lanes -- and on the occasional straight -- I was able to test the turbo engine by speeding past a line of slowpokes.
The coastal road from Tairua to Hahei has winding inclines that tested the GLC's suspension and chassis, reinforing this wasn't a rally or drift car but a 1639mm-high SUV so you'd get sway when turning into corners at speed.
Photo / Liz Dobson
For the first time in my weeks with the Mercedes, I drove on gravel along the road to our accommodation.
When the rain descended later, I was thankful for its 4MATIC permanent all-wheel-drive system.
With Henry (and his takeaway dinner) esconced in the accommodation, I took the GLC to try its best on the famous Leadfoot Ranch drive.
Okay, technically I wasn't an official participant.
But on the evening before the weekend-long event there was a VIP dinner in a large barn at the top of the Leadfoot Ranch, overlooking the ocean, and I had been invited.
And the only way to the venue was via the famous drive that was race-ready with a start line, haybales for safety barriers and the pits full of vehicles ready to race.
With no other traffic on the drive, I snapped a few sneaky photographs of the GLC on the start line and by the pedestrian bridge that marks the beginning of the hillclimb.
Then it was time to experience what the racers would undertake over the weekend.
The drive quickly rises, then there's a couple of S-bends to join the tree-festooned section before another incline, then the finish line.
The record time for the weekend was 48.96sec.
The GLC didn't quite make it.
Okay, I didn't even attempt any reasonable speed: the GLC was on 20-inch tyres, it was raining and this would be the largest vehicle to conquer the drive that weekend.
More importantly, I was just taking in the iconic atmosphere -- though it didn't stop me bragging to friends attending the event that I had driven up the driveway.
Maybe at next year's Leadfoot Festival, a real Mercedes driver could attend to event to prove what one of the German brand's sports cars could do on the hillclimb.
Like Lewis Hamilton.
2-LITRE, 4-CYLINDER ENGINE
PROS: Built for weekends away
CONS: Not built for motorsport
Photos / Liz Dobson and Ted Baghurst