Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d

Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d sports a subtle facelift on a misty morning in the Robertson valley. Image: Ray Leathern

Finding Paisano: 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d

What follows is the curious story of an Italian POW, a Red Muscadel and the Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d on a long-weekend getaway …

Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d

Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d sports a subtle facelift on a misty morning in the Robertson valley. Image: Ray Leathern

It’s Youth Day long weekend, and after an hour’s drive over Du Toit’s Kloof Pass in the 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d, a large crucifix suggests we’ve arrived at our destination. We’re on Route 60, at the entrance to the lush and under-appreciated Nuy valley, with an end destination in Robertson. And I’m hoping Nuy Winery is where I’ll find what I’m looking for. We’re using the 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d to follow the path of a famous Italian WW2 prisoner of war (POW). The young man was dispatched from his homeland to the selfsame valley nearly 80-years ago. I know this because there’s a wine from Nuy created in his honour. No, wait, there’s a better way to start this story… Let’s try again.

It’s Youth Day long weekend – and as you do when meandering through the Robertson wine valley – my wife decrees we should pull into Nuy for a quick tasting. It stands to reason I’m the designated driver, of course. As she proceeds through the tasing with impressive alacrity, we come upon a Red Muscadel by the name of Barbieri Idro. It’s beautifully bottled and I can’t help but notice with more than a passing interest that it sports a POW number – 184412. Our host explains the back story of how Idro was in fact an Italian POW held in Worcester and allowed to work on Nuy’s original farm, De Vlei, before he was tragically killed. Of the estimated 100 000 POWs captured by the British while fighting in North and East Africa, the majority ended up in Zonderwater Camp in the Transvaal from 1941–1947. However, roughly 10 000 lucky like Idro, were dispatched to Worcester in the Western Cape.

MERCEDES-BENZ GLE 450D 4MATIC

The latest GLE 450d at Nuy Winery in the Western Cape. Image: Ray Leathern

It’s at this point we should introduce our wheels for this Cape caper. The 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d. You’re right, we have reviewed the four-cylinder GLE 300d and the 450d in fastback Coupe form in the last twelve months. The former was before its subtle facelift. The latter was after and featured the potent new six-cylinder turbodiesel engine with clever 48V mild hybridity. No matter the model of your choosing, the Mercedes-Benz GLE range is the darling of premium SUVs. It boasts impressive market share in this most hostile of segments. Like all one-percenters can attest to, the protracted economy doesn’t impact those buying in the premium sector quite as hard.

Since its mild facelift earlier this year, it can be had with either a four-cylinder turbodiesel or a range of AMG turbo petrol motors (53 and 63s) that will keep you honest at the pumps. However, we believe the 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d is the pick of the bunch. It’s a fine SUV, a spiffing one in fact, with a starting price of R1 914 447. All this Wa’Benzi for less than two bar? What a car! Especially when you take in its newly star-covered grille. Likewise, there’s zero inadequacy under its long bonnet. It fires 285 kW and 750 Nm to all four wheels courtesy of an adaptable 4Matic drivetrain and efficient nine-speed automatic gearbox. It’s certainly a damn sight swifter and smoother than the farm vehicles that chugged around Nuy and Robertson valleys during Idro’s time.

TRAGEDY

Nuy’s Red Muscadel, Barbieri Idro, sports POW number 184412. And we wanted to know the story behind that. Image: Nuy Winery

We track down Andre Rabie, the well-known Nuy valley farmer and son of Pierre Jacque Rabie who had Idro under ‘outside employment’ on his farm when he died. En route we stop off at the winery to pay our respects at the cross which commemorates the man. Daniel, the winery manager, explains that Idro died just down the road at the Nuy train station when a barrel broke loose from Rabie’s delivery truck and landed on top of him. Legend has it that he saved another worker’s life by pushing him aside, bravely putting himself in harm’s way.

A few kilometres down the road, at Willow Creek Olive Estate, is Audrey’s Vineyard Cottage. The homestead has been immaculately restored and is available to anyone visiting the valley of a weekend. The whole farm sits in glorious seclusion, flanked on one side by the Langeberg Mountains. The view over an almost-forgotten valley of scattered vineyards is charming, idealised, like something brought to life from a children’s book. Some of the farm buildings in the area are as old as 1892.

IDRO THE LEGEND

The Langeberg Mountains make a fitting backdrop for the latest Merc premium SUV. Image: Ray Leathern

Leipzig Country House, further down the road in the valley, was also built by POWs and is where Idro would have stayed during captivity. One says 1944 right there in the masonry work. As we drive there in the whisper-quiet Mercedes-Benz, Andre explains that the POWs weren’t exactly prisoners in the strictest sense. “No, it was a party – eating, drinking, working on a wine farm. These guys were by no means ‘incarcerated’ here,” says Andre. And Idro at the time was a young man of just 18. He was strong, broad-shouldered and he did anything and everything on the farm.

According to sworn statements on the day Idro died, 18 January 1946, nine ‘vats’ of wine and two workers were on the back of Rabie’s lorry on the way to the station when the vehicle hit a ditch. A barrel came loose with the result that all the others started rolling. Idro jumped backwards when one fell on him and pushed him down. By the time camp authorities got him to the sick bay he had died. His hips were broken in three places. No surprise with each barrel weighing 315 kg. No negligence was found on the part of P.J. Rabie.

HERITAGE

The swift and sophisticated GLE 450d features the latest in 48V mild-hybrid technology. Image: Ray Leathern

There’s nothing in the sworn statements to suggest Idro did sacrifice himself to save another worker on the back of that truck. But knowing what I now know from Andre, I can only imagine that is what he did. As we clear out of the Nuy valley and head on towards the Robertson valley to enjoy the rest of our long weekend, I have Andre’s parting shot in my head. “Think about the Italian POWs like Idro who built the Du Toit’s Kloof Pass the next time you drive it.”

The Italian POWs had a reputation for excellent road building and the Du Toit’s Kloof project – and countless others like it – would never have been completed in time if it weren’t for their two-year intensive before repatriation back to Italy. More than that, the story of this paisano fills us with a greater sense of respect for the complicated and tumultuous heritage of many Italians in South Africa. A timely reminder that even the most unlikely places can be home to a touchingly poignant heritage.  

THE FIGURES

  • Best for: Smooth, fast and economical. Chief in its substantial arsenal is brilliant Noise, Vibration and Harshness (NVH) suppression.
  • Not so sure: Some of the driver aids never tire of beeping and flashing at you if left switched on.
  • Mercedes-Benz GLE 450d 4Matic
  • Engine: 2 999 cc 6-cyl turbodiesel (+48V mild hybrid)
  • Power: 285 kW, 750 Nm
  • Performance: 6.25 sec 0-100 km/h (tested) / 5.65 sec (claimed)
  • Gearbox: 9-speed auto
  • Economy: 8.5 l/100 km (tested), 8.0 l/100 km (claimed/combined)
  • Tyres: Continental SportContact 275/50/R20
  • Price: R1 914 447 (starting from)

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