Diamond in the rough
When you get behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz G-Class, it’s soon clear why it’s become such an off-road legend.
Revolutionary, ground-breaking: the car is without doubt one of the most significant icons of the modern world. On one hand, a purely mechanical device that heeds the call for travel and exploration; on the other an expression of identity, power and status. The most memorable cars, the ones that win over public sentiment and capture that indefinable cult status, secure their immortality by delivering both in equal measure, seemingly with little effort. And then there are those cars that rise one step higher, delivering the very best of both. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class is one of these. Through its single-minded pursuit of off-road excellence, high performance (in G 63 AMG guise), technology, style and comfort, the G-Class has everyone from Hollywood A-listers to world-renowned explorers clamouring to be seen in one. Icons like these are destined to be much copied. And yet, ironically, the G-Class itself is something of a copy.
The Gelandewagen or G-Wagen, as it was more popularly known in its early days, was Mercedes-Benz’s iteration of a military-based, civilian-converted off-roader – like the Toyota Land Cruiser, American Jeep and British Land Rover. Unlike these vehicles, which earned their stripes in World War II, it didn’t make its debut in the 1940s – Germany’s demilitarisation after the war wouldn’t have made that possible. It was a latecomer to the off-road stage, appearing only in 1979, but more than making up for lost time.
Although technically not converted from defence force use like the other rugged off-road performers, it was in fact conceived as a military vehicle – on the suggestion of the Shah of Iran (at the time a significant Mercedes-Benz shareholder) – before a civilian version was launched to the general public.
From those early, strictly utilitarian days, the off-roader underwent many facelifts, with refinements slowly but surely being added to the basic package.
First came the most elementary of comfort features, like air conditioning and heating, a wood-trim interior and more comfortable front seats. Key mechanical improvements followed: the option of an automatic transmission and more efficient engines featuring fuel injection.
But what diehard G-Wagen fans really desired was more off-road capability. And so came the introduction of locking differentials and permanent four-wheel drive – and the fitment of wider tyres and black fender flares, which instantly gave it an utterly dependable, squared-off stance; a foundation so solid you could mortgage your house on it.
As the 1990s took the G-Wagen into its second decade (and saw it discontinued in South Africa just before the turn of the millennium), it kept pace with the rest of Mercedes-Benz’s passenger cars and came fitted with hi-tech safety and comfort features like Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) and optional cruise control. And a stainless-steel spare-wheel cover and running boards added the first semblance of ‘bling’ to the going-places teenager.
Fast forward to 2011 and the relaunch of the newly titled G-Class in South Africa. The reason for its return after more than a decade? Selvin Govender, Divisional Manager, Product & Marketing at Mercedes-Benz South Africa said: ‘It’s simple, for years now not one solitary month has gone by without a customer calling, asking about the G-Wagen’s return to SA.’ On reputation alone, it was clear Mercedes-Benz would have no problem shifting the limited amount of right-hand-drive G-Classes it could ship to South Africa.
At that point Mercedes-Benz offered the G-Class in a basic workhorse 300CDI Professional model, a more SUV-orientated 350 BlueTEC diesel and the top-dog G 55 AMG with a supercharged V8 engine.
The relaunch was a triumphant success. What was available was snapped up almost instantly – and G-Class fanatics have been clamouring for more ever since. And Mercedes-Benz has delivered. The latest models keep pace with advancements across the brand, offering a renewed emphasis on luxury and improved power with greater efficiency, through the latest generation of Euro 6-compliant V6 diesel and V8 petrol engines.
In broad strokes, the two models now offered in South Africa – the G 350d and G 63 AMG – enjoy a 16 percent increase in power and fuel economy. The G 350d jumps to 180kW/600Nm over its predecessor’s 155kW/540Nm, giving a fuel consumption of 9.9l/100km. Likewise, the top-spec G 63 AMG now boasts 420kW/760Nm from its 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8, ensuring an impressive acceleration figure of 0 to 100kph in 5.4 seconds and a top speed of 250kph. High on the satisfaction index as well is the retuned suspension and latest Electronic Stability Program (ESP) for greater stability at high speed.
Visually, all G-Class models have moved away from the previous Professional’s utilitarian look and feel, getting modified bumpers that were once only the reserve of AMG models. Restyled bumpers and flared wheel arches, this time in the vehicle colour, combine with alloy wheels sized from 18 all the way to 21 inches, for maximum red-carpet credentials. On the inside, a new two-tone instrument panel mirrors the two-tone seats fashioned from high-quality leather with contrasting stitching, while the eyecatching instrument cluster features an 11.4-centimetre multifunction display.
However, the more things change on the surface, the more they stay exactly the same for Mercedes-Benz’s classic off roader. The G-Class retains the familiar, sturdy, body-on-frame ladder chassis – the only series production car wearing the three-pointed star today to do so – and that ensures its most important USP remains intact: its unrivalled off-road ability.
Visiting the Magna Steyr production facility in Austria where each vehicle is built by hand, it’s clear why the G-Class is an exception to the advanced Mercedes- Benz production norm in more ways than mind-set. For 36 years, it’s been made at the same facility in Graz, where it’s a way of life for all employees. There are no robots: the G-Class is birthed through 6 400 manual welds to its steel ladder chassis and all leather and upholstery work is done onsite by a close-knit team of seamstresses.
At full capacity, Magna Steyr can produce 68 cars per day and that means – thanks to an unprecedented 20 percent increase in demand in 2015 – their production run is spoken-for well into 2016.
Speaking to the Head of G-Class Production, Dr Guthenke, at the facility, he says: “The recipe for G-Class is proudly and deliberately unchanged. We dare not mess with an icon. There are many unitary construction SUVs in our line-up if you think Mercedes-Benz GLA, GLC, GLE and (soon to called) GLS, but the name and even the business model for the iconic G-Class is the exception to the rule. And we like to keep it like that.”
It’s an icon that is regularly asked to prove its credentials on Schöckl, a 1 445-metre-high massif north of Graz. The 4.5-kilometre track has gradients of up to 60 percent and allows a roll angle of up to 40 percent. A 3.1-kilometre stretch is “rough terrain” – a euphemism for rocks projecting half a metre from the track, tree roots snaking across the surface, deep ruts, stones, loose scree, earth banks and deep mud holes.
Before you get to this rough stuff, though, there’s a few hundred kilometres of smooth bitumen to cover, from the urban edges of Graz through lush, rolling countryside and sleepy Austrian villages. Within this serene setting, the impression one gets of the G-Class’s capability is utterly immense. The level of engineering that has clearly gone into this vehicle is hard to ignore and plain to feel, and yet it’s the comfort and on-road poise that impresses. Hailing from the previous AMG variant, the 7G-Tronic automatic transmission in the G 350d makes urban cruising a doddle. Distronic cruise control paces you with the car ahead and lane warning assist means this modernised tank is a steady pleasure to drive with its thrumming V6 diesel engine and lashings of long-legged torque to help you get past anything idling in your way.
Then it’s time to take on Schöckl where the durability and toughness of the G-Class’s solid axles with torsion bar stabilisers is tested to the max. Here permanent all-wheel drive, a low-range gearbox and three differential locks that can be engaged/disengaged on the move are an absolute necessity. Slack steering and 2.6 tonnes of weight makes for a lot of directional deflection over the staccato-like undulations; however, the vertical ricocheting of the G-Class structure is remarkably well contained and the wheel-travel is excellent.
It’s soon clear that it’s in the department of rock crawling where the G-Class delivers its keynote address, courtesy of its 30-degree-plus approach and departure angles and 213mm ground clearance. The route which looks all but impassable at spots holds no challenge for the legendary off-roader. The multi-terrain tyres deform and reform again, taking the kind of punishment no tyre should ever have to.
Back at the factory, Dr Guthenke says he’s confident the G-Class is “the most limitless off-road-capable vehicle ever made”. On the evidence of first-hand experience, there’s no reason to doubt him.