Mercedes G-Class - The Wayback Machine

2018-06-MercedesThe iconic G-Class is proof that new ideas are not always the best

The American phrase “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” qualifies the mind-set of a big group of car enthusiasts around the world who do not necessarily subscribe to everything new and shiny.

This certainly applies to fans of the Mercedes G-Wagen, latterly renamed G-Class, and iconic 4x4 coveted for its distinctive looks, solid build quality, and the feel good factor it delivers whether you are driving in town or country.

The G-Wagen (Gelandewagen is German for off-road car) has stayed very close to its roots from day one in 1979. And like the Land Rover and the original Willys Jeep, it started out as a tough, ladder frame chassis 4x4 for the military, in this case made for Mercedes by Steyr-Daimler-Puch (Magna-Steyr as of 2002) in Austria.

While Land Rover and Jeep spawned the Range Rover and Cherokee as their more car-like 4x4s, the G-Wagen hardly changed in exterior form as it slowly morphed into a more luxurious machine, adopting four, six and V8 engines from the Mercedes passenger car range.

As the relationship between Mercedes-Benz and AMG became closer in the late ‘90s, a tuned version of the M104 twin-cam straight six found its way into the variant known as the G36 AMG. But the real powerhouse G was the G55 AMG of 2004, which was powered by a detuned version of the SL55 AMG’s supercharged 5.5 litre V8.

The idea of a high performance G-Wagen attracted a new kind of customer to the marque, for here was a distinctive looking old-school 4x4 with big power and a NASCAR like V8 soundtrack.

The G55 AMG was an overnight success in places as diverse as Texas and Dubai, and the G63 AMG and the totally mental bi-turbo V12-engined G65 AMG that followed took the ‘more is more’ idea to an all-time high. The 6x6, 4x4x2 and Maybach Landaulet versions were the ultimate swan songs.

The iconic G-Class has always held its value well, and run-out versions such as the Final Edition SWB Cabriolet command silly prices today, as do the various limited production LWB types that followed.

However, as safety and emissions rules tightened around the world it was clear that the writing was on the wall for living legends of this ilk, and the Land Rover Defender fell first.

A bulging order book made it clear that customers simply would not let the G-Class die, and the increasingly loud clamour from fans all over the world set the stage for an all-new G-Class.

Given the G-Wagen’s iconic status, the question was how the concept could be updated without losing its unique character. In the 21st Century context this boils down to safety and emissions regulations, along with driving dynamics, efficiency and creature comfort.

So rather than trying to re-invent the G-Class in the way that VW had with the Beetle, Mercedes came to the conclusion that re-engineering it to be as close to the original as possible while building in state-of-the-art technology was the way to go. Their goal was to edit out all its shortcomings, or at least reduce them to the point where they are no longer mattered.

While the new car looks the same at a glance, it is larger all round to the benefit of cabin room and crash safety. The smaller distance between the sides and occupants in the old model did not allow for the complete deployment of side airbags in a major side impact. Making the car wider solves this issue while improving cabin room.

The lofty driving position has not changed, and the familiar sidelights perched atop the front wings like guides are still there, as is the grab bar on the passenger side of the dashboard, so the view from the cabin will make existing G-Class owners feel at home. But everything else in the cabin from the widescreen instrument and infotainment pack that dominates the dashboard to the Burmester audio system is fresh and new.

If you are nostalgic you can choose the instrument pack option with the classic look, while those who like the contemporary Mercedes high-tech instrument pack can tick that box. Either way, the infotainment element is the same.

Part of this new infotainment suite is the large, clear image from the reversing camera that is a boon when manoeuvring. Meanwhile, the front view camera allows you to inspect a potentially steep off-road descent that you would previously have had to assess by getting out of the car for a look.

The new seats are better shaped, more supportive, and more comfortable while backseat passengers will find their lot has improved as well in leg and elbowroom terms. Ubiquitous Mercedes cabin design elements like the alloy door pulls and centre console buttons are all there, making the cabin familiar to owners of other current Mercedes models.

While it was a tenet of the remake that the new G must retain the unbreakable look and feel of the original, only three components are carried over - the door handles, the headlamp washers, and the spare wheel cover. The feel is certainly there with all five doors as robust as ever, and sounding exactly the same as before when slammed shut.

The original Mercedes G-Wagen of 1979 was known as the Type 461, and was followed by the updated Type 463 in 1990. Significantly, even though the new car has a totally new chassis, body and interior Mercedes felt that the new car retains the look and character of the original so well that the Type 463 designation should continue.

At launch, only the petrol V8 versions we drove will be available but V6 petrol and diesel versions will join the range in due course. All engines come with a 9G Automatic transmission, the AMG version being the Speedshift TCT.

The G500 is powered by a 3,982cc bi-turbo V8 good for 442hp from 5,250 to 5,500rpm, with 610Nm of torque between 2,000 and 4,750rpm. This is enough for a brisk 5.9 sec 0-100km/h (62mph) sprint and 210km/h (130mph) top speed, and the G500 feels sprightly up to about 100mph (160km/h) after which you can feel the aerodynamic drag taking over.

On the road, both versions have a lovely deep V8 growl when accelerating, the AMG version even more so when you push the button to activate the exhaust valves for full noise.

The 3,982cc bi-turbo V8 that powers the bombastic G63 AMG is straight from the AMG GT and makes a rousing 585hp at 6,000rpm, underpinned by 850Nm of torque from 2,500-3,500rpm. This gives it no inhibitions about head-butting the horizon, and it rockets to 100km/h in just 4.5 sec and on to 220km/h, or 240km/h with the AMG Driver’s Package. This is plenty fast for a car shaped like a barn door.

In support of these powerful new engines, the improvements that the bespoke double wishbone front suspension and rack and pinion steering make to the ride and handling, both on tarmac and off-road, cannot be overstated.

Active damping is standard on the G63 AMG and optional on other models. Made by Tenneco, these dampers use a combination of gas and hydraulic fluid to cover a wider ride and handling spectrum than the base damper system whose bounce and rebound settings are fixed somewhere in the middle.

As gas reacts much faster than hydraulic fluid this medium is used to manage short, sharp bumps for the secondary ride, while the hydraulic component looks after the longer, slower strokes of the primary ride. The internal valves are precisely controlled by electronics so that the interaction between both parts of each damper is totally seamless.

If you are familiar with the outgoing model the dramatic all round improvement in driving dynamics will be a revelation. Compared to the previous beam front axle the independent suspension delivers superior front wheel articulation for even better traction over uneven ground, enhancing the G’s reputation as a ‘mountain goat’.

Apart from uprated springs and dampers for the AMG version, the main hardware difference from the normal G is the anti-roll bars. Biased more towards road driving and relatively ‘sporty driving dynamics, the G63 AMG has an anti-roll bar on each axle aimed at reducing understeer in bends.

In contrast the conventional G models are more likely to see off-road duty and so have no rear anti-roll bar, since this would limit rear axle articulation when its travel is used up and it binds the axle from further movement.

As with the original, the new G has three differential locks, one for each axle and one in the centre. The old centre diff lock was purely mechanical and had a 50/50 front/rear power split when open. The new version is a torque-sensing unit that normally runs with a 40/60 split when open for improved handling. Both have a 100% locking action when engaged.

You can really feel the difference this makes when things become slippery, particularly during an ascent in rugged terrain. When a wheel or two starts to spin and you engage the centre differential lock, the extra traction it delivers is instantly apparent, giving the new G astounding off-road prowess.

While both generations of G-Class feature a full ladder frame chassis under the bodyshell, the new car is a massive 55% stiffer. A notable feature is the tubular reinforcing bar that ties the front suspension towers together. This effectively closes the ‘box’ of the front structure and helps to resist flex when significant loads are fed into the structure from the suspension.

Thanks in part to this stiff structure and the better driving dynamics of the independent front-end the springs and dampers do not have to be wound up as tightly as before to the benefit of ride comfort.

Comfort mode is supple at town speeds, but as frequently happens I prefer the better body control balance of Sport mode, which I felt was the best overall setting for a wide range of driving. It also makes the engine and gearbox more responsive, which is a situation well suited to the new car.

The slow witted recirculating ball steering that Mercedes used on all its cars in the 1970s and ‘80s was very vague about the straight ahead, which made it hard to place the old G-Wagen with precision. Combined with the front beam axle this made for a rather agricultural response to the helm that was only acceptable because of the cars off-road credentials and relatively low powered engines.

However, when AMG stepped into the picture at turn of the 21st Century, especially with the supercharged V8 in the G55 AMG, the shortcomings in driving dynamics terms became much more apparent.

While the modern independent front suspension and rack and pinion steering still do not give the new G levels of handling and grip to match the GLE, the combination is light years ahead of what went before, and suits the modern classic feel of the car very well.

The old G could be frightening when you arrived at a corner carrying the big speeds the AMG models are capable of reaching between bends. The new G mitigates this dramatically with its better stability, better brakes, more precise steering and good turn-in balance. If you do push things to the point where the tyres are howling in protest the car now feels sure footed and quite confidence inspiring.

Well weighted and responsive enough for this big 4x4, the new steering system makes it much easier to place the car when you are driving quickly. Aiming the big G through a small roundabout is no longer the scramble at the wheel it once was, the new front end now pointy enough for a car of this size and weight.

The steering is also well damped so there is no kickback when driving off-road. If anything its combination of precision and insulation from road shock means you can tackle a tough off-road course in a more relaxed manner.

At motorways speeds the G500 is naturally the quieter and slightly more restful of the two, striding along at 130km/h with much lower cabin noise than previous Gs. In fact the loudest sound is the wind rushing past the big exterior mirrors. While they are now aerodynamically shaped they still generate noise from the interaction of air between them and the slab sided bodywork.

Of course you cannot change the laws of physics, and this is a large, tall and heavy vehicle with a high centre of gravity. But the new G-Class feels far more balanced, and dare we say it, modern.

Our G63 AMG and G500 test cars were both fitted with 20-inch diameter alloys. Although you can get 21 and even 22-inch wheels as an option the 20s are big enough to give the car good visual proportions and contribute to the competent ride/handling compromise.

The G-Class is such a unique vehicle that it is difficult, even wrong to try and assess it by the standards of other 4x4. The outgoing model simply had so much draw and charisma that owners were willing to ignore its shortcomings. Some would call that love.

To be in a situation where you see the same car on your driveway but no longer have to slow so much for bends, while enjoying faster, smoother and more economical journeys has to be good news. Meanwhile pricing of the born again G-Class is similar to the outgoing model, which makes it even better value.

Mercedes have walked a very fine line in the remake of the G-Class, sorting out its shortcomings while ensuring its emotional appeal to buyers remains intact. We think they have succeeded, and the new G-Class is indeed a better car all-round, and that can only help its legend continue to grow.

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