Beauty or beast?
By David Morgan
EVERY now and then a vehicle comes along that leaves me in awe – this week's road test is one.
When Mercedes-Benz launched the Geländewagen in 1979, little did I think I would still be driving brand new production versions 33 years later. But such is the capability and sheer appeal of the indestructible G-Wagen that there's a good chance well-heeled buyers will still be able to order a new one at least until 2016.
The G-Wagen is special and commands a special price. What was once a go-anywhere workhorse designed and built for industrial and military use has become the "must have" luxury 4x4 off-roader of the wealthy – so wealthy that an entry level 207bhp three-litre V6 turbodiesel will set you back £82,000 and a mad 5.5-litre V8 AMG version with 501bhp and Combined economy of 17.8mpg will cost £117,000.
But what an off-roader. It's stylishly ugly, looks and feels like it's been carved from solid rock and goes off-road like nothing else – even threatening to eclipse the legendary Range Rover.
Now badged as the G-Class, my entry level three-litre V6 BlueTEC turbodiesel went where few would venture – even managing to ford the swollen Dorback Burn that cuts through Dava Moor and tackle serious mud and steep slopes to visit the stranded remains of a Cessna 152 Aerobat that force-landed in an inaccessible position near Kerrow Farm in late April.
Provided you take it easy there's few places the G-Wagen can't reach. A ground clearance of 222mm and the kind of watertight door seals you might find on a U-boat keep this expensive go-anywhere machine clear of grounding and dry, even in deep water. And thanks to a kerb weight of 2.6 tonnes, its 2.8-metre wheelbase and excellent suspension articulation, it'll scrabble over uneven surfaces with ease.
Built in the Austrian city of Graz, it's the longest-running production model in Merc history. I'm not surprised given its strength, comfort, superb driving feedback and visibility, coupled with outstanding build quality.
The standard car is well appointed, but Mercedes wouldn't be Mercedes if they didn't tempt buyers with a list of options that add to the eye-watering cost. My test vehicle topped out at £94,210 with 14 option items that included £2,860 for an exclusive pack that gives you alcantara roof lining and illuminated door sills; £1,070 for Designo black piano lacquer dash trim; £1,480 for an exterior styling pack of running boards, a rear door spare wheel cover with a "three-dimensional" Mercedes star; £1,940 for twin seven-inch DVD screens in the rear with associated system; £1,010 for an analogue and digital TV tuner; and £1,105 for an electrically powered steel sunroof.
The boot area has the square dimensions of a long-wheelbase Land Rover Defender but drop the rear seats and it will expand to swallow 2,250 litres of cargo.
With an all-up weight of 3.2 tonnes, capable of towing up to 3.5 tonnes of braked trailer and a powerful turbodiesel blessed with fantastic pulling power, this anachronistic relic from the glory days of off-roading may sound as if it's only good as a workhorse. But the 4.66m long G-Wagen has other attractions.
This is a permanent 4x4 for the well-heeled – a luxurious transportation device with massive 18-inch alloys and grippy 265/60 high profile tyres that is equally at home in the guise of a "Chelsea tractor" as it is on the hills and moors of the Highlands.
Top speed is an unimpressive 108mph – until you consider how it gets there and can maintain a relaxed cruise. You don't need to drive fast in a G-Wagen – it makes stately progress rather than rapid motoring. But its rest to 62mph acceleration is not bad at 9.1 seconds and the excellent G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission takes seamless care of the beast on or off the road.
Despite its daunting dimensions, the G-Wagen is an easy drive. The steering is a bit on the light side and heavy stops left me wishing for a little more power from the brakes, but as a comfortable, leather-trimmed place for five with astonishing visibility, a firm but comfortable ride and in surroundings that are crafted rather than assembled, this is a remarkable vehicle.
With the aerodynamics of a rough brick and a near vertical flat windscreen, I didn't expect the G-Wagen to be either frugal or refined. I was right on the economy front and totally wrong about its lack of refinement.
My overall economy was 23.1mpg – not bad considering the G350's weight, a long drive to the West Coast and a lot of challenging off-roading.
But what really impressed was how well this solid vehicle's occupants are insulated from wind, engine and road noise. It's an eerie feeling cruising at the legal limit in the closest thing to silence I've experienced in a 4x4 heavyweight off-roader. Add that to the high level of comfort and superb seat support and this is one relaxed super-cruiser.
It's well appointed in standard guise down to an electrically heated windscreen, and power adjustable front memory seats with pneumatic lumbar and side support.
It's not a vehicle that likes to be hurried. There's a lot of inertial weight to overcome. That's no problem because the G-Wagen is a joy to pilot around at a steady 55mph cruise. It will go quicker, but the 398ft.lb of torque from its grunty three-litre V6 turbodiesel has to work hard to push this beast through the air.
To put it to the test I followed Charlie Munro's annual commercial vehicle run through Ross-shire and watch some of yesterday's trucks tackle serious single track roads. The G-Wagen was the perfect platform and growled its way over the 2,000 feet of the Bealach na Ba into Torridon as if it was little more than a slope.
Is it better than a 4.4-litre V8TD Range Rover? Probably not. The British rival wins on luxury, power, glitz, offers a more comfortable ride and is cheaper. But given the choice of these two top luxury off-roaders, I'm afraid ugly would win over contemporary style with me and I'd be driving away in a G-Wagen every time.
FINAL THOUGHT: Archaic but supreme survivor from the days of "serious" off-roaders. Superb quality and off-road ability, battleship construction and stunning luxury. Not pretty by today's standards, but a beauty in the eyes of anyone who knows a good off-road vehicle when they see one.
Mercedes-Benz G350 BlueTEC
- Price: £81,715 (£94,210 as tested with options)
- Capacity: 2987cc
- Power: 207bhp
- 0-62mph: 9.1 seconds
- Maximum speed: 108mph
- Economy: Combined 25.2mpg, Urban 20.8mpg
- CO2 emissions: 295g/km (VED M)
- ESP: Standard
- Insurance guide: Group 50 (new 1-50 Grouping System)