The indestructible Mercedes G-Class soldiers on with a round of revisions. Jonathan Crouch gazes in awe.
Ten Second Review
It's said that cockroaches will be the only thing to survive a nuclear conflagration. Whoever said that clearly never drove a Mercedes G-Class. It's a vehicle that neither time, progress, fashion nor legislation can kill and it's now better than ever. It'll be irrelevant to virtually everyone, but for that merest fraction of a percentage point of UK buyers, it's the greatest car on earth.
You might well know it as the G-Wagen, that slab-sided truck more readily associated with squaddies trailing in convoy along autobahns, but the G-Class has come a long way from its utilitarian origins. It was first sold to the general public way back in 1979 and as it ploughs unstoppably into its fifth decade on sale, it's been treated to an extensive round of updates. Don't think that means the G-Class has gone soft in its dotage. Although it's no longer a stripped-back, rough and ready mud plugger, it's still built from the same adamantine materials. It's just that the market for these cars has changed and the G-Class has changed to reflect a newer, more moneyed customer base. You can now spend some serious coin on a G-Class and there's a privileged queue of people looking to do just that.
On the face of it, putting a 544PS engine into a tall off-roader sounds a bad idea. No, scrub that. It sounds an absolutely certifiable notion. The Mercedes G 63 AMG is that car and it's the flagship model in the G-Class range, for the UK at least. Those looking for an even more powerful G-Class will have to shop abroad for the G 65 AMG. My advice would be to stick with the 63. It's a great engine, this 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 and it clouts the G 63 to 60mph in a blink over five seconds and onto an electronically limited top speed of 130mph. Believe me, you wouldn't want to go faster, despite improvements to the car's suspension, stability control system, monster 375mm brakes up front and the clever AMG SPEEDSHIFT PLUS 7G-TRONIC automatic gearbox. The G 63 AMG might hog the headlines but the G 350 BlueTEC long-wheelbase model with its 2987cc diesel engine offers a touch more real-world relevance. This four-valve per cylinder engine has an output of 211PS at 3400rpm and has available torque of 540Nm across an engine speed range of 1600 to 2400rpm. Whichever version you buy, that mountain of torque should be adequate to drag you out of most sticky situations, while the G-Class' three electrically controlled 100-percent differential locks, ladder frame and rigid axle characteristics also underline its mettle in rough off-road terrain.
Design and Build
The G-Class has one of those faces that even its mother would find hard to love. Lantern-jawed doesn't even cover it, but its sheer anti-fashion nature has, rather perversely, made it quite a chic item. Mercedes has resisted the temptation to substitute straight edges for Bezier curves and the latest car features the sort of aerodynamics last seen when whole warehouses were swept away in the Boston Molasses Flood. The plus side of this is that there's a decent amount of space inside, especially if you opt for one of the long wheelbase versions. The external modifications have been kept deliberately subtle to preserve the classic look and include LED daytime running lamps and revised exterior mirrors for all engine variants. The AMG version also features a characteristic AMG radiator grille with double louvres, plus distinctive bumpers with large air intakes. Red brake calipers and 20-inch wheels also help distinguish the G 63 AMG.
Market and Model
Value. That's a tough one to address. When it operates in a virtual class of one, it's tough to make definitive pronunciations on any car's value proposition. The G-Class is certainly a car that's quietly morphed into something decidedly sophisticated. Take the latest interior updates for example. The instrument panel and centre console have been completely redesigned to include revised controls and trim elements which give the interior of the car a more contemporary look and feel. There's now a TFT colour display in the instrument cluster between the two round dials. A further large colour screen in the centre console is part of the COMAND Online system and incorporates a DVD changer and the COMAND Controller, which are standard on all G-Class models. This infotainment system offers, amongst other features, a navigation system with special additional off-road functions, the LINGUATRONIC voice-operated control system and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. Don't fret. It hasn't gone all Maybach though. G-Class customers will appreciate that certain design cues have been retained to preserve the essential character of the car. It thus retains the grab handle on the front-passenger side, the switches for the three differential locks - clearly aligned within the driver's field of vision and highlighted in silver-coloured trim - and the redesigned shift lever in the lower section of the centre console. There are high tech options on offer as well, such as DISTRONIC PLUS radar cruise control, Blind Spot Assist and the parking aid PARKTRONIC with reversing camera. The ESP system has been completely revised and now includes Trailer Stability Assist and a HOLD function. If all this isn't enough, customers can further personalise their G-Class with fitments from the exclusive designo range.
Cost of Ownership
Given that the G-Class tends to be purchased by individuals of rather hefty net worth, the day to day running costs aren't hugely relevant to the buying decision. That said, Mercedes is a company that likes to measure itself by some tough criteria and inefficiency is seen in company circles as an example of engineering laziness. It's not something that looks good on the corporate account. To that end, Mercedes has worked at improving the efficiency of the G-Class range across the board. Even the monster G 63 AMG model gets 20.4mpg, up markedly on the 17.8mpg the less powerful G55 Kompressor predecessor car returned. Emissions are also down, with the G 63's 322g/km knocking 50g per click off the old car's showing. It's still not what you'd expect to see Al Gore tooling about in though. The G350 BlueTEC fares a little better but maybe not by as much as you'd imagine. Sacrificing 333bhp to the G 63 AMG nets you just 5.1 more miles per gallon and pares 27g/km off the flagship car's emissions figure.
Judging the Mercedes-Benz G-Class by the usual criteria just doesn't work. The normal rules resolutely don't apply. It's an oddity but a rather wonderful one and long may it continue. Where the Land Rover Defender has just become a rather ancient-feeling curio, the G-Class has moved with the times, whilst maintaining its essential character. It's unashamedly expensive and when you examine the actual prices these cars leave dealers for, it's hard to justify. Best not to even try. With huge sales mopped up by the Middle East, Russia, China and the US, the UK is very much a minority interest market, but that doesn't mean the G-Class doesn't attract interest. The G350 BlueTEC model would appear to be the most relevant to our requirements but if you're going to be silly, go the whole hog and stretch to the G 63 AMG. It's something strange and wonderful and the motoring world is better for its existence.