Leg­endary is an un­der­state­ment

John Floyd trav­elled to moun­tain­ous Aus­tria to put the new Mercedes G-class to the test

Business Day - Motor News - - COMMERCIAL NEWS -

WHEN one thinks of hand-built ve­hi­cles the mind nor­mally con­jures up pic­tures of be­spoke coach-built lim­ou­sines or the ex­clu­sive su­per­cars em­a­nat­ing from a small group of man­u­fac­tur­ers world­wide, but last week I dis­cov­ered a very dif­fer­ent genre that falls within the hand­built cat­e­gory.

Just a short drive from the Aus­trian city of Graz is the Magna Steyr plant, which is home to the Mercedes-Benz G-Class range. This year cel­e­brates 33 years of this leg­endary off-roader and in all that time the changes have al­ways en­sured that the orig­i­nal con­cept and styling have re­mained al­most un­al­tered.

This was re­ally the launch of a facelifted range with most of the changes be­ing in the cabin. Ex­ter­nal changes in­clude new wing mir­rors and the ad­di­tion of LED day­time run­ning lights while AMG ver­sions get a new grille and front bumper with large in­takes. Inside, the main changes are a com­pletely re­designed cen­tre con­sole and in­stru­ment panel with a Co­mand infotainment and nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem as stan­dard.

The model range in­cludes the G350 BlueTec, the G500, G500 cabri­o­let, G63 AMG and G65 AMG. The range is bro­ken down into the Pro­fes­sional mod­els, which are the ba­sic work­horses, and the Civil­ian which of­fers the pre­mium lev­els. The AMG and cabri­o­let ver­sions are only avail­able in the lat­ter cat­e­gory and un­for­tu­nately the cabri­o­let will not be avail­able in SA.

The launch in­cluded a tour of the pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity and this is where the sur­prise came, when we wit­nessed that this is truly a hand­built ve­hi­cle with not a sin­gle ro­bot in the plant, just teams of skilled work­ers cre­at­ing one of the world’s best off-road­ers.

Then it was on to the test drive but be­fore set­ting off I was given a taste of the ca­pa­bil­ity of the lat­est G-Class on the Iron Schöckl, a steel struc­ture that sim­u­lates un­even sur­faces and boasts a 100% in­cline (45 de­grees). Not only did the ve­hi­cle cope with it all but it even stopped on the steep­est down run and re­versed back up that in­cred­i­ble slope.

So now it was time to take the lat­est gen­er­a­tion to the real Schöckl, a 1,400m moun­tain with some se­ri­ously rough tracks which is used by Merc as a test area.

I took the G350 BlueTec, the only diesel in the line-up which de­liv­ers 155kW at 3,400r/min with 540Nm of torque be­tween 1,600 and 2,400r/min from its V6 2,987cc turbo charged engine. On the road to the moun­tain the 350 per­formed well, stay­ing with its larger si­b­ling the G500 de­spite the lat­ter’s 5,461cc V8 petrol engine of­fer­ing 285kW at 6,000r/min and 530Nm be­tween 2,800 and 4,800r/min.

On the tor­tu­ous climb of the Schöckl the diesel came into its own as did the use of the three dif­fer­en­tial locks as I clam­bered over the sort of rocks that would chal­lenge any off road ve­hi­cle. In low range the G350 reached the top with­out break­ing into a sweat, un­like the driver, but then it was down­hill and it was here that the diesel al­lowed a foot off the brake down the same route, the engine brak­ing pro­vid­ing a smooth ride for even the steep­est de­cline.

On the way down the test driv­ers took over and pushed the cars to a speed that you should not be able to reach on such a bad road, but de­spite the oc­cu­pants be­ing tossed all over, the ve­hi­cle took it all and reached the tar­mac at the bot­tom of the hill. I drove it back to a nearby vil­lage and af­ter all that mis­treat­ment there was not a rat­tle to be heard.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing it was a 200km drive from Graz to Vi­enna in the G63 AMG. With its V8 5,461cc biturbo engine pro­duc­ing 400kW at 5,500r/min and torque of 760Nm be­tween 2,000 and 5,000r/min you would be right in as­sum­ing that this is not go­ing to be the choice of most off-road­ers. This one is a def­i­nite ur­ban ma­chine. But do not be fooled, with the right wheels and tyres it will prove a true Ge­landewa­gen.

On the twist­ing roads of Aus­tria the G63 pro­vided a smooth and com­fort­able ride with sur­pris­ingly good han­dling for a tall and nar­row ve­hi­cle. The sound­track was one of the rea­sons that I could not keep the fuel con­sump­tion down, once heard you just had to keep giv­ing the throt­tle a burst just to clear the engine’s throat and sat­isfy your au­di­tory senses.

If you re­ally want to be the king of the block then there is the big brother, the G65 AMG. How on earth the en­gi­neers man­aged to shoe­horn that 5,980cc V12 biturbo into that body is a mys­tery, but it fits. The front bumper has been cun­ningly used to house a lot of the aux­il­iary cool­ing equip­ment so that the ve­hi­cle’s pro­file is not al­tered from the nor­mal G-Class. With 500kW be­tween 4,300 and 5,600r/min and a mas­sive torque fig­ure of 1,000Nm be­tween 2,300 and 4,300r/min, the 65 has to be the ul­ti­mate in per­for­mance of­froad­ers. But do not hold your breath as this one is only avail­able in left-hand drive and will not be grac­ing our shores.

The AMG de­riv­a­tives are fit­ted with the AMG Speed­shift Plus 7Gtronic trans­mis­sion, whereas all other mod­els use the reg­u­lar 7Gtronic Plus gear­box.

It was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of a Mercedes-Benz G-Class and I came away very im­pressed. The build qual­ity is ex­cep­tional and by util­is­ing a proven recipe it is still a leader in the pre­mium off-road mar­ket. The test rides were ex­treme at times but it proved the level of con­fi­dence that the com­pany has in its prod­uct by push­ing them to the limit while in full view of the world’s me­dia. It truly is an iconic ve­hi­cle.

Pric­ing was not avail­able at the time of writ­ing but will be an­nounced closer to the lo­cal launch date early next year.

Left: The fa­cade now gets a new bumper and the es­sen­tial LED day­time lights. While de­sign­ers have left the rear of the ve­hi­cle alone, the in­te­rior, be­low right, has re­ceived a ma­jor makeover.

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