Legendary is an understatement
John Floyd travelled to mountainous Austria to put the new Mercedes G-class to the test
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.