In­side Mer­cedes’ G Class HQ

An au­to­mo­tive icon, Mer­cedes’ G Class can do it all: climb moun­tains, out-bling su­per­cars, shrug o bombs and re­main re­lent­lessly rel­e­vant while barely chang­ing. And this is the place it calls home

CAR (UK) - - News - Words Tim Pol­lard | Pho­tog­ra­phy Justin Leighton

Wel­come to Graz, where they en­gi­neer Merc’s 4x4

monster, build it and do their very best to break it

WE’RE BAL­ANCED IN midair, a front wheel dan­gling use­lessly from a drooped sus­pen­sion arm a foot off the ground, the other three tyres squished firmly into the flinty moun­tain­side at an im­prob­a­ble an­gle: 2.4 tonnes of metal walk­ing a tightrope between see-saw and slip, weight trans­fer and trac­tion. It’s much steeper than an­tic­i­pated, I re­alise, as I step down from the leather-clad cabin and im­me­di­ately lose my foot­ing, much to pho­tog­ra­pher Justin’s amuse­ment, suede brogues strug­gling for grip where the G-Class has res­o­lutely found pur­chase.

CAR has brought the new G-Class home, to the Schöckl moun­tain, Mer­cedes-Benz’s an­swer to Jeep’s Rubicon Trail or Land Rover’s East­nor Cas­tle 4x4 play­ground. Criss-cross­ing a treach­er­ous moun­tain­side out­side the Aus­trian city of Graz, this patch­work of trails climbs to 1350 me­tres and in­cludes sec­tions with 45° – or 1-in-1 – in­clines.

The badge on the B-pil­lar of the new 2018 G-Class proudly pro­claims ‘Schöckl proved’, and we couldn’t re­sist putting this mar­ket­ing spiel to the test. The first right-hand-drive mod­els ar­rive in UK deal­er­ships around the time you read this, fresh off the pro­duc­tion line at Magna Steyr in Graz, the brawny off-roader’s home since its birth in 1979. The lat­est model feels al­to­gether more pam­per­ing than ear­lier, more util­i­tar­ian G-wagens: huge dig­i­tal widescreens dom­i­nate the dash­board, mo­tors whirr you into po­si­tion and mas­sage your but­tocks, while elec­tro nan­nies take over so many driv­ing de­ci­sions that you’re re­minded au­tonomous driv­ing re­ally isn’t very far away. Any fears that this new­found lux­ury may have com­pro­mised the Merc’s moun­tain-goat skills are quickly quashed as I climb back in­side, check all three diff locks are en­gaged, se­lect Drive and tip-toe for­wards. After a few inches, we flip-flop the other way, arc­ing grace­fully to ground our air­borne wheel. We’re on one of the Schöckl’s steep­est sec­tions, clam­ber­ing up a nar­row path of smooth granite slabs weath­ered by cen­turies of moun­tain rain, wind and foot traf­fic, dressed in loose rocks and stones so sharp they’ll slice a side­wall in a jiffy. No won­der they keep half a dozen spare tyres at a moun­tain­side cafe near the sum­mit.

A tickle of throt­tle and the G crawls up, un­fazed by the harsh4

en­vi­ron­ment un­der­foot, those blis­tered front in­di­ca­tors bob­bing up and down as the sus­pen­sion soaks up ev­ery rut and boul­der. Mer­cedes-Benz proudly pro­claims that the G-Class is the only pro­duc­tion car on sale with three lock­able dif­fer­en­tials and a low-range trans­fer case; in low gear the con­trol and steady thrust are nigh-on un­stop­pable. We’re in the G500, whose 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 pro­duces a not-in­con­sid­er­able 416bhp and (more im­por­tantly) 450lb ft of the twisty stuff. Short on grunt it is not.

This en­gine isn’t of­fered in right-hand drive yet, al­though the UK im­porter is keen to cor­rect that. Right now, Brits can only buy the full-beans G63 AMG with its nutty 577bhp, 4.5sec 0-62mph time and equally spec­tac­u­lar £143k price tag, but a more sen­si­ble G350d diesel is un­der de­vel­op­ment for launch in 2019.

In fact, when we en­counter a con­voy of three fu­ture mod­els on test up the Schöckl I no­tice one is a right-hooker pro­to­type with the new straight-six oil-burner; it sounds re­mark­ably un-diesely to these ears. Magna en­gi­neers run dura­bil­ity tests up here 12 hours a day in two shifts, start­ing at 6am and pound­ing the trails to see how the cars hold up to moun­tain abuse. Each pro­to­type will com­plete around 1200 off-road miles over three months, re­gard­less of the weather con­di­tions. (‘Up to 20cm of snow is no prob­lem; we can do 40cm with snow chains.’)

It sounds like a fun job for out­ward-bound types – and so it proves, ac­cord­ing to se­nior de­vel­op­ment en­gi­neer Max Kniepeiss, who joins us for our run up the hill. ‘I reckon I spend 120 work­ing days a year up here – it beats be­ing in an of­fice!’ he beams. And as I sur­vey the panorama from the peak, I’m in­clined to agree. Man­i­cured green Aus­trian farm­land stretches be­fore us, moun­tain bik­ers and paraglid­ers gam­ing the gra­di­ent, the more se­ri­ous Alps ris­ing omi­nously in the dis­tance. The tin­kle of cow bells and ripe brown de­posits un­der­foot at the top of the Schöckl ex­plain the suc­cu­lent meat we’ve en­joyed for lunch and con­trast with the heavy in­dus­try of car man­u­fac­tur­ing back on the val­ley floor in Graz, whose 280,000 in­hab­i­tants go about their busi­ness, lor­ries, buses and cars scut­tling like ants along the ur­ban road net­work below.

‘The moun­tain is one gi­ant rock: it’s stayed the same for cen­turies, so it’s great for us to bench­mark how cars per­form up here – we can com­pare test re­sults go­ing back decades,’ says Kniepeiss, a Magna vet­eran who started work on all-wheel-drive Cava­liers and Pan­das 29 years ago. ‘The rocks are re­ally sharp up here, they can eas­ily de­stroy tyres. The G-Class could do the Schöckl on road tyres, but we’d be for­ever chang­ing punc­tures, so we use tough all-ter­rain tyres for test­ing.’

The Falken Wild­peaks are huge, apoc­a­lypse-spec rub­ber, wrapped around the G’s small­est 18-inch al­loys, their deep grooves sniff­ing out trac­tion on ev­ery sur­face we en­counter. They also de­stroy the ride qual­ity; the G’s usu­ally serene progress on road rub­ber be­com­ing some­what fussier on the more ag­gres­sive tread­blocks. But the 500 re­tains the new G-Class’s com­po­sure in daily use; this is an al­to­gether more rounded propo­si­tion than the out­go­ing G-Class, which re­mained on sale lit­tle changed from 1990 un­til this year’s re­place­ment (con­fus­ingly still co­de­named 463 in Merc-speak). The set-square de­sign may be in­tact but the en­tire plat­form is new, in­clud­ing the lad­der-frame steel chas­sis that lends the car the strength it needs to con­quer moun­tains, mo­tor­ways and Metroland alike.

Only three parts are car­ried over: the old-school door han­dles that shut with a won­der­ful ker-clunk, the head­lamp washer jets and the spare wheel cover on the hi­lar­i­ously per­pen­dic­u­lar,4

side-hinged tail­gate. Mer­cedes has done a fine job of repli­cat­ing the fa­mil­iar bluff sil­hou­ette, but look closely and you’ll no­tice this one is sub­tly mod­ernised. The drag co­ef­fi­cient is an im­prob­a­bly brick-ish 0.54 but they’ve paid ex­tra at­ten­tion to stream­lin­ing the win­dows and rain gut­ters to make the car qui­eter, and in­side there’s no­tice­ably more room. Your el­bows will no longer be bur­row­ing into the door card.

That whop­ping great big grab han­dle sprout­ing from the dash­board comes in handy as Kniepeiss asks to drive back down the moun­tain. Seems the test driv­ers like to play a lit­tle game in this off-road par­adise: it might as well be called Bobsleigh Run By G, or How Im­plau­si­bly Fast Can We Drive Down­hill In Two-Anda-Half Tonnes Of 4x4, as he ham­mers down the steep track I’ve just crawled up, saw­ing away at the wheel, pogo­ing over rocks like a Dakar rally raid spe­cial at faintly ridicu­lous speeds. At one point, I glance across the dash and strug­gle to com­pute the 70km/h (44mph) read­ing as we plunge on down the steep trail, great plumes of dust bil­low­ing in our wake. This des­cent alone con­vinces me this is an im­pos­si­bly strong car.

Back on met­alled roads, the G brushes off this mo­ment of muddy mad­ness and – dif­fer­en­tials un­locked, high range se­lected, ra­dio switched from rock ’n’ roll to Mozart – mooches along ru­ral Aus­trian B-roads for all the world like a slightly taller, squarer E-Class. The grunty G500 gushes for­ward at the mer­est tickle of your right foot, its V8 bur­ble more ev­ery­day-en­joy­able than the OTT histri­on­ics of the shriek­ing AMG G63.

As the miles click by, I’m re­minded just how well the new G steers, stops and goes. The out­go­ing model was a car­i­ca­ture: plenty of gungho swag­ger but the ac­tual busi­ness of driv­ing, es­pe­cially around cor­ners, was one full of anx­ious mo­ments.

There’s no hand-wring­ing here, as this most dual-pur­pose of 4x4s cruises home. Key to its im­proved on-road be­hav­iour are two sig­nif­i­cant en­gi­neer­ing changes for the new-gen­er­a­tion G: elec­tri­cally as­sisted rack-and-pin­ion steer­ing in place of the old car’s lethar­gic re­cir­cu­lat­ing-ball set-up, and dou­ble-wish­bone front sus­pen­sion. To­gether the two have com­pre­hen­sively mod­ernised the G-Class driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

We’re headed for the colos­sal Magna Steyr fa­cil­ity in the Liebe­nau dis­trict, the com­pany’s Euro­pean HQ and home to some 8000 staff. It’s the car in­dus­try’s go-to place when man­u­fac­tur­ers’ own fac­to­ries run out of ca­pac­ity, and from 2019 it will build the new Z4 for BMW; to­day it as­sem­bles the BMW 5-se­ries plus the i-Pace and E-Pace for Jaguar and the G for Merc. This is the long­est-last­ing re­la­tion­ship Magna has, and the G’s been in con­tin­u­ous pro­duc­tion here since 1979. The 300,000th car rolled off the line last year, and they reckon more than three-quar­ters of the Gs built are still on the road to­day.

We’re met by the head of Mer­cedes-Benz G GmbH, Dr Gun­nar Güthenke, who’s agreed to give CAR a guided tour. His is a bou­tique man­u­fac­tur­ing divi­sion hived off into a 100 per cent Merc sub­sidiary, a muddy skunkworks tucked away in the foothills of the Aus­trian moun­tains. Mer­cedes has a team of 250 spe­cial­ists in Graz, work­ing along­side 2000 Magna em­ploy­ees who built 22,000 G-classes last year.

‘This is a hand-built car and around a quar­ter of our cus­tomers have their cars per­son­alised,’ says Güthenke as we tour the 27,600 square-me­tre fa­cil­ity on an elec­tric golf cart up­graded with hand-stitched leather seats made by the same crafts­peo­ple who as­sem­ble the G-Class’s hand-made pews. ‘Our takt rate [the speed at which a car comes off the line] is one ev­ery 10 min­utes, whereas in a nor­mal car fac­tory it is around 60-70 sec­onds per

In­cred­i­ble ar­tic­u­la­tion – a virtue shared by the G Class and CAR’sTim Pol­lard alike

Vir­tu­ally ero­sion­proof moun­tainmakes for con­sis­tent test­ing

Safe hands – se­nior de­vel­op­ment en­gi­neer Max Kniepeiss knows the trails and the G Class in­ti­mately

When you knowthings are get­ting se­ri­ous

Road man­ners are much im­proved. And ev­ery­thing – ev­ery­thing – givesway to you

A higher grade of o ice park­ing: wel­come to GClasshead­quar­ters

Like Wran­gler and De­fender, G has her­itage. Boss Dr Gun­nar Güthenke brings Pol­lard upto speed

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