ORIG­I­NAL GANG­STERS

MercedesBenz has a new G-Wa­gen, but its roots aren’t lost to time

Automobile - - Classic -

YOU WANT TO hate it be­cause, well, it’s the an­ces­tor of shiny city roamers helmed by celebu­tantes who wouldn’t be caught dead ford­ing a river or climb­ing a trail. You also sus­pect it’s raw and crude and agrar­ian. But the ill as­so­ci­a­tions are en­tirely un­war­ranted. The 40-year-old ori­gins of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class are about as le­git­i­mate as a four- (and some­times six-) wheeled con­veyance gets.

The 2019 G-Class took a drastic turn to­ward moder­nity with its in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion and oh so slightly rounded corners. But it’s a con­tin­u­a­tion of a through­line that orig­i­nally sparked in the ’70s thanks to a nudge from none other than the Shah of Iran, who pre­sciently rec­og­nized the value of stripped-down, go-any­where ve­hi­cles that lacked Range Rover-es­que lux­ury pre­ten­sions. It also didn’t hurt that he was a ma­jor Mercedes-Benz stake­holder.

Early G’s aren’t quite as agri­cul­tural as, say, early Land Rovers, which make John Deere trac­tors feel like in­ter­plan­e­tary rocket ships. But they’re close. Aus­tria’s daunt­ing Schöckl moun­tain usu­ally gets all the glory for the G-Class’ rugged roots, but South­ern France’s sprawl­ing Cir­cuit du Château de Las­tours is where Mercedes fi­nessed much of the G’s off-road skill sets; it was along those craggy trails and jagged hill­climbs that we ex­pe­ri­enced old and new G-Classes back to back.

First, get­ting be­hind the wheel of the proto G-Classes turned out to be a for­tu­itous ca­dence; af­ter all, the ath­letic prow­ess of the mod­ern 416-hp G 550 and 557-hp AMG G 63 is so el­e­vated that fol­low­ing up with the an­cient trucks would have re­quired a com­plete re­verse cal­i­bra­tion of the ol’ butt-o-me­ter. Turns out it’s best to start slow and steady and get ac­quainted with the boxy ute by putting one foot in front of the other, learn­ing to walk be­fore run­ning, and all those sorts of things.

Our first tester, a 1980 230G, is a naive-look­ing short­wheel­base (94.4 inches) ex­am­ple fin­ished in a fetch­ing shade of fire-en­gine red (not to be con­fused for the ac­tual 230G fire truck). Rid­ing on steel­ies and pow­ered by a 2.3-liter four-cylin­der gas en­gine, this in­au­gu­ral 460 se­ries

G is the epit­ome of “Be­fore They Were Fa­mous” in­no­cence, from a time when a Gelän­dewa­gen was a Gelän­dewa­gen, a term that stuck around un­til 1998. From its plaid cloth seats to its hand-crank win­dows, rub­ber­ized steer­ing wheel, and four-speed shift-it-your­self gear­box, this ear­li­est G is the purest ex­pres­sion of the breed. Freed from su­per­fluities such as air con­di­tion­ing and cat­alytic con­vert­ers, the 230 fires up with a quiet crank and gets on its way with unas­sum­ing ease.

Be­cause it’s un­bur­dened by extras, the 102-hp pow­er­plant feels ad­e­quate for its pe­tite body. The shifter fea­tures long throws and feels rather me­chan­i­cal in its op­er­a­tion, but it en­gages smoothly and cleanly. Pi­lot­ing the lit­tle guy over hill and dale in­spires ag­gres­sive driv­ing de­spite the lack of driver aids: Be­cause there’s so lit­tle body­work be­tween you and the out­side world, your spa­tial aware­ness feels ex­tra strong, as though aided by a neu­ral 360-de­gree cam­era. The or­ganic re­la­tion­ship be­tween the non­power-as­sist steer­ing and the car­bu­reted en­gine makes it thought­lessly easy to thread the nar­row tires through ter­rain, and the out­stand­ing vis­i­bil­ity breeds con­fi­dence. Damp­ing is sur­pris­ingly com­pli­ant, and wheel travel is gen­er­ous de­spite the non-in­de­pen­dent front and rear axles; there’s some light jostling over par­tic­u­larly un­even sur­faces, but the ride is sur­pris­ingly plush. Through it all this com­pact 4x4 averts the mod­ern trap­pings of power, weight, and com­plex­ity, of­fer­ing a small, unas­sum­ing, and earnestly sim­ple driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Mov­ing one small step up the G-Wa­gen evo­lu­tion­ary lad­der is like meet­ing an awk­ward mid­dle child af­ter be­ing charmed by the bright-eyed baby. The five-door 1985 230GE gains fuel in­jec­tion that’s good for 125 hp. But mated to an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion and with a 112.2inch wheel­base, the es­sen­tial char­ac­ter of this rig feels markedly dif­fer­ent. Sure, there’s still the thin body pan­els and trade­mark let­ter­boxed wind­shield, but there’s also a slightly en­cum­bered feel­ing due to the chok­ing ef­fect of the torque con­verter gear­box and its dif­fi­cult-to-pre­dict shift pat­terns. Over­come in­er­tia and get it up to speed, and this G feels pal­pa­bly more sub­stan­tial than its short­wheel­base coun­ter­part; its long wheel­base lends an air of sta­bil­ity and smooth­ness. But on steeper el­e­va­tions and tight corners, it also feels less spry and eager to play along with the off-piste games. There’s still a pre­vail­ing sense

of pu­rity, but it sags slightly un­der the weight of the lay­out: the rear seats, the cargo area, the fam­ily- (or troop-) friend­li­ness of it all.

In the in­ter­est of gain­ing much-needed liv­abil­ity on the road and broader mar­ket ap­peal, the G-Wa­gen un­der­went an ex­treme makeover in 1990 with the in­tro­duc­tion of the 463 se­ries. The long-over­due sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion G-Wa­gen ditched its part-time all-wheel drive for a per­ma­nent AWD setup while gain­ing a con­sid­er­ably more ca­pa­ble 5.0-liter V-8 pro­duc­ing 241 hp. In­side, the changes make it all but un­rec­og­niz­able, save the fa­mil­iar 16:9 wind­shield pro­por­tion, up­right pos­ture, and de­fi­antly rec­ti­lin­ear er­gonomics. Although pleated leather and burl ve­neers swathe the flat sur­faces, fa­mil­iar el­e­ments such as the dash­board-mounted grab han­dle still re­call its hum­ble pro­gen­i­tors. The body pan­els are thicker due to the ad­di­tion of more sub­stan­tial crash struc­tures but don’t in­trude into the cabin like they do in later ver­sions.

We plucked a fetch­ingly pe­riod-cor­rect, aubergine-tinted 1993 500GE for a two-hour stint be­tween the me­dieval French town of Carcassonne and Barcelona, and we didn’t re­gret the de­ci­sion. Although it can’t match the 21st cen­tury re­fine­ment of the lat­est/great­est all-new model, this G feels less anachro­nis­tic than you might ex­pect. Sure, the steer­ing ra­tio is painfully slow, and its road-go­ing de­meanor makes it feel like it would be far hap­pier tack­ling a trail than spin­ning the odome­ter over pave­ment. But com­pared to later mod­els whose com­peti­tors were more evolved SUVs, this ex­am­ple from the early ’90s proved eas­ier than ex­pected to live with. There’s still plenty of per­cep­ti­ble road noise and wind howl, but there’s also a more re­fined sus­pen­sion and co­pi­ous torque for high-speed cor­ner­ing and easy­peasy pass­ing. And don’t for­get, this G still oc­cu­pies an era of in­no­cence—it pre­dates the ad­vent of the AMG treat­ment, which in­tro­duced an in­con­gru­ous el­e­ment of per­for­mance that runs counter to the plat­form’s off-road ori­gins.

Go­ing full cir­cle to the com­pletely re­worked mod­ern G-Class re­veals a star­tlingly fa­mil­iar soul de­spite changes to nearly every­thing ex­cept the head­lamp noz­zles, door han­dles, and spare-tire cover. And yes, the 2019 G-Class is os­ten­si­bly a su­pe­rior ve­hi­cle. It man­ages both off-road abil­i­ties and on-road ci­vil­ity. But those markedly re­fined char­ac­ter­is­tics are noth­ing with­out the fun­da­men­tals that were es­tab­lished four decades prior.

By B A S E M WA S E F

1993 500GE(463 se­ries, long wheel­base) EST. COST WHEN NEW: $111,000 EST. VALUE TO­DAY: $40,000 W463 se­ries G-Wa­gens leapt for­ward in terms of cabin com­fort and ride qual­ity, but it would take the fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tion to cross the Ru­bi­con into full moder­nity.

1985 230GE(460 se­ries, long wheel­base) EST. COST WHEN NEW: $46,000 EST. VALUE TO­DAY: $25,000

The new­est G is flush with plush­ness, but diehards can rest easy that its of­froad ca­pa­bil­i­ties are stronger than ever.2019 G 550(464 se­ries, long wheel­base)EST. COST WHEN ON SALE IN LATE 2018:$128,000

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