► Mercedes’ £92k utility 4x4
► Tested on road and off it
► So niche, so desirable
Introduced in 1979, the Mercedes G-Class is a survivor in the truest sense. As tough as a pickled cockroach, it’s also defied decommissioning by maintaining a tiny but loyal following willing to pay the premium inherent in a low-volume, specialist vehicle.
What lies beneath is prehistoric; ladder frame, truck-like suspension (albeit coil rather than leaf-sprung) and happy only when iced with a good crust of hard-won, preferably Himalayan filth. But inside and under the bonnet it’s entirely contemporary, with a torque-laden turbodiesel V6, Mercedes’ seven-speed auto gearbox (always driving all four wheels via a choice of two ratio ranges) and up-to-date Comand infotainment.
While the bombastic AMG G63 takes the lion’s share of UK sales (think low hundreds annually – Magna Steyr in Austria build the G-Class at a rate of no more than 15 per day), it’s the G350d that’s the more honest tool, and the version tested here.
That’s a really big drop – are you sure about this?
There are many things you can’t be sure of with Mercedes’ G-Class (like who actually reaches the conclusion they need one, and how the thing can be handsome when no one’s ever designed it?) but there’s one thing you can be sure of – if the terrain ahead looks impassable, no one’s told your G. It’ll be just fine.
Tug the left paddle (yep, the suspension may use a thing called a Panhard rod but the modern G-Class enjoys flappy paddles) for manual shifting and first gear, engage one or more of the three diff locks (centre, rear and front, in that order) via buttons on the centre console and simply let the car – and your fears – go. Thereafter the Mercedes’ full-time four-wheel drive, ludicrous wheel articulation and towering ground clearance (the primary advantage of its suspension design) will do the rest. Make anything like the right inputs at the right time and it will, like a diesel Terminator, refuse to stop.
Just as a Porsche Cayman flatters to make you look competent on a circuit, so the G-Class takes your fumblings, ascertains your over-arching objective (be it scaling a near-vertical 80% slope or rapidly slip-sliding through a muddy forest with surprising agility and speed) and achieves it. Effortlessly. Every time.
And inside? All bare metal, diff whine and road noise?
Into the G’s shell Merc has transposed its latest Comand infotainment and all the contemporary switchgear you’d find in any other new Benz. The seats are puritanically upright and straight-backed but comfortable, and the driving position considerably roomier and less compromised than that of a Defender.
The finish too is more Stuttgart than Solihull, with abundant leather that feels at once plush and tough enough to shrug off a few decades in the field (or a field).
Niceties include like bi-xenon headlights, adaptive cruise control and full smartphone compatibility, including CarPlay.
Crucially, switching between transmission ranges is child’s play – knock the car into neutral, let your rolling speed drop below 10mph, push a button, done. Now you can rev the engine hard in fourth and still only be doing 28mph, albeit 28mph on the kind of ground that’d leave some tanks beached.
Truth is the hot seat in a G-Class is nice place to be. Window dropped and heated seat on to better enjoy a sunny October afternoon, there’s real joy in thrumming along in charge of a piece of hardware you’d need a mountain range and some serious artillery to stop. Visibility is excellent, the car easy to place (on road or off it) and the fuss-free and solidly screwed together ambience entirely appropriate.
Great off-road – awful on it?
Not awful, no. Not by a long stretch. The powertrain is a peach. The turbodiesel V6 is smooth and supremely grunty, its 398lb ft of torque coming in from just 1600rpm and as if ensconced in the thickest of velvet gloves. Off-road this delivery is a godsend; so smooth it never threatens to upset the fragile ceasefire going on between your tyres and the gloop beneath them, yet with shove enough push the whole plot up any obstacle at the merest brush of the throttle pedal.
On road it’s competent too, lending the G-Class a perfectly respectable turn of speed while managing 28.5mpg, apparently. The gearbox shifts imperceptibly, certainly in auto mode – manual shifts into low gears can clunk home.
Of course, that off-road prowess comes at a price. The steering is nothing like as vague or sloppy as you might expect, though the fact you can turn the wheel some 30° from the dead-ahead before anything happens will comes as a shock. The suspension patters and fidgets on tarmac and nothing about the vehicle’s body control or steering make you want to test either with the kind of corner speeds a Land Rover Discovery would shrug off. Can a Discovery go everywhere off-road a G-Class can? Probably not, not least because of the G’s sawn-off overhangs and mighty 36° approach and departure angles, but given a Disco can comfortably exceed most driver’s off-road ambitions this is a moot point. It’s probably also worth pointing out the Discovery’s vastly cheaper price, family-friendly seat count of seven and welcome lack of school run visual menace.
Tyres play their part. Tool your G up with the mud-ready rubber its off-road prowess demands (our test car ran on Attura Trail Blades) and the road noise will stagger, as will the pervasive disconnect that leaves you several steps removed from what’s going on at your (thankfully huge) contact patches. But the G’s perfectly drivable nonetheless, and its surprisingly compact footprint (1760mm wide compared to a Discovery’s 2000mm) makes it considerably less stressful to thread down give-and-take country lanes.
AMG’s twist on the G-Class, the infamous G63, has an appeal all its own; and at £136k that’s just as well. Extrovert, silly and a little scary, it’s an oxymoronic icon of excess and, rightly or wrongly, they’re always in demand.
By contrast the G350d is an example of evolution doing its thing. The good stuff has been retained and honed while all the compromises they’d normally impose have been cheated using 21st century engineering.
The result is a kind of OEM-built 4x4 Singer Porsche: a timeless silhouette updated with a serious powertrain and nice-to-have stuff like modern NVH levels and Bluetooth.
If you need an off-road capable family car there are more obvious choices, not least the aforementioned Discovery and Toyota’s Land Cruiser, but the G-Class isn’t about rational choices.
Compromised as a road car and hugely expensive, its off-road talents and weapons-grade charm sit at the core of its leftfield appeal. Even if you never call on the former, the latter will have you smiling every time you climb aboard, clunk shut that board-flat door and power off into the melee of modern life.