By: Denis Droppa
Its archaic styling and soggy handling hark back to a bygone driving era, but when Mercedes-Benz threatened to kill off the legendary Gelandewagen, loyal customers had a hissy fit. And so here it is in 2013 - the era of smart phones and iPads - with that same old boxy shape, looking like a gatecrasher in a market full of sleek and aerodynamic SUVs.
Much like the long-lived Land Rover Defender, the Mercedes G-Class (which is what it’s called nowadays) is an iconic off-roader that maintains its square-shaped body mounted on a robust ladder frame, while occasional changes are made beneath the skin to keep it up to date. The latest of these took place last year when the G-Class was given several internal and external tweaks.
The previous G-Class I drove was the baseline G300 CDI Professional model, a workhorse stripped down to the essentials with manual window winders, exposed steel cabin surfaces, and a prehistoric sliding-lever ventilation system. Although it was amazingly proficient off-road, driving it made me feel like Fred Flintstone.
INDIANA JONES IN A TUXEDO
But this time it was the G350 BlueTec that arrived on my doorstep, and it’s a completely different bucket of bolts, with a luxurious cabin and 21st century gadgets beneath that old-school exterior. This time I felt more like Indiana Jones in a tuxedo.
Outside, the old-fashioned boxy design remains unchanged - complete with its exposed door hinges and panel gaps large enough to stuff a wad of notes into (let alone a credit card) - but there’s been some 21st century cosmetics added in the form of new LED daytime driving lamps and new exterior mirrors.
You get the full royal treatment once you thunk shut the heavy doors: plush leather seats with electrical adjustment, shiny burr walnut wood trim, and full climate control.
It’s like walking into an old barn and finding it’s decorated like the Ritz hotel lobby.
The instrument panel and centre console have been redesigned with a more contemporary look, and the gazillion gadgets include navigation, Bluetooth, voice activation, a Harman Kardon audio system, parking sensors, blind-spot assist, and a Comand infotainment system with a colour display. Those all come standard in the G350, while our test vehicle was also fitted with options such as a rear DVD entertainment system, reversing camera, and a classy-looking Alcantara anthracite headliner.
It’s very roomy inside and the rear seats flop down to create a huge cargo hold - the roof’s high enough to transport mountain bikes standing up.
The engine in the G350 Bluetec is a three-litre V6 turbodiesel with 155kW and 540Nm on tap, linked to a smooth-shifting 7G-Tronic seven-speed auto. The Bluetec technology minimises emissions, in particular oxides of nitrogen, and requires an occasional refill of a liquid called AdBlue.
It’s a torquey powerplant with loads of low-down muscle and a useful 175km/h top speed, but it’s a fuel guzzler of note. Our test vehicle quaffed around 14 litres per 100km in open-road driving and more than 17 litres around town. Merc’s claim of 11.7 litres seems optimistic in the extreme.
The electronic stability control system has been revised and now includes Trailer Stability Assist, but quick direction changes aren’t this vehicle’s forte. Compared to sharp-handling SUVs such as the Mercedes ML and BMW X5, the G-Wagen’s a clumsy behemoth around corners, with lots of body roll and heavy steering (even though it’s power assisted).
But off-road there’s little short of a Unimog that’ll outperform it. With its solid axles front and rear, long springs for extensive suspension travel, permanent four-wheel drive, three locking differentials (centre, front and rear), and a low-range transfer case, it takes a particularly obstinate obstacle to hinder its progress.
It’s all electronically selectable by pushing buttons instead of having to manhandle heavy levers.
My drive over a rugged off-road trail included steep hills and big rocks; the big Benz took them all in its stride, without even having to engage any of the diff locks.
It would truly be the vehicle for a cross-Africa expedition, if it wasn’t for the fact that it needs to run on low-sulphur 50ppm diesel which isn’t readily available across the continent (500ppm is recommended only in emergency situations).
The G-Class is a vehicle you either “get” or not, but I understand the appeal. There’s just something about its chunky, robust nature that makes you feel like Indiana Jones on one of his adventures.
It’s maximum offroad ability with full-blown luxury.
The clincher is that you have to really “get” it because the price is an eye-watering R1 335 000 for the G350 Bluetec; the same money would buy you a Mercedes ML350 and an entry-level E-Class.
Only very well-heeled enthusiasts and adventurers need apply. - Star Motoring