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BUYERS GUIDE - WAGONS LARGE

MERCEDES-BENZ G-CLASS
The old beast keeps going.

The Gelandewagen was originally planned as a German Army vehicle, but lost out to the VW Iltis and the first civilian version was produced way back in 1979. M-B has had three prior goes at selling the G-Wagon in Australia, with the 2017 models showing the flag as a backdrop to the Australian Army’s purchase of 1200 4WD and 6WD G-Wagons.

Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen

There has been very little marketing nouse in the multiple efforts Mercedes-Benz has made in trying to sell its expensive G-Wagon Down Under.

It’s not clear to us what Mercedes-Benz was thinking when it decided to re-introduce the Gelandewagen to the Australian 4WD market in 2010.

The company’s two previous efforts in the 1980s and 1990s proved unsuccessful and the two 2010 models were at stratospheric price levels.

The ‘base’ G350 vehicle post-2010 was powered by M-B’s aluminium-block BlueTEC, 3.0-litre V6 diesel, with 155kW and 540Nm, driving through a seven-speed, 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission to coil-sprung live axles front and rear with full-time 4WD.

Diff locks were fitted to the transfer case differential and both drive axles. The price: $161,680 ($163,900 in 2016), or around twice what you would have paid for a Land Rover Discovery 4, kitted to similar equipment levels.

But there was more: the G55 AMG version, powered by a 5.4-litre petrol V8 with 373kW and 700Nm – was yours for a mere $217,230 ($233,900 in 2016)!

For that pricing the post-2010 G-Wagon needed to offer something spectacularly different from the large-wagon competition, but the ‘new’ machines rolled on 18-20-inch wheels, with street-style, low-profile rubber, so they were hardly aimed at the affluent grazier market, nor were they Range Rover market contenders, because the G-Wagon’s chassis dynamics were years out of date.

We drove the previous-model AMG version in Germany a few years back and the flat-faced G-Wagon felt really weird at over 200km/h on the autobahn – it was no high-speed cruiser.

Until September 2017 that’s how the model range Down Under stayed and buyers kept away in their thousands.

 

The 2017 effort

M-B’s fourth attempt to sell the ancient Gelandwagen must have been prompted by the Australian Army’s purchase of 1200 4WD and 6WD G-Wagons.

Australia was the only market in the world to receive the G 300 CDI Professional Wagon and Cab Chassis models for civilian purchase, but the Army contract conditions forbid the sale of civilian 6×6 versions.

The G 300 CDI Professional Wagon was powered by the previous six-cylinder, turbocharged diesel, but derated to 135kW and 400Nm, coupled to a five-speed automatic and permanent all-wheel-drive with a 50:50 torque split.

It came standard with three differential locks that were selectable on the move, as well as a ‘roo bar, snorkel and 16-inch black aluminium wheels. Other standard kit included includes a 96-litre fuel tank, two 12-volt batteries, tyre pressure monitoring, air filter restriction warning, fog lights, brake pad wear indicator for the front axle, headlight and indicator stone guards, and radiator and oil sump shields.

Safety systems included driver and front passenger SRS airbags, anti-lock braking, Brake Assist and Electronic Stability Program (selectable on/off). The Wagon had four seats, with walk-through access to the luggage compartment.

Tare weight was a claimed 2350kg and GVM was 3560kg, for a payload rating of 1210kg. Towing capacity was 3140kg, with a maximum towball weight of 140kg.

List pricing was $109,900, plus on-road costs, so we reckoned you can kiss 120 grand goodbye, by the time you kept your local ‘Benz dealer well fed. Another serious consideration is that there’s virtually no Mercedes-Benz dealership support outside major population centres.

The $9900-option PUR pack added
a walk-on bonnet, electric door mirrors, a roof rack, heat-insulated tinted glass behind the B-pillar, side running boards, a towbar, headlamp cleaning system, heated leather seats and a radio/CD player.

There was also a Winch Preparation Package ($1700).

The walk-on bonnet option ($1900) and heated seats ($900 ) could be separately selected, as could tinted rear windows ($700) and a wire mesh partition behind the rear seats ($1200).

After pursuing a road test vehicle for six months, we finally convinced ‘Benz to let us have a demo machine for four days. After driving it on and off road we think we know why they were reluctant to give us a test vehicle.

 

On and off road

Back in the distant past I was a military vehicle demonstration driver for Volvo Trucks Australia. The fleet we were attempting to sell to the Australian Army consisted of C303 4×4 one-tonne-payload and C304 6×6 1.5-tonne-payload light vehicles and F88 4×4 and 6×6 heavy trucks. Volvo never got the business, but it was invaluable experience for me.

Over the years since, I’ve driven many military vehicles, including a Steyr-Puch Haflinger 4×4 quarter tonner and the same company’s Pinzgauer 6×6 one-tonner; Perentie 4×4 Land Rovers and an SAS 6×6 derivative; Ford’s prototype, forward control 4×4 one-tonner ; a US Army Humvee (not the Chev-based civilian Hummer pretender); Unimog 4×4 and 6×6 trucks; and MAN 4×4, 6×6 and 8×8 trucks.

All these vehicles had been designed for military operations and all of them made a poor transition into civilian life. So it is with the Mercedes-Benz G Wagon Pro.

Obviously, the military emphasis is on off-road performance and tractive ability, and on-road behaviour is secondary. Also, the niceties of the modern vehicle environment, including sound deadening material, cruise control, climate control, hill descent control, rear seat ventilation, connectivity, interior and exterior styling and multiple airbags don’t feature.

Military convoys normally travel on-highway at around 80km/h, so vehicle gearing, behaviour and noise levels are measured up to that speed zone – maybe up to 100km/h, in some cases. Most military vehicles aren’t geared to run quietly or economically at 110km/h, let alone the NT’s 130km/h.

As many ex-Australian Army Unimog owners have discovered, this off-road capable beast is flat-knacker at around 80km/h. (Larry Perkins designed an overdrive box for his Unimog, to allow it to run economically at 100km/h.)

The G-Wagon Pro is better than a ‘Mog as far as cruising revs are concerned, but it still spins at 2500rpm at highway speed. Worse, the ventilation slit in the bonnet that allows hot air to escape from around the turbocharger also allows turbo shriek to invade the cabin, via the windscreen. When the turbo is working the cabin is an unpleasant place.

We noted the primitive radio fitted to the test vehicle, but we needn’t have been concerned, because at speeds over 80km/h we couldn’t even hear it!

The G-Wagon Pro’s springs has well-chosen rates, but the dampers didn’t appear to do anything at all: the wagon reacted to every bump and rut, and bottomed on even minor potholes. On smooth roads it handled and rode quite well.

The warhorse came into its own in off-road conditions, where it climbed any rocky slope we aimed it at. The traction and stability control systems worked well, and diff lock
actuation was good, as was disengagement. The main disappointment was a lack of engine braking on steep descents.

The four seats offered reasonable comfort and the front pair had some seat height and rake adjustment. However, the el cheapo, hand-cut mats that covered the steel floor looked out of place in a $110k+ machine.

The gear selector was precise in action and provided one-touch, up and down ratio selection. Other controls were easy to operate. The aircon ran permanently, with cabin temperature regulated by a simple slide lever.

The G-Wagon Pro’s cargo area was huge and its 1.2 tones payload rating allowed for plenty of freight capacity. Also, the optional roof rack covered the whole cabin top and could hold plenty.

The horrible rubber mat covered a military-grade floor track, load-securing system, flanked by four large eye bolts on the inner rear mudguards.

We just couldn’t see a big market for the G-Wagon Pro. If priced around the LandCruiser range it would have had a lot more appeal, but it was 50-percent dearer. The price tag could have been justified, perhaps, if it had much better road manners, interior appointments and comfort.

Scroll down for our video test of the 2017 model.

2019 upgrades

In January 2018 an updated
G-Class was announced in Europe.

It introduced independent front suspension in place of the original live axle, but retained a live rear axle. Improved on-road manners were claimed, as a result.

Unlike other IFS arrangements the double-wishbone front suspension was attached directly to the ladder frame without a suspension sub-frame. The
attachment points on the frame for the lower wishbones were positioned as high up as possible, to improve ground clearance.

M-B’s 9G‑Tronic automatic transmission with torque converter was specifically adapted to meet the needs of the G-Class.

A new torque-sharing transfer case was flange-mounted directly on to the 9G-Tronic and is set up to deliver 40 percent of the drive torque to the front axle and 60 percent to the rear axle. Permanent all-wheel drive ensures maximum traction.

A new 2.93:1 low-range ratio could be engaged at speeds of up to 40km/h and low to high range could be switched at speeds of up to 70km/h.

The G-Class changed to ‘G-Mode’ independently of the chosen drive program as soon as one of the three differential locks was activated or low range was engaged. This off-road mode adapted the adjustable damping of the chassis, to allow more bump travel. Steering action was also boosted; accelerator travel desensitised and unnecessary gearshifts were avoided.

All-round visibility from a bird’s-eye view was provided by an optional 360° camera, reversing camera and three additional cameras. The information was presented in a choice of different views on the multimedia system’s display. Dynamic guide lines showed the road and the width of the G-Class.

In addition, the off-road screen specially designed for the G-Class also displayed data such as height, gradient, angle, compass, steering angle and activated differential locks.

We couldn’t see the point in evaluating this ‘new’ version, given pricing that starts at 145 grand!

 

Previous Models

There are a few of the earlier marketing efforts in the used-4WD market, but not many come up for sale. The early-model, naturally-aspirated, three-litre diesel was a slug, but the 1990s petrol-engined versions went well – especially the three-door models. 

Bush Modifications

The previous-generation G-Wagon came out of the box bush-ready and didn’t need much added kit. Because only a few were sold after-market manufacturers didn’t tool up to produce much gear for the G-Wagon.

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