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Off-Road Test: Mercedes-Benz G350 BlueTec

18 May 2015

We have tested the G350 BlueTec before (issue 92, page 27), but we have never tested it properly off road. It has received some upgrades since its original release in 2011, so we decided to revisit the SUV and put it through a full off-road test.

When we tested the G350 in December 2011, we said: “There is no question that the G-Wagon is virtually unstoppable off road and we can’t think of a better production SUV when the going gets really tough.

“But compromises are required if you intend living with this vehicle, simply because it is so focused on the off-road

“Rear visibility is poor, braking ability is only average, and while the drivetrain is actually very refined, it also highlights aspects of the package that aren’t.”

So we weren’t overly enamoured with the G350, and a big reason was the price. In 2011, it cost R1 227 140, which was rather a lot for such an old-school, rough-around-the edges SUV.

Has anything changed? Not really. It is still very expensive – it now retails for R1 398 255. And while it has received some very nice interior upgrades, it is still a bit of an ergonomic mess, and there is no disguising the fact that the basic architecture is about 40 years old.

But the fact is that the G-Class was built for off-road travelling. Take this SUV off the beaten track and it suddenly starts to make a lot more sense. So in this review we will be focusing exclusively on how the G-Class performs in the rough stuff. Why would you buy a G-Class if you didn’t plan on spending some serious time in the dirt?

 **** Features and equipment

The G-Class might have been around for a long time, but the engine powering this latest iteration is thoroughly modern. The powerplant is a 2987cc oilburner that develops 155 kW of power and 540 Nm of torque. Those are respectable figures, but it is worth remembering that the vehicle weighs around 2500kg and is shaped like a breadbox (it has a drag coefficient of 0,54), so the engine has to work hard.

Still, the SUV accelerates nicely and never feels underpowered. As a hardcore 4×4, the diesel engine suits the G350’s character nicely. It is mated to a seven-speed automatic gearbox that is a good match for the powerplant, and provides smooth shifts.

Off-road features include low-range gearing, of course, and no less than three differential locks. The vehicle has permanent four-wheel drive, but the centre differential can be locked with the press of a button. Both axles are rigid, and the suspension consists of coil springs and gas-filled shock absorbers.

Ground clearance is 220mm.

**** Accommodation

The cabin of the G350 is a rather odd combination of modern luxury and old-school simplicity. All the modern Mercedes-Benz accoutrements have been fitted, but they have been draped over decidedly simple and austere architecture.

For example, the G350 is a very narrow vehicle (1760mm), and because of this, occupants sit close together, so there is no space for a large centre console between the front seats. This means there are no oddment storage spaces or cup holders. There is one cup holder in the footwell of the passenger seat, simply because this is the only spot to put it.

From an off-road perspective, however, the cabin is brilliant. Visibility is excellent and you always know exactly where your front wheels are when you sit behind the steering wheel of the G350. The driving position is high and very commanding, instilling a lot of confidence on a tight track.

The off-road buttons that engage low-range gearing and the differential locks are clearly marked and easy to use.

**** Gravel performance and handling

The G-Class was built for off-road work, so it is no surprise that it feels good on ugly gravel.

The harsh conditions under which Merc’s engineers test the G-Class are well documented. There is absolutely no sympathy when these guys put the G-Class through its paces.

Thanks to this extreme testing and development, the G350 feels unbreakable on gravel. Sitting behind the steering wheel, you get the feeling that the SUV could handle thousands upon thousands of hard kilometres on dirt without any problems.

Piloting the G350 on gravel is a pleasant experience. Thanks to the permanent 4WD system, it feels solid and predictable. As mentioned, it is a narrow vehicle, so a slightly wider track would probably have helped stability, but with tyre pressures lowered slightly, it can handle any gravel track.

Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels are very low, especially if you take into account that the G-Class is a hardcore 4×4. Generally speaking, the ride offered on dirt is quiet and comfortable.

**** Trail capability

The trail capability of the G350 is truly excellent. Thanks to the low-down torque of the oilburner (peak torque at 1600 r/min), the G-Class chugs along effortlessly when low-range gearing is engaged.

Ground clearance is pretty good (220mm), but approach and departure angles are really impressive – 40 and 38 degrees respectively. During our test we tackled some very steep slopes, and few vehicles would have conquered these obstacles without rubbing a front or rear bumper in the dirt. The G-Class did not struggle at all.

Shortcomings? Well, articulation could be a little bit better, but since the vehicle has diff locks on both axles, this is hardly an issue.

Also, the G-Class isn’t particularly nimble on a tight trail. It isn’t bad by any means, but it isn’t as manoeuvrable as a Suzuki Jimny or a SWB Jeep Wrangler. Of course, this makes it more spacious and practical for daily use, but the fact is that a LWB vehicle will never be as easy to navigate on a tight track as a SWB one.

Finally, the fact that the G350 has an automatic gearbox means that it doesn’t allow the driver to make use purely of engine compression when descending a steep slope, so you need to dab the brake a bit more. Again, though, this doesn’t significantly detract from the G-Class’s off-road ability.

*** Overlanding suitability

The build quality and standard equipment of the G-Class make it ideal for overland travel. It is tough enough to survive just about any trip, and it has the off-road bells and whistles to deal with any sort of surface.

But there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Firstly, the G350 requires 50ppm diesel. Although low-sulphur diesel is becoming easier to find north of SA’s borders, a steady supply of 50ppm diesel is never guaranteed, so you would probably need to carry extra fuel when overlanding.

The G350 is also not particularly spacious. Rear seating is a bit cramped and the cargo area isn’t massive. But there is ample space for two people on a long trip.

Overall, the G350 should make a good overland vehicle.

**** Conclusion

Looking purely at its off-road performance, there is no question that the G350 is an excellent 4×4. Very few production off-roaders can go toe-to-toe with it in a 4×4 environment. The build quality and off-road features are fantastic.

But it is impossible to ignore that R1 398 255 sticker price. That is an awful lot of money, especially for a vehicle that you intend to put through the wringer on a 4×4 trail.

Is it worth it? That will depend on how badly you want a G-Class, and how much money you have to spend. If you can afford the G350, though, you won’t be disappointed by what it offers.