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OFF-ROAD TEST

Spot the G





29 November 2011


road Test                                        MERCEDES-BENZ GELäNDEWAGEN G350 BLUETEC

The Mercedes G-Wagon is a bit like body-piercings and tattoos – they’re not for everyone but they certainly get you noticed. The question is, what do you do with them when the novelty has worn off?

Mercedes’ timeless off-roader, the Geländewagen, is hard-core, out-dated in terms of ergonomics and, in some ways, hard to live with – like a tattoo or body piercing.

Horrendously overpriced, it is designed primarily for overlanding where reliability and off-road prowess are all that matter.

Once it’s been driven it will polarise opinions because you can’t be ambivalent about it.

Interestingly, observers claim to love it passionately, and part of the reason can only be the imagery it conjures up: men (mainly) can visualise themselves exploring Darkest Africa, fearlessly going where no one has gone before. There’s a perfect nubile maiden alongside you, clutching the dashboard grab handle while simultaneously mopping your sweating brow with a cool cloth.

But does the G350 Bluetec represent the best value when it comes to overlanding? As tested, it represents a R1,3-million investment. To give that context, a Land Cruiser 200 – with more power, more torque, more seats (but, critically, fewer diff locks) – is well under R1-million. That’s where the comparisons stop. There’s not much else out there that warrants comparison, other than a tank. 

Features and equipment

****

A key feature of the G350 is the modern powerplant. It is a Bluetec unit, which means that is needs a diet of 50 ppm diesel (sub-continental travellers take note) and it has a secondary fuel tank containing an urea-based substance called Adblue, which needs to be replenished every 12 000km.

This liquid is injected into the exhaust system in minute amounts, cleaning up the emissions, and helping it achieve a CO2 per kilometre rating of 297g. Mated to this sophisticated V6 (which is identical to the unit used in the S350) is a seven-speed automatic transmission.

The final part of this drivetrain is more traditional: a low-range transfer case, solid axles front and rear, and a trio of mechanical differential locks which can force all four wheels to rotate at the same speed.

Needless to say, all this is attached to a separate ladder-frame chassis that can be traced back about 32 years. That’s how long the G-Wagon’s been around. Over the years the “G” has established itself as a favourite with people in uniform, and it owes its continued existence to the needs of military forces.

Simplicity, toughness and exceptional off-road ability are prerequisites.

Drawbacks from a fundamental design point of view include a five-seater layout, dinky rear window and vertical glass that causes disconcerting reflections at night.

Accommodation

***

The G-wagon’s cabin doesn’t want for equipment but it has the look and feel of a 1970s design which has been spruced up. And that’s exactly what it is.

Despite many controls that are current generation, the overall architecture can’t be disguised. Squared-off panels, multiple joins and hard plastics are reminders of an age when the term “ergonomics” was still in its infancy. Still, the leather upholstery, wood trim and classy steering wheel bring it forward a decade or two, and many of its layout foibles can be discounted.

These include a handbrake lever on the wrong side of the centre console, a silly bottleholder which flips up from the transmission tunnel to foul the driver’s left calf, HVAC controls set too low and rear visibility (never great of the small rear glass) impeded by headrests and the spare wheel.

Highlights are the modern steering wheel, with its intuitive controls for menu-driven interfaces (displayed between the rev counter and speedometer), and the three diff-lock buttons at eye level.

At 1760mm, the angular Merc’s body is particularly narrow. Driver and front passenger sit in close proximity, and the rear pew is cosy when travelling three-up. And it is also upright and firm, though the optional Comfort seats fitted in front lived up to their name.

You do get seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters for front and outer rear seats, as well as curtain airbags, so safety kit has moved with the times.

Folding the rear seats to maximise luggage space (and it boasts a decent 1524 litres of utility volume) isn’t the effortless one-touch process that makes modern SUVs so user-friendly. No, here you have to wrestle with recalcitrant headrests and heavyweight seat frames which look capable of withstanding nuclear fallout. When you do get the headrests out and tilt the seat forward, you’ll have a reasonably flat and low surface area, but it isn’t particularly long (wheelbase is 2850mm and the rear overhang is minimal) and the volume comes thanks to the high roof.

Performance

***

With a drag coefficient of 0.54, a frontal area of three square metres and a tare mass of close to 2500kg, every one of the three-litre engine’s 155 kW and 540 Nm is needed to overcome the laws of physics. But it gets going with surprising alacrity: plant the accelerator and it moves off immediately – there’s little of the lag sometimes associated with a turbodiesel/automatic transmission combo.

Lean hard on the throttle and 100 km/h comes up in a very respectable 9.7 seconds. But from there on the brick-like shape starts to count against it, and 120 takes a middling 14.6sec.

But the sprint times won’t matter too much – this isn’t a robot racer. The sharp-witted gearbox and ample torque make for easy overtaking and with maximum twist effort available between 1600 and 2400r/min, you always seem to have something in reserve. It is also an extremely refined engine.

We suspect towing with a G-Wagon would generally be a pleasure, but expect frequent stops, even with a 96-litre fuel tank. Overall consumption in our largely unladen period with the press test car was in the region of 13 litres per 100km. 

The brakes gave no cause for concern, save to say they require plenty of pedal effort and getting the ABS to intervene on a dry road required a very heavy right foot. Overall, hard stopping ability was no better than average.

Ride/handling

****

The recirculating ball steering is a throwback to the past, yet despite this the G-Wagon tracks pretty straight and true. Overall handling on tar is better than you’d expect from an SUV with such hardcore underpinnings. Beefy stabiliser bars keep bodyroll in check, and it never felt vague or unpredictable.

At just 2.6 turns lock to lock, not a lot of wheel-twirling is required, contributing to a comparatively agile feel. The turning circle is aided by the narrow track and it will manage a U-turn in 11.3m. These are factors that make it quite manageable in the urban crawl and mall-trawl – not that it belongs there.

So getting to far-flung destinations on tarmac isn’t a chore, but it’s the start of unpaved roads that brings the Eureka moment. While some testers were hesitant about how they would feel about living with the G350 day to day, we emerged unanimous about its peerless ability to bash through the bundu. 

It is superb pitted against a wide variety of obstacles: axle twisters pose no threat (despite the anti-roll bars curtailing wheel articulation somewhat). With only the centre diff lock engaged, it is just a case of rolling through on a wave of torque, chugging along in low-range. Steep approaches and heart-stopping downgrades are no problem either, thanks to short overhangs that translate into exceptional approach and departure angles. There’s strong engine braking and good grip on descents too, and the instinct to press the brakes is easily avoided.

Off-camber turns on uneven and loose surfaces, where you need to turn and power your way uphill simultaneously while keeping steering lock applied, caused no fuss, even when faced with near-perpendicular “steps” which looked capable of stopping a wheel dead in its tracks.

Rock gardens? Well, they don’t feature either, thanks to 220mm of ground clearance, solid axles (thereby maintaining clearance between diff housings and the surface), and an underbody which is very well protected.

In fact, the toughest part of off-roading in a G-Wagon is deciding how many differential locks need to be deployed… that, and trying not to look smug.  

Verdict

***

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.

To recap: rear visibility is poor, braking ability is only average, and while the drivetrain is actually very refined, it also highlights aspects of the package which aren’t.

Its price will raise eyebrows, too, as will its need for clean diesel… in which case the G300 Professional, priced at R773 990 and happy with dirtier 500 ppm fuel, makes a better bet.

If we had to rescue adventurers trapped in the heart of the Amazon or on top of Everest and wanted to ensure they had a comfortable ride home, then we’d opt for a G-Wagon. But other than those unlikely scenarios, making a rational case for buying it is difficult. Fortunately, those who love off-road driving in its purest form are not always driven by pure logic, and we’re sure MBSA won’t have a problem selling their limited allocation.

 Team talk

“It brought back too many unpleasant memories of my National Service days. But it did make me look like a superhero when we tested its off-road ability.” – Adrian Burford.   

 “I love the iconic nature and the amazing 4×4 ability of the Geländewagen. The modern drivetrain is not half bad either. Personally I would opt for the ‘entry-level’ G300 Professional, with which one can actually tour through places like Namibia too (it can drink 500ppm diesel). That is, if I can convince the missus that R800 000 for a highly capable 4×4 with manual window winders is a worthwhile investment.” – Danie Botha.

 “I love the G-Class. Not only is it unstoppable in 4×4 conditions, but it boasts the perfect combination of old-school looks and modern technology. But unless you’re an oil baron or a drug lord, I’d recommend that you look elsewhere. There’s just no way to justify the R1.3-million price tag.” – GG van Rooyen.

  • Pieter

    I have just received the following from Volvo, on June 4, 2013 at around 12 noon:

    “According to a recent case study 50 ppm diesel are available in Namibia and Botswana on most of the main routes therefore these engine variants are available in the major centers (Gaborone and Windhoek).”

    This welcoming news means that, with careful planning, modern Diesel-powered vehicles fitted with DPF’s can now be used outside of South Africa.