Redesigning an iconic vehicle is a tricky thing to do. Designers need to work within very strict, er… square, parameters.
Both the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and the Jeep Wrangler have recently been refreshed but have the manufacturers done enough thinking outside the box?
Both of these vehicles were born as war machines. The Jeep, as the Allied forces’ light mobility, all-terrain vehicle in 1941. And the Mercedes, in 1979, after the Shah of Iran, a major shareholder of the company at the time, suggested a new military vehicle be included in the line-up. Today, both the Jeep and Benz live on, cashing in on their legendary ancestorial lineage. We took the latest Mercedes-AMG G63 and the new Jeep Wrangler JL for a spin, both on tar and off the beaten track. Hold on. It’s going to get frisky.
Something old, Something new
It finally happened: the all-new Jeep Wrangler has snuck its way onto local Jeep showroom floors.
The new JL’s local introduction has been on the cards for many months; it was introduced in overseas markets at the end of 2018. But there was still some stock of the older JK around so Fiat Chrysler South Africa decided to hang tight with the new version.
The Wrangler has been completely renewed while remaining true to itself, with legendary off-road capabilities, authentic Jeep styling and advanced technology features.
With a more modern design, that stays true to the original, combined with more open air freedom and advanced technology features in terms of safety and connectivity the new Wrangler is set to continue where the tried and tested JK left off.
The fourth-generation Wrangler will be offered in three different trim levels: Sport, Sahara and Rubicon, which are all available in two or four-door configuration.
The new Wrangler is immediately recognisable as a Wrangler. In fact, you need to know your Jeeps pretty well to tell this new JL model apart from the previous JK. The traditional cues such as round headlights, seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel arches and visible hinges remain.
The new exterior design is rugged with a wide stance and a lowered beltline that allows for bigger windows.
The headlights and LED fog lights feature crisp, white lighting that are a clue to the fact that it is a new Wrangler with the daytime running lights forming a halo around the outside perimeter of the headlights. From behind, traditional square tail lamps now feature LED lighting. All Wrangler models feature the
option to drop the top using various systems. The easy-to-use Sky One touch power top allows occupants to retract the full-length canvas roof with a push of a button. It will join two additional roof configurations, a Sunrider softop and a lighter, easier to use removable, three-panel hardtop named the Freedom Top.
The interior combines authentic styling, versatility and functionality in addition to a more stylish and comfortable cabin, thanks to the use of high-quality materials and finishes. We felt the interior, especially the centre console, featured too many buttons. Even the buttons for the electric windows are located centrally, which makes removing the doors easier but it does result in a cluttered centre stack.
The interior boasts a total of nine charging points though, and that might be a new record. Small touches like a Willys MB graphic on the gear lever and corner of the windshield show designers had a good time designing the vehicle. The fancy Uconnect infotainment system is standard fitment in the Rubicon and features everything from navigation to Apple CarPlay. The interior is still compact but the larger windows and improved ergonomics mean that it is most certainly a better, more comfortable place to spend time in. A hand-wrapped dashboard
features a soft-touch surface with red accent panels. The front door panels are vinyl wrapped and soft to the touch, featuring lengthened arm rests for better comfort.
We got the opportunity to test the four-door Rubicon model that features the Rock-Trac 4×4 system. As with the Command-Trac found on the Sport and Sahara Trim levels, the new Selec-Trac full-time two-speed transfer case continuously monitors and manages the torque sent to the front and rear wheels.
The Rock-Trac 4×4 system features a two-speed transfer case with a 4.0:1 low-range gear ratio, front and rear heavy-duty next-generation Dana 44 axles and Tru-Lok electric front and rear-axle lockers to tackle the most extreme off-road trails.
Rubicon models offer added articulation and total suspension travel with help from an electronic sway-bar disconnect which uncouples the front sway bar to deliver additional wheel travel for traversing the toughest trails.
A Trac-Lok limited-slip rear differential provides extra torque and grip during slippery, low traction situations.
The Wrangler continues to use the proven five-link coil suspension configuration. Front suspension features a lateral control arm and four longitudinal control arms, while five-link rear suspension features two upper and two lower forged steel control arms for longitudinal control and a track bar for lateral axle control.
Thanks to its body-on-frame design and a superbly engineered five-link suspension system, the Wrangler continues to deliver benchmark 4×4 capability, with improved on-road dynamics, passenger safety and a more comfortable driving experience. The Wrangler is undoubtedly the best standard 4×4 you can buy for under a million bucks these days. Out the box, it is ready to tackle some extreme obstacles and you can simply hose it down inside and out when you’re done.
Safety improvements include the addition of technology such as a reversing camera, blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert. Hill descent control makes negotiating tricky descents easier.
Under the bonnet, the tried and tested 3.6 litre V6 remains, featuring 209kW and 347Nm but the gearbox has been replaced with a new eight-speed automatic. This improved gearbox has done wonders for the driving experience, the engine feels nippier and will no doubt be more efficient. The new gearbox has also ensured better torque delivery while retaining low-end torque, which is an essential trait for extreme off- road driving.
Our short time with the vehicle unfortunately did not allow us to test the fuel consumption but we guess it will be similar to the previous model during a combined cycle. There are other engines, including a diesel available abroad, but those have not yet been confirmed for South Africa.
Wrangler owners love to customise their vehicles and Jeep took this into consideration. The accessory catalogue features 180 original Mopar accessories that cater for all kinds of requirements. In that centre stack are four switches that can be wired up to accessories such as lights or a winch, eliminating the need for
the installation of a mismatched aftermarket switch along with your chosen accessories. The Rubicon model can also be fitted with 35-inch tyres without the need for any modifications.
I am sure many Wrangler fans were worried that Jeep would go soft with the new model but that is certainly not the case. They have just made it safer and easier to live with, while retaining the extreme off-roading capabilities. The legend lives on.
Das G Spot, ja?
We’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen. In 2017, we voted the Mercedes-AMG G63 as our favourite performance SUV, among a celebrated list of high performance SUVs like BMW X5Ms, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, and so on.
It wasn’t the handling or the lap times that impressed us. Quite frankly, a donkey cart handled better than the previous generation G63. The front end, underpinned by an old-school solid axle, notoriously wandered about the show and the feedback felt as if the steering wheel was connected to the front axle via a wooden ore.
A professional driving instructor even remarked that, if you had swallowed an entire box of brave pills and tackled a gymkhana track with vigour with all the safety systems switched off, best you tuck your elbows inside the car, otherwise you might scrape one on the tar. That is, if you manage to not land it on its roof.
With the stability and traction control system active, the G63 still wasn’t great. The system – clearly intent on preventing any elbow damage – intervened in no uncertain terms as soon as the driver attempted to chuck the big Benz into a corner, pulling the vehicle straight by applying braking force to applicable wheels.
So, although it went like clappers in a straight line, it was decidedly horrid in the dynamic and handling departments.
Instead, it was the G63’s sense of occasion, accompanied by one of the best automotive soundtracks ever, that left us utterly intoxicated with the behemoth Benz.
If the previous-generation Mercedes-AMG G63 had a few wrongs, the latest version certainly goes about setting them right. Most importantly, there is the thoroughly modernised drivetrain. AMG ditched the old-fashioned solid front axle for a modern independent set-up with adaptive shock absorbers, still riding on a tough ladder-frame chassis.
Worried that the G63 is less capable off-road than before? Don’t be. The Gelandewagen, no matter the derivative, has never had vast amounts of wheel articulation. That’s why three differential locks have always been par for the course, to get it through the tougher 4×4 obstacles. So the latest G-class is still highly capable off-road.
On the road, however, it is a completely different game and good news all-round. The independent front suspension, adaptive dampers and new rack and pinion steering set-up have utterly transformed the ride and handling dynamics of the big Benz. It’s front end is now as stable as that of a C-Class sedan, the steering providing plenty of feedback, and a good feel.
Then there’s that new engine. The older-generation 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 (420kW and 760Nm) and seven-speed automatic gearbox has made way for AMG’s stonking four-litre V8 twin-turbo mill that does service in the brand’s top- performance derivative, the Mercedes-AMG GT R Coupe.
In the G63, the hand-built engine delivers 430kW and a massive 850Nm of torque (compared to the GT R Coupe’s 430kW and 700Nm), and it sends all that grunt to the four wheels via a new nine-speed AMG Speedshift gearbox. The GT R can reach a top speed of nearly 320km/h, but thankfully the G63’s top end is limited to 220km/h.
On the outside, the styling has been updated, too, although again you have to be a bit of a fan to spot the difference, most notable are the headlights with the round LED daytime running lights, swanky new rear lights and massive 22-inch wheels. Our test unit was the Edition 1 version, which adds R300 000 to the sticker price and adds some racy decals, those 22-inch wheels and custom interior detailing.
The cabin is also updated and now features the brand’s latest TFT multifunction screen and dashboard display, and MBUX infotainment system. The central section alone is 11.4cm and the screen directly in front of the driver can be customised to best suit their needs. There’s one large rev counter in the middle, with a smaller speed display in the centre. Or you can have a more traditional analogue style speedo and rev counter.
The rest of the five-seat cabin is replenished in the best Nappa leather, there’s an AMG-specific clock low in the centre stack, an AMG Performance steering wheel and AMG stainless steel door still panels. Most impressive though is the attention to detail and the craftsmanship; even the air vents seem to be individual works of art, easy on the eye, pleasing to the touch.
A few special buttons preside in the stack between the front seats, along with the control panel for the MBUX system. A twist dial selects between the Dynamic Select system’s different driving modes, including Comfort, Sport and Sport+. This effectively adjusts the suspension and other electronic parameters and settings as per the driver’s request. Alternatively, you can only select the specific damping, too, without affecting other systems.
You can select full manual shift for the gearbox, too, two beautifully crafted paddles behind the steering wheel providing up and down shifts. There’s also the option to switch off the traction control… but unless your surname is Hamilton or Bottas, this is probably not advisable.
What is certainly advisable is a button decorated with two exhaust pipes; you really do need to activate this button. The system effectively opens valves in the exhaust system, unleashing even more thunder from the 430kW V8 engine. With the four tailpipes living just under the rear doors (two on each side), protruding from under the running boards, the sound effects are simply spectacular. It’s goose bump stuff, really.
Holy Smokes! How fast?
With all the upgrades and the new suspension and engine, we expected the latest G63 to be better than its predecessor. But we weren’t quite prepared for how much better and faster it would be.
The big Benz, weighing a hefty 2.6 tons, completed the 0–100km/h sprint in a blindingly fast 4.2 seconds. It completed the quarter mile dash in 12.5 seconds at 178km/h (the previous generation G63 managed 13.79 seconds and 166km/h). In-gear acceleration was equally impressive: it needed just 3.4 sconds to blast from 80–120km/h.
But numbers are one thing, as impressive as they may be. What was even more impressive was this AMG’s performance on a winding, pock-marked B-road. In the previous generation G63, when you started pushing on a similar road, it was like playing
Russian roulette, or riding a wild stallion; you always expected the beast to bare its teeth at some unexpected moment, sending you exploring new off-road routes without you having had a hand in that decision.
The new G63 handles so much better. The front end remains planted and solid, the 22-inch high performance tyres soaking up the irregularities in such a manner that the driver hardly knew they were there in the first place. The new steering system is a revelation: you aim the Benz into a corner and not only does it go where you aim it, the steering provides excellent feedback.
Even the brakes have come to the performance party, providing excellent stopping power. And the stability and traction control systems are far more in tune with the ‘AMG’ lineage.
Now this is a proper AMG!
Okay, but before we get carried away: this is still a Gelandewagen. It has the same aerodynamic qualities as a brick, it is more top heavy than a GT R Coupé in the corners and it weighs 2.6 tons.
You still need to be an accomplished racing driver legend of sorts to even think about switching off the traction and stability control system and going all Ken Block with this Benz. It’s one of those beasts that will, if you don’t show it a fair dollop of respect, bite you on the backside.
But what if you want to buy a G63, and not drive it like a hooligan, scaring old ladies? What if you just want to cruise around town in the lap of luxury, or tackle a 1 000km cross-country trip?
The latest G63 is adept at providing a high-end luxury ride around town, the Nappa- covered seats offering excellent support (and can even massage front seat passengers), the noise, vibration and harshness is as good as any other upmarket Merc sedan, and with all the power in the world and the smooth-shifting automatic ‘box dawdling around town, this really is a luxurious, comfortable affair.
Driving about town in the best ‘normal’ fashion we could muster, the big Mercedes required an average of 20.7 litres of petrol for every 100km. That said, anyone who forks out R3 million for a high- performance V8 SUV will probably have no qualms
about fuel consumption.
That’s all par for the course.
And what about 4×4ing? It’s a G, after all?
As we’ve aluded to before, the Gelandewagen has never had spectacular amounts of wheel articulation, instead relying on its extremely tough underpinnings and three differential locks. A unique party trick was that these lockers could be activated or deactivated while the vehicle was on the move.
The independent front suspension has had no ill effect on the Gelandewagen’s off-road prowess. It still has a pukka transfer case, and those three lockers. We engaged the centre locker only on one tricky descent, to help ensure we didn’t damage those fancy 22-inch AMG rims.
But the fancy wheels and the fact that those cool exhaust pipes live under the side steps really had us breaking into a bit of a nervous sweat. Driving a R3 million G63 over rocks is not exactly a relaxing pastime. Nevertheless, it completed all the tests we threw its way easily enough, albeit with a considerable amount more circumspect and slower speed than the Jeep.
For the record, we measured 350mm of actual ground clearance under the front axle, and 250mm below the rear axle, the lowest points. That’s still pretty darn handy. And remember: this behemoth can sprint from 0–100km/h in 4.2 seconds.
Both these vehicles rely heavily on their historical roots and legend-status to convince well-heeled customers to park one in their driveway.
The Mercedes-AMG G63 has moved the Gelandewagen goalposts not only off the field, but to a different city altogether. It’s improved in every which way. The straightline performance is simply staggering and it doesn’t mind corners anymore, providing a much more refined, stable and comfortable drive on B-roads.
And the sound of it! It’s simply mesmerising. We found ourselves driving with the front windows open more often than not to take in the V8’s roar, hiss and spit. If you’re a petrolhead, it doesn’t get much sweeter than this.
There is the small matter of the R3 million sticker price, and clearly this Mercedes-AMG is only the preserve of the well-heeled. Priviledged they are, indeed.
For the rest of us, the rationale is different. Like the fact that you can park three new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon V6s in your garage for the same price, and still have some spare cash for fuel. Or even three Porsche Macan S models. And no less than 10 Suzuki Jimnys.
What about the Jeep then? It’s also no bargain buy anymore, selling for more than R915 000.
However, that sticker price is approximately R150 000 more than the outgoing model and for that you get updated safety, ergonomics and an improved interior along with a truly modernised take on a legendary vehicle. The Jeep is in our books, the best off the showroom floor off-roader on the market today. And if that’s not enough, you can fit 35-inch tyres, without the need for any other modifications. Although really capable out the box, it is a blank canvas on which enthusiasts can build their dream 4×4… and therein lies the beauty.
If you’re already a Wrangler fan, you’ll love the new model. Perhaps you always wanted one but were put off by its off-road bias. Jeep has fixed all these problems by making the Wrangler easier to live with without compromising its off-road ability or authenticity. Mission accomplished.