Steeped in history, folklore and legend, the Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender and Mercedes-Benz G-Class continue to excite hardcore 4×4 enthusiasts and well-heeled, fashionable city slickers alike. And even though they may no longer represent the epitome of contemporary 4×4 design, they are all powered by the latest generation turbodiesel engines, doing their bit to save the planet. We took the three “old-timers” to Limpopo.
They are exactly the same, but they are completely different.
We are referring to the latest Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender and Mercedes-Benz G-Class – three 4x4s that have much in common but in fact are poles apart.
They share the combat DNA string, and over the last 70 years, various incarnations of the three “war veterans” have seen action in just about every corner of the globe.
These days, though, only the modern versions of the Defender and G-Class have to dodge bullets. The Jeep hasn’t seen active army service in decades.
Still, all three vehicles rely heavily on the legendary exploits of their forefathers. They are not just chunks of metal or aluminium. They are the iconic 4×4 marques that are revered by both genuine 4×4 fanatics and fashion-conscious city slickers.
Three modern turbodiesel engines breathe under those iconic skins. The Wrangler Unlimited on test here is powered by a 2,8-litre fourcylinder engine. The mill hails from Italian company VM Motori, which is jointly owned by Fiat Powertrain Technologies and General Motors. The engine is coupled to a five-speed automatic gearbox, and it’s the most powerful of this lot. It produces 147 kW and 460 Nm of torque from 1 600r/min. It is reasonably modern and refined, and certainly has the horses.
The latest Land Rover Defender is powered by a Euro 5 emission compliant engine. This 2,2-litre four-pot engine hails from Ford’s Duratorq family, and also does service – in slightly different tune – in the Ford Ranger. It is available only with a six-speed manual gearbox, and although its 90 kW and 360 Nm of torque (available from 2 000r/min) do sound underwhelming, it still offers the most refined and comfortable drive ever in a Defender.
The Mercedes-Benz gets the biggest capacity engine, with the most cylinders. The V6 turbodiesel engine is basically the same unit that powers a wide range of Mercedes sedans. But for its G-wagon role the engine is tuned for maximum off-road performance, and it loses out a little in the refinement stakes.
It’s nevertheless a brute and a beaut of a machine. With 135 kW of power and 400 Nm of torque on tap from just 1 600r/min, the big and heavy Mercedes offers brisk performance over any terrain. The power is sent to all four wheels via a five-speed automatic gearbox.
How does one determine which of these “war vets” is the best? How do you compare three legends against each other in a way that would be fair to all of them?
This was our plan: Drive the threesome from Randburg to the Serendipity Eco Trail facility near Mookgopong (formerly Naboomspruit). The return trip would amount to more than 200km of city and open road driving. At Serendipity, the team would tackle some of the toughest obstacles they could find, appropriate to the three 4x4s legendary status.
The three-member judging panel consisted of Leisure Wheels staffers GG van Rooyen and Anzet du Plessis, and South African Guild of Motoring Journalists bursar student Sean Nurse.
Although GG and Anzet have been working in the 4×4 field for some years, Sean represented the inexperienced newbies – as a sizeable chunk of the customers who buy these vehicles appear to be.
To add a further element of “new”, we provided our judges with a simplified and “to-the-points” scoring sheet. Ten segments and a maximum of 10 points in each segment amounted to a total of 100 points.
Right, so the dinner table is set. But before we get to that main course, let’s first take a trip down memory lane, and find out more about the stuff that has made these three vehicles legends in their own time.
Look Jim-Bob! It’s a Go Devil!
The Jeep that started it all. With the world at war in 1940, the US Army – rightly believing it was only a matter of time before it would be drawn into the conflict – contacted 135 American companies with a brief to come up with prototypes for a light-weight, four-wheel drive reconnaissance vehicle.
Only two companies responded – American Bantam and Willys-Overland. Working against a seemingly impossible deadline of just 49 days, the near bankrupt Bantam company contracted Karl Probst, a freelance designer from Detroit, to do the job.
He did it in just two days – the first day for drawing up the blueprint plans, and the second to do the cost estimates. The design met all the Army’s requirements, except for engine torque.
A few months later the first prototype was up and running. It was called the Bantam BRC (Bantam Reconnaissance Car).
But the Army brass felt that Bantam’s infrastructure was too limited for the production run they had in mind. So they handed the Bantam design blueprints to Ford and Willys, and told these companies to use the design as a base and make changes as they saw fit. And so the Ford Pygmy and Willys Quad prototypes were born.
Next, the Army put 1500 units of all three prototypes through extensive field tests. The Willys Quad, with its more powerful “Go Devil” engine (a 2,2-litre four-cylinder that produced 45 kW and 142 Nm of torque at 2 000r/min), got the nod. So the design from Bantam, a seven-slot grille from Ford and a 45 kW engine called the “Go Devil” constituted the first Jeep. And the legend lived.
Since 1944, when the Jeep famously went to war, the brand has changed hands many times. But even though there may have been some stormy periods along the way, Jeep grew and evolved. Today, as part of the Chrysler Group LLC, in alliance with Fiat SpA, the iconic Jeep brand continues to rack up big sales.
Leading the charge is the Wrangler – the spiritual descendent of the original war hero.
I say old chap… fancy an aluminium car?
Maurice Wilks, chief designer of the Rover Company, got the Land Rover ball rolling in 1947. That year Wilks drove a Jeep, fresh from service in the Second World War, on a summer holiday, in Wales. The Jeep seemed like a splendid idea.
And so, inspired by the light-weight and robust American 4×4, Wilks set about creating a similar vehicle, albeit one with some typical British traits. Even though the first prototype was based on a Jeep chassis and axles, there was a major difference in the construction material of this British prototype. After the War there was an acute shortage of steel in the UK. There was, however, plenty of left-over aluminium, used in the construction of aircraft. So Wilks made his four-wheel drive vehicle’s body from aluminium.
Rover soon produced its own chassis and drivetrain for the new vehicle. As with the Jeep, durability was a big selling point. Rover claimed that the first Series I models could be driven for thousands of kilometres on just banana oil.
Of course, these vehicles were soon called up for military duty, and they served not only the British Army but many other armed forces around the world, including the South African Defence Force.
Jeep and Land Rover share another strand of DNA – a topsy-turvy history. Land Rover has swapped owners more times than most Landy fanatics care to remember. Recently, though, the brand seems to have found a perfect partner in the cash-rich Tata Motors of India. With a wide range of models catering for a variety of tastes and wallets, the Land Rover brand is now probably stronger than it has ever been.
Yet, despite the bevy of fancy and technologically mesmerising new models, the Defender, which is based in design on a 30-year-old template and in spirit on the original Series I, continues to sell in steady numbers. It’s still made of aluminium, it’s still quirky and there are a lot of nonsensical niggles. Yet it is special in a way that only a Defender can be. And it does have an irrepressible charm about it.
Great Graz! We need ze 4×4!
The story goes that in the early 1970s the Shah of Iran wanted a tough 4×4 for military purposes.
At the time he was a major shareholder in Mercedes-Benz, so the Germans could hardly shrug their shoulders and dismiss the idea.
The development work started in 1972, in a joint venture between Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch, in Graz, Austria. By 1974 the first test vehicles were put through their paces in the German coalfields, the Sahara desert and the Arctic Circle.
In 1979 the first models rolled off the brand new production line in Graz, where the vehicles were assembled by hand – a tradition that continues to this day.
By 1981 the G-Class had got all posh, with an automatic transmission, air-conditioning, an auxiliary fuel tank and other upgrades. Soon more comfortable seats, heating, wider tyres, fender flares, differential locks, central door locking and even a rev counter followed. By 1986 more than 50 000 “G-Wagens” had been sold.
In time, other modern conveniences and safety features were added. These included ABS brakes (initially only as an option), cruise control, running boards, snazzy wood trim, a stainless steel spare wheel cover, ventilated front disc brakes, airbags up front and headlamp washers.
Later the factory turned out ever more powerful and luxurious “Gs”, as the big Mercs became increasingly popular as a high-end fashion accessory.
Then, in 2006, Mercedes-Benz dropped a bombshell – the G-Wagen would be replaced by an all-new, seven-seater model.
The G-Class kin were not pleased. In fact, they made such a fuss that the Merc big wigs changed their minds and decided to keep the “G” going as a limited edition model, and call its replacement the GL Class. The latter was launched internationally in 2007, while the G-Class continued its hand-built production line in Graz to the tune of about 5000 units a year.
About 230 000 G-Classs have been manufactured since 1979, and most of them are still running today.
|On the tar road – city application||22||17||17|
|On the tar road – long distances||23||19||19|
|On the gravel road – overall||21||20||18|
|Off the road – 4×4 ability||25||23||23|
|Safety – overall||21||14||16|
|Practicality and versatility||21||19||21|
|Value for money||23||19||13|
|TOTALS (from 300)||219 (73%)||195 (65%)||187 (62%)|