According to Mercedes-Benz, 2015 is “the year of the SUV” – so it’s quite odd that the brand is once again renewing its 36-year-old veteran model, the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen rather than offering a properly new car.
Indeed, the updates for this new 2016 Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen are hard to distinguish from the exterior of the car. There’s a new bumper… and that’s it.
Oh, there are some new wheel designs. And five new colours available. And what colours they are.
The options include solarbeam (the yellow also used on the Mercedes-AMG GT), tomatored (red), aliengreen (green), sunsetbeam (orange) and galacticbeam (purple). Buyers can option these, and it costs thousands of dollars, but it certainly makes a statement.
Plenty of people are still buying these somewhat outdated behemoths. Mercedes-Benz stated at the launch of the updated model near Frankfurt, Germany, that sales of the G-Wagen have risen by 20 per cent to August 2015, and that’s on the back of an “all-time high” in 2014. And, according to the brand, the only way is up.
Some of those sales aren’t being driven by conventional customers, even in Australia. The Victorian government, for instance, has put in an order for 300 G-Wagens, with production to commence in October. Those models are the “Professional” (461) grade versions, and they'll be used as fire trucks.
The vehicles we drove at launch were the more fancied – and fancy – customer-focused (463) models, and while none that we drove were coated in the fantastical paint, the first version we sampled – the G500 – had another trick up its sleeve … or under its bonnet.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz G500 model is the recipient of a new 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 drivetrain that is familiar from the Mercedes-AMG GT and Mercedes-AMG C63. The previous model was sold with a 5.5-litre naturally-aspirated V8.
This variant is not yet confirmed for Australia. The existing model made up just a few per cent of sales, with the G63 the bulk-seller and the G350 diesel – also updated as part of this model-year revision – by far the most popular models.
It doesn’t quite have as much power as the engine fitted to the AMG passenger car performance models, but with 310kW of power (at 5250-5500rpm) and 610Nm of torque (from 2250-4750rpm), it’s not short of punch – and it has 25kW and 80Nm more than the old 500.
The engine is a vicious and raucous thing; it pulls brutally in the mid-range, though there’s a touch of low-rev lag. Benz claims it can dispatch with the 0-100km/h run in just 5.9 seconds, and has a top speed of 210km/h. Its seven-speed auto shifts smartly but sometimes firmly under hard throttle.
As you might think, the fuel consumption for this 2595-kilogram machine isn’t low – but at 12.4 litres per 100km it is respectable (and about 20 per cent lower than the old engine).
The problem with maintaining any pace is when you encounter a corner. It takes a lot of planning, because of the G-Wagen’s dreadful steering system.
Of the thousands of new cars I’ve driven in my life, I’ve not experienced anything quite like the G-Wagen’s recirculating ball steering system.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, the compactly designed system was common decades ago, and it doesn’t work in a linear fashion like a rack-and-pinion system, and because it works with a ball bearing gear rather than a cog with teeth, it is generally regarded as less precise.
The benefit is that it is small, and you can fit all sorts of off-road goodies under the body. Benz engineers told us at the launch that a regular hydraulic rack and pinion wouldn’t fit – however, when we asked if an upgrade to a lighter, more efficient and (hopefully) more effective electric steering system was on the cards, the answer wasn’t “no”. It was “we are working on different areas right now… but robustness is something that is absolutely important to us”.
The steering isn’t too slow at speed, but it is inconsistent in terms of response and weighting. It also lacks any meaningful feedback to the driver’s hands, with constant corrections required, and a level of nervousness ensues. This is a car you need to be “hands-on” with, according to Benz.
But while the steering is ancient, what is new to the G-Wagen is an adaptive suspension system that is fitted exclusively to the G500 model.
This new variable damping system features two settings – comfort and sport – and it makes a huge difference to the way the G-Wagen rides and handles.
In comfort mode there is a supple ride quality that, at times, makes you forget you’re driving something quite so, er, old school. It coasts over rough patches of freeway, eases over speedhumps and there’s only a slight shudder over sharp edges, mainly due to the wheel/tyre size.
Sport mode is the opposite of comfort, in that it isn’t comfortable. The damping firms up to aid the way the SUV corners, and in that situation it does a great job: there’s less body roll through the bends, although that steering system makes tackling bends a task no matter what trickery the suspension can conjure. But if you choose sport mode on a straight road like a freeway, you will notice the rear end feed through nearly every bump imaginable into the cabin, with a resulting bouncy ride.
In short, you could choose comfort all the time, because the handling capability of the G-Wagen is so interrupted by the steering that it’s hard to have fun in the thing – unless you go off-road.
We did that at the launch as well, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the car’s flaws can be forgiven in that context. (Having permanent four-wheel drive, a low-range mode for the gearing and three locking differentials means the thing is capable of a lot when it comes to getting down and dirty.)
The argument goes that because the steering has some play, it is better for off-road use. You can better feel where the wheels are pointing at low speeds, even on slippery surfaces, but as the speeds rise and surfaces improve, you can’t.
The trusty G-Wagen made it up and down some incredibly steep and slippery slopes, at times sliding due to its tyres being caked in mud, but while the grip may have suffered at times, there was certainly ample traction on offer to get the beastly bus around the off-road park without hassle. The G500’s engine and transmission sounded great while doing so, too.
As for sealed roads and higher speeds, we also had some time in the new Mercedes-AMG G63 Edition 463. This model is essentially a more luxury-focused, bespoke-looking version of the standard Mercedes-AMG G63, and it has additional features such as twin-tone leather with diamond quilted stitching, carbon trim highlights and 21-inch wheels.
This special edition model makes use of the larger 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 engine, and continues to push out 420kW of power (at 5500rpm) and a huge 760Nm of torque (from a lower 1750rpm through to 5000rpm).
Yes, this is more of a weapon than the G500, and it has the 0-100km/h bragging rights to prove it – 5.4sec – while using a little more fuel, at a claimed 13.8L/100km.
You feel the difference as soon as you swap from the driver’s seat of the G500 to the G63. It is manically quick and has a more rounded, beefy exhaust note (where the G500 was a little loud and droney at times), and progress is made to feel faster by the more decisive and aggressive gearshifts of the AMG-fettled “speedshift” transmission.
Mercedes-Benz isn’t likely to fit the adaptive suspension to the AMG, with experts on the day telling us that the springs and dampers used on the G63 models have been developed specifically for a blend of on- and off-road performance.
The G63, however, isn’t as comfortable on rough surfaces as the G500, and nor does it feel as settled at speed. That could partly come down to the Edition 463’s 21-inch wheels (coated in 295/40 tyres).
Make what you will of the burnt caramel brown leather interior, the cabin is nicely finished – though it still has old-world packaging, including a lack of stowage points up front.
For instance, the front seat occupants sit quite close to the doors (not as far over as, say, a Land Rover Defender), and the rear seat of this 4.7-metre long SUV is incomprehensively tight. It has less leg room than some city cars.
The boot, though, is good, at 487 litres (or 2126L with the rear seats folded down).
If I had to choose one of the two petrol models, the G500 would be it. It is likely to be about $50,000 more affordable than the G63, and while the bragging rights may not be there, the adaptive suspension makes it a more appealing option.
That is, if I HAD to buy a G-Wagen.
The changes are more than meets the eye for the 2016 Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, which will arrive in Australia in February next year.
But as capable as it is off-road, and as commanding a presence as it has on-road, there are still some unlikeable aspects to this big SUV.