Is the Mercedes G-Class the last real 4x4 on the market?
Out of the windscreen all I can see is sky. I’m pinned back in my seat, almost to the point of lying down – like an astronaut on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. But I’m not blasting off at the speed of a rocket ship, I’m creeping up a very steep hill (the read out on the dashboard tells me we are at an 80 per cent angle) in a car. Then the Mercedes employee sitting to my right tells me to stop.
Stop? Here? Halfway up this hill? At an 80 per cent angle and feeling like we’ll topple over backwards at any moment? Surely we should be using all our momentum to get up and over this incline while we still can?
“No. Stop,” I am told again in a stern German tone. I do as I’m told. And the car holds on. After a few moments of feeling decidedly uncomfortable – like I’m on a rollercoaster that is pausing just before the crest of a big, stomach-churning swoop – my cockpit companion instructs me to lift my foot off the brake nice and gently, and then slowly accelerate. Taking my foot off the brake is not something I want to do right now, but again, I follow the instructions. The car gently rolls backwards a few feet before I engage the power and we start creeping back up. Easy peasy.
Once we reach the top, we turn around and go back down. This time, all I can see out the windscreen is gravel. Again, my instructor tells me stop half way. Again the car holds position. Then, once we set off again, he tells me to take my feet off ALL the pedals. It’s extremely counter intuitive, but again, I do as I’m told. And the car takes over, controlling the descent and ensuring we don’t slip and slide down the hill.
I’m at the wheel of the highly impressive Mercedes G-Class, which Merc says has just undergone the “most significant transformation in its almost 40-year lifespan”.
The new model has a new body, chassis, suspension, steering, engines, gearbox, and the driver assistance systems I experienced on the hill. But the essence of the vehicle remains unchanged: this is a seriously capable off road machine that comes with all the comforts of a luxury vehicle as well.
Lots of all-new bits and bobs have been packed into the G-Class, but the thing I like most about it is something that’s barely changed since it was launched back in 1979: the look.
You see, the trouble with off-roaders these days is the shape of them. Without sounding too ‘when I were a lad’ on the subject, I grew up driving old Land Rovers and the occasional Toyota Hilux. They were rugged and boxy – and all the better for it. You felt like you could chuck them around the sketchiest of off-road tracks without worrying about scraping or scratching any fancy bodywork.
But in the past two decades, off-roaders have become mainstream. Everyone wants one now, but crucially, hardly anyone ever takes them off-road. And in response the car makers started softening them, making them more appealing to everyday road users: lowering the ground clearance here, curving off a previously rugged line there. And now we have a huge variety of off-road vehicles on the market, none of which look like they would be capable of tackling much more than a slightly muddy field at a Surrey farmers’ market.
I was walking past a Range Rover the other day and the roof line came up to my chest. And that’s just wrong. A Range Rover should tower over me like a skyscraper, blocking out the sun.
But that’s where the G-Class excels: it still looks like a proper off-roader. It’s chunky and boxy and square, and it still has that ground clearance that has been shaved off seemingly every other 4x4, millimetre by millimetre with every year that’s gone by.
But the G-Class isn’t all mouth and no trousers, as I discovered when I drove one at Mercedes’ new test centre at Graz airport in Austria. It coped with the 80 per cent gravel and rock hills with ease.
But a test centre is one thing. What about the real world? Enter the Schöckl mountain – a 4,800ft rise just north of Graz where the G-Class is tested. Gravel, rocks and steep inclines are all here, and all dispatched with ease by the car, even with me at the wheel.
But once we reached the top, I swapped seats with the professional Merc driver who took the wheel and drove us in convoy back down the mountain. Fast. Very fast.
Our driver Markus was flinging the car down the track at a rate that meant I had to hold on with two hands simply to avoid being knocked unconscious as we jumped over rocks, hurtled around gravel bends and bottomed out through dips. He was driving at speeds that only someone who wouldn’t be paying for repairs would attempt.
“Es ist nicht mein auto,” he said with a smile as we launched over another series of jagged rocks that would have ripped the bottom right off any of the tamer SUVs.
But then physics does catch up with us: the honking from the G-Class behind and a light on the dashboard display forces Markus to stop. Right rear puncture – directly underneath my seat, though I hadn’t felt a thing.
But the Merc guys didn’t seem bothered. Markus simply drove up the bank next to us and they set to work changing the wheel. It was all done in five minutes and we were back on our way. I thought he might be somewhat chastened and take it easy after that. He did not. Not that the G-Class seemed to mind.
It’s become a cliche to talk about an SUV as having the off-road chops to cope with being taken out of the Surrey supermarket car park belt, but these days the G-Class is one of the few I would still actually trust to get me from A to B if there was a mountain or a bog or a river between the two.
And it will do it all while you and your passengers are housed in total comfort – unless you’re being driven down the Schöckl mountain by a Mercedes pro driver of course...