On February 5th, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class (or G-Wagen, short for Geländewagen, or cross-country vehicle) turns 30. And, incredibly, it sits on its original chassis and retains many of the same stampings for frame and body pieces. This is a vehicle that has not only withstood the test of time, but has resolutely refused to abandon its time-tested solid axles front and rear, bricklike aerodynamics, and utilitarian Jeep-like form. And for good reason.
When you invest large sums in intelligent engineering, the resulting product often contains so much goodness that only system upgrades and freshening are needed to keep the design relevant. And when you hang it all on a chassis as robust as the G-class, longevity and durability manifest for decades to come.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class lineup
Originally, development of the G-wagen began in 1972 under a joint venture between Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Design and development took place in the Austrian city of Graz, and in '75 the decision was made to launch the vehicle and build it in Graz. To date, the G is assembled in Graz, largely by hand even in this day of roboticized mass production. This makes it a rarity, a very expensive purchase, and a stalwart rig that will likely last the lifetime of its owner.
But the G has progressed far beyond the humble original which lacked air-conditioning, an automatic transmission, and was powered in base models by a lowly 72-hp engine. Interior accoutrements, instrument panels, and infotainment features including a nav system have been modernized through the years, as have safety features. A torquey diesel can be had (though not for U.S. duty), and engine options are topped off by the mighty 5.5-liter supercharged AMG V-8 that seethes with 507 hp and roars a delicious tune out of quad exhaust pipes, two on each side just ahead of the rear wheels.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class police vehicle
Around the world, the remarkably versatile G-wagen platform does duty: a luxury boulevardier with bling, bass, and bravado on the streets of Beverly Hills; an ambulance for the Norwegian Army; a firefighting vehicle in Serbia that patrols the Ground Safety Zone on administrative line with Serbia; a reconnaisance vehicle in Afghanistan for the U.S. Marine Corps. A convertible short-wheelbase G-class was even converted for use by the Vatican as a Pope-mobile.
Years ago I clambered into the upright helm of of G500, departed Los Angeles, and drove straight to Death Valley. Initially annoyed that I would be driving what looked like an unwieldy, massive beast, I soon warmed to its tank-like solidity, surprising on-road comfort, effortless V-8 thrust, and easy 100+ mph cruising on deserted desert highways (I had no option but to keep up with my speed-crazed automotive journalist superiors lest I risk relentless teasing and harassment).
Mercedes-Benz G-Class suspension articulation
In the desert, I was awed by its unstoppable nature. Permanent all-wheel drive, an electronically controlled 4ETS traction system, ESP, a dedicated low-range set of gearing, plus three driver-selectable differential locks made the G500 the mountain goat of our SUV caravan. With gradeability of up to 80 percent, directional stability on lateral slopes of up to 54 percent, 8.27 inches of ground clearance, a 36-degree angle of approach and a 27-degree angle of departure, even our most intrepid off-roaders didn't have the guts to push this rig to its limits.
Mercedes-Benz G55 AMG
I am a dedicated diesel fan, a supporter of uber-high mpg cars like VW's 70-mpg plus diesel Lupo, and I'm glad to see vehicles like Chevrolet's E-REV 2011 Volt and Ford's new series of EcoBoost engines taking automotive fuel efficiency to new heights. But I confess a burning desire to park a black on black G55 AMG in my driveway someday. I'd laugh maniacally while blasting past eerily silent electric vehicles, the basso profundo from the side-exit quad pipes rattling windows and nerves. Yeah, we only gave this hulk a 7.4 out of 10 in our review, but automotive lust often flies in the face of reason. Alas, by the time (if ever) I'm able to finance a G55, such gross consumption will probably be illegal in the U.S.