PERPIGNAN, France — If you want to look famous or tough or rich or all three, there are few better ways than to get yourself a G-Class.
Over its 39-year history Mercedes’ flagship SUV has slowly become a status symbol, thanks in large part to its clientèle of rappers, armies, princes, explorers, celebrities and the occasional Pope.
Just in time for its 40th anniversary, Mercedes is rolling out the first truly-new G-Class in its history. The biggest change for 2019 is that it now drives, finally, like you imagine a Mercedes-Benz would. More on that that later.
First, some history. The G-Class was born out of a partnership in the early 1970s between Daimler-Benz and Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch (now part of Canadian firm Magna International). The resulting Gelandewagen — or “cross-country vehicle,” commonly known as the G-Wagen — debuted in 1979.
“It was launched as a kind of commercial vehicle for extreme conditions, and it turned more and more into a luxury car — but it kept all of its off-road capability,” said Gerhard Heidbrink, archivist at Mercedes-Benz Classic.
The G-Wagen was invented long before the terms “sport utility vehicle” or “crossover” had been coined. The best-ever sales year for the G-Class was in 2017, which shows you just how far ahead of its time it was.
The original Gelandewagen looks much like the new one — a shed on wheels. The driver sat bolt upright and very close to the flat front windshield. Shifting gears required leaning over and reaching down to a stubby gear lever. The steering felt totally vague, like the tiller on a yacht.
The engines, ranging from 75 to 150 horsepower, would take you nowhere fast but, as long as you were patient, the 4x4 G-Class would take you just about anywhere in the world.
In 1975, the Shah of Iran placed an order for 20,000 as-yet-unreleased Gs for his army. The revolution effectively cancelled that order, but the G nevertheless found favour with regional German police forces and the Norwegian, Argentinian, and later Swiss militaries.
The Canadian Armed Forces added the G-Wagen to its fleet as the Light Utility Vehicle Wheeled. It’s currently used for command and reconnaissance work as well as military police duty.
Incremental improvements over the next decades made the G progressively more appealing to civilians, eventually turning it into the luxury status symbol it is today.
“It was not our intention to produce a cool vehicle for an extra-cool audience,” said Andreas Hoppel, a product manager for G-Class. “We were sticking to the basic concept, the off-road capability, and the world realized what a fantastic vehicle it is and jumped on.”
The development team operates with unusual freedom within Mercedes-Benz, like a company within a company, Hoppel said.
“I believe the G Class, in terms of Mercedes, is something else. It’s different. We know our customers are sort of different too,” he added.
In 1980, Pope John Paul II was about to embark on a tour of Germany. For the journey, he used a white Mercedes 230 GE with a Plexiglas phone-booth on the back from which he could wave to congregates. After an assignation attempt in 1981, the glass booth was made bulletproof.
From 2007, Pope Benedict XVI favoured the more powerful eight-cylinder G 500 as his official Popemobile. It was painted “mystic white.”
The G-Class took Jacky Ickx and co-driver Claude Brasseur to victory in the gruelling and often deadly Paris-Dakar Rally in 1983. Their 280 GE short-wheelbase van was specially modified with lightweight aluminum body panels and aerodynamic add-ons for the race.
The 2.8-litre, straight-six engine only produced 220 horsepower but the vehicle’s dogged reliability saw them beat plenty of faster, more powerful machinery.
Arnold Schwarzenegger recently had his G-Class converted to run on electricity. Eco-friendliness was never the Gelandewagen’s forte. As of 2018, Natural Resources Canada ranks the 12-cylinder AMG G65 as the second-least fuel-efficient vehicle in Canada. The first is the Bugatti Chiron.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia reportedly bought 30 or 40 white G-Classes for himself and his entourage. Since then, the G-Class became an almost patriotic choice, one Saudi Arabian car critic explained.
In recent years, the G-Class has new reached new heights of price and absurdity. The limited edition 4x4 Squared, which is taller than a bungalow, carried a price tag of $295,000 in Canada. The 6x6 had six driven wheels on three axles. And then there’s the Landaulet.
Officially styled the Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet, it’s an open-top SUV with reclining rear seats from an S-Class, portal axles from the 4x4 Squared, and a twin-turbo V-12 engine from AMG. Priced at well over half a million dollars, all 99 Landaulets nevertheless quickly sold out.
The greatest G-Class of all though didn’t belong to a celebrity or a prince or any Pope; it belonged Gunther Holtorf and his wife Christine. The couple took off in their long-wheelbase 300 GD on a journey to see the world, hoping to visit as many countries as possible.
The trip lasted for 26 years, covered nearly 900,000 kilometres, 250,000 of which was off-road, and passed through 215 countries. That distance is equivalent to driving from Earth to the Moon and back, and then twice around the Earth.
Much like a Louis Vuitton trunk or a Rolex Daytona wristwatch, the G-Class has withstood the test of time largely unchanged. It looks the same as it did in 1979.
“The existing G-Class, from a production point of view, is based on the construction and concept dating back to 1979,” said Hoppel.
“It was most important to us, to our designers and engineers, to keep the iconic shape of the vehicle,” he said. The goal was to improve on-road performance and future-proof it for years to come.
A new model, he said, was the only way to keep the G-Class in production for the long-term. Future regulations on crash testing, pedestrian safety and fuel economy necessitated the redesign.
The 2019 G-Class is longer, wider and has a completely new front suspension design. Double wishbones replace a crude solid axle. The new model is 170 kg lighter than the outgoing one, which tipped the scales at a porky 2,700 kg.
A pair of 4.0-litre twin-turbo V-8s reside under the hood, making 416 horsepower in the G550 or 577 hp in the AMG G63.
In the cabin you’ll now find all the latest infotainment tech, including a pair of wide-screen displays. Advanced driver assistance features are now present too, including automatic emergency braking.
Sit in the driver’s seat and the 2019 Galedawagen is immediately reminiscent of the 1980s version. You still sit fairly upright, behind a wide expanse of flat windshield, looking down on a square hood. You can still see turn signals, which sit on top of the hood as before.
The doors clack shut with a familiar sound. Once inside, it feels like a vault. Build quality is as good as it gets; the new G feels like it could survive the apocalypse.
It only takes a few minutes of driving to realize what the biggest improvement has been. The G-Class now drives like a Mercedes should. Thanks to the new suspension design, the steering feels connected to the wheels. Turning into a corner is no longer a guessing game. Driving it on a daily basis would be much more comfortable prospect than before.
There are compromises, however. The military roots of this truck still show through despite acres of fine leather. Because of those barn-door aerodynamics, there’s significant wind noise at highway speed, albeit less than before. Ride-quality for this body-on-frame truck is not especially smooth — not like in say, a GLE for example.
Off-road performance is better than ever. The three fully-locking differentials remain. All key measures for climbing and rock-crawling are slightly improved. Even the backup camera was made waterproof because it’s under the waterline at the G-Class’s maximum wading depth.
Over the past 39 years, so many other SUVs have come and gone. But the G-Class remains; its reputation only increasing.
“From time to time the question arose, should we end production of the G-Wagen? In the end it outlived them all,” said Gerhard Heidbrink, from Mercedes Classic. With the new model, the G-Class seems ready to last another 40 years.