Getting Dirty in a Mercedes-Benz G-Class

Article by Jacob Black, photos by Jacob Black and courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The G-Wagen is a stalwart of the Mercedes-Benz lineup. It’s the tough-guy car. It's rugged, reliable and has an outward visage that says “Excuse me mate, but I’m about to do serious damage to you unless you apologize immediately.”

And yet under that ominous exterior is a squishy, soft underbelly of princely pampering and luxury. As a result it's the go-to vehicle for all sorts of high-flyers – especially those who need a rapid getaway (or car-chase) vehicle, imposing road presence and safety – all without wrinkling their crisp suits. Not to mention the ability to transform into an armoured car.

“But can the G-Wagen really do off-roady stuff?” I regretted the question immediately. Not just because I was already standing in the ADAC Off-Road-centre in Bauschheim, Rhein-Main.

“We’ll find out,” was the reply from Mercedes-Benz.

I looked out the window. A thunderstorm was passing overhead, the tents and patio coverings were hastily being pulled down and stowed for safety as lightning flashed and horizontal rain lashed the window of the Mercedes-Benz hut in which we were getting our presentation. A little girl and a dog flew into the air, an old lady on a rocking chair not far behind them, cackling. The ground that had been a dry, reddish-brown before was now a sodden, soggy, quagmire. The water ran in rivers down the steep embankments.

The tires on the trucks we’d be testing didn’t look particularly aggressive, yet the Mercedes-Benz folk seemed completely nonplussed.

“Will I still get to do the course?” I asked one representative. He laughed. Right in my face. I think he said, “Why, are you scared?” But I couldn’t hear it over a clap of thunder.

The photos in this article were mostly taken before the storm hit. Some of the photos we’d seen in the presentation had a red G-Wagen (the least garish of the new Skittles-inspired colour set) flying airborne over a dirt mound – but I wouldn’t be doing any of that.

The difference in the ground after the rain hit was substantial, to say the least.

As I walked out to the end of the dock – it stopped being a mere walkway the moment the ground at the end of it became a swamp – a colleague pulled forward and allowed me to climb aboard. He parked right in a puddle I was sure I was now stuck in.

Climbing aboard I mentioned the likely bogged scenario to the instructor. He laughed too. “No,” was his simple to reply to my assertion that we might be stuck.

And so, with the car in drive and the first driving setting (AWD) selected, we set off. And I’ll be damned if the G-Wagen didn’t pull itself out of the sticky mess without so much as a stutter. I couldn’t help but think that Artax might have survived if Atreyu had a G-Wagen. Did you know The NeverEnding Story was filmed in Germany?

In this case we’re only locking the centre differential. There are three diffs, all controllable via buttons on the centre stack. The centre, front, and rear can all be selected. A locking differential prevents the wheels spinning at different rates – so if one is up in the air it will still spin at the same rate as the other one regardless. Likewise if one is in mud and the other on solid rock. This improves traction but has an impact on steering (especially in the front axle). That short differential refresher given, we find ourselves at the base of a steep incline.

The G-Wagen can climb an 80 percent (36-degree) incline, but I’m daunted by the rivulets running down. We lock all three diffs, put the G-Wagen in low-range and up we go… bada-bing, bada boom. The G-Wagen boasts a 34-degree approach angle and 29-degree departure angle.

A sharp left beings me to a deep gully, and I line up to straddle it, letting the car stay level with the wheels on the walls of the valley. “No, no no!” says the man next to me. “We go on just one side.”

The G-Wagen, I’m about to learn, can tackle a bank of 54 percent (28.4 degrees); that’s a heck of a lot more than the petrifying 36 percent bank I tackled in the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE. Unlike the GLE however, the G-Wagen has no angle sensor displays in the main screen, nor does it have any of the funky camera tricks the GLE has for seeing down hills and over crests. This of course means the hapless driver has to guess what angles they’re at when off-roading in serious situations. My guess is we were at seven-billion degrees of “Holy crap!”.

Past the gully we turned sharp left – this thing has a surprisingly small turning circle – and headed for a pile of jagged rocks. With 200 mm of clearance the G-Wagen made short work of that obstacle, but I was more impressed by the performance of the 4WD system on the wet and slippery rocks – no slip, no spin, no nothing. Just clambered over like it was a cobblestone street.

All the while, the big, boxy body-on-frame G-Wagen was swaying and bobbing gently, the gas-pressured shocks and coil springs helping smooth out the rutted, bumpy, rock-strewn path.

There is no hill-descent control either. Instead G-Wagen drivers are encouraged to use the paddle shifters to keep the rig in a low gear and let the engine brake the car going down the hill. The one display the G-Wagen does have that was helpful was the one that showed me the current steering angle, this meant I could make sure my front wheels were properly straight before I began my descent.

The descent was problem free, but as I began to cross the mud flat now before me my instructor became agitated. “Slow, slow slow, slow down please!”

Two things. One: No. This has a 416-hp V8 in it – and it’s not even the good engine! I’m using this puppy, because power. And Two: Um, No. I know what happens when you slow down in mud… But the instructor was insistent, and so I came to almost a complete halt. “Surely now we’re stuck,” I thought.

We weren’t. Not even a little bit. In fact, the whole course was completed without so much as a bobble, a wobble or a quiver – unless you count my bottom lip in the equation.

The tough-guy image put on by the G-Wagen is backed up when the going gets rough. But it’s not the outright capability of the car that’s most impressive. It’s the way it performs its tasks with total ease and comfort.

If you have a lazy $122,600, you too can have a genuine go-anywhere machine fit for a prince. $30K more will get you one with the “proper” engine, the one massaged by AMG to give you even more getaway grunt.

And the best part is that even when you’re about to fall sideways off a cliff face you’ll be sitting in one of the most comfortable chairs money can buy, inside one of the plushest cabins this side of an S-Class.

G-Class Tough. 9/25/2015 2:24:27 PM