Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - G-Class - 5-dr wagon range
Heritage, off-road ability, luxury, G55 AMG performance and exhaust note
Room for improvement
Exorbitant pricing, on-road dynamics, refinement, firm ride, aged interior design
10 Mar 2011
MERCEDES-BENZ’S 2011 G-class might come at a price that will prevent many from ever owning one, let alone taking it off road, but the select few who do fork out the $161,680 for the G350 or $217,230 for the G55 AMG will get a unique vehicle with an unrivalled blend of heritage, ability and luxury.
The G-Class is in a class of its own in terms of the competition as there really is nothing else like it that’s currently available.
With its three locking differentials activated and low range selected in the transfer case, there’s nothing short of a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon that could challenge the G350 off road, but the Jeep is a very different animal that can’t compare to the Benz in any other regard.
The sound and acceleration of the G55 is as brutal and effective as a wrecking ball and comparable to a muscle-car in terms of performance. It is incredible in a straight line but makes the driver work hard to keep it on the move in the twisties.
A Range Rover Vogue could be considered a competitor on price, breadth of ability and heritage but again it is a very different beast to the G.
The 30-year-old military design of the G-wagen gives it the form-follows-function appearance of a commercial van yet its on-road manners are controlled and tame if not as refined or sporting as other SUVs wearing the three-pointed star.
The G-class is an oxymoron of a vehicle. What is it and who’s going to buy it? Who is going to spend that sort of money on what is basically a military-based, luxurious but serious off-roader when there are many better vehicles available?
Sure, they don’t have the Panzer-division style or the go-anywhere ability of the G-wagen, but how many buyers would use all of the latter anyway?
A drive of the ‘new’ G-class helps you to understand where the vehicle is coming from but doesn’t answer where it is going.
The G is not a stripped-out workhorse like a LandCruiser 76 or a Land Rover Defender. It’s appointed like a true luxury vehicle.
Stylish 18-inch alloy wheels, Xenon headlights, leather trim, power adjustment with memory and heating on the front seats, Command APS system with HD satellite-navigation, 6.5-inch colour screen and Harmon Kardon audio, reversing camera plus rear parking sensors, and the fit, finish and feel of a luxury sedan are all standard on the base-spec G350 BlueTec.
The G55 adds 19-inch AMG alloys, luxury front seats with heating and cooling, a power sunroof, a TV tuner, Desingo interior features and AMG trimmings, as well as the supercharged petrol V8 engine.
Luxury seats, contour seats, TV tuner and sunroof are available on the G350 as part of a $6900 Premium Package but are standard on the G55. Mercedes-Benz has specced both grades of the G up to try and justify the price.
The purposeful styling makes the G user friendly in that the side-doors are nice and big and easy to access and the low waistline and subsequent huge glass area make it easy to see out of.
There’s a reversing camera to make it easier to see behind the vehicle but the screen on the Command APS system is placed low in the centre stack so the driver needs to look down to see it. This is a problem when using the sat-nav while driving and reflects the difficulty in integrating modern vehicle systems in to a 30-year-old design.
The old design is also evident in other parts of the interior too. The cabin is tall and narrow and while the seating position is upright and comfortable, legroom is compromised in the front.
The seatbelt for the centre-rear seat position comes down from the roof and the child seat anchorage points are on the floor of the load area. This can make it difficult to fit a cargo barrier or net and the anchorage points in the floor impinge on luggage space if you need to use a secured child seat. A factory-designed partition net is available as an accessory.
The rear seat splits 70:30 and folds up and forward to give a large 2250-litre cargo area but, like a Land Rover Defender, the rear door is much narrower than the back of the vehicle, inhibiting access. There is no third-row seat option on the G-class. GVM is 3200kg, meaning a payload of 700kg for the G350 or 620kg in the G55.
Aside from the low-mounted display screen the rest of the G’s features and controls are easy to operate and the electric seating adjustment means good visibility and comfort for long trips.
The body feels as solid as the brick it was styled on and the doors close with a heavy thud. The push-button exterior door-handles again show the age of the vehicle’s design and although the G350 we drove had some annoying rattles from the rear seat and dash, the G55 had none.
The sound of M-B’s long-serving 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 is more evident in the G than it is in the more traditional passenger cars or SUVs. You can hear the rattle of the diesel engine at idle but it is never intrusive and at highway speed engine noise is negligible. However, at this speed the old body design throws up some wind whistle around the pillars.
The aging body design also affects fuel use and consumption is quoted at 11.2L/100km on the Australian combined cycle, which is high by modern standards. Despite the best efforts of the excellent engine and gearbox, they are still pushing a big block through the air and that uses more fuel.
AdBlue urea is injected in to the exhaust system to reduce emissions and it is stored in a separate tank that should only need topping up at regular service intervals. Should the level of AdBlue get low, a warning light on the dash gives ample notice to have the tank refilled at a Mercedes-Benz service centre or you can buy the solution from many truck stops and service stations.
This engine and transmission combination is one of the best available in a contemporary SUV. With 540Nm available from as low as 1600rpm and seven-speeds in the 7G-Tronic transmission the G350 is never left lacking in the acceleration stakes. The turbine-like drive is always there when you want it and a claimed zero to 100km/h time of 9.1 seconds shows the G350 is not your average commercial wagon.
But its aged underpinning soon come to the fore when you turn in to a corner and the old-school recirculating ball steering box requires more turns on the tiller than you might expect to get the G to turn in. It’s not excessive and you soon adjust your technique but it does remind you of what you are driving, especially when you’re honking along in the G55.
That said, the G corners surprisingly flat and doesn’t pitch or roll as you might expect. The coil spring and gas shock absorber suspension is firm and stable perhaps a little too firm for a vehicle designed to travel on rough roads. It delivers a ride that can be jiggly and annoying over less than perfect road surfaces and this has been recognised by M-B as there is a softer suspension setting coming for the G350 in 2012.
When driving over high-frequency bumps the heavy-duty coil springs constantly remind you that they are trying to control heavy live axles under the vehicle. The G55 has firmer springs than the G350, although this wasn’t evident on the test drive except that it felt a tad more precise in the steering. That’s not to say the steering was at all sharp in fact it’s as blunt as the nose on the boxy wagon.
The G350 BlueTec rides on 265/60 R18 tyres as standard although 265/70 R16s on alloys can be ordered as a no-cost option, which should prove popular with those looking to take the vehicle off road. They may also go some way to softening the ride quality. The G55 only comes on 275/55-R19s and the 16s will not go on the AMG due to its bigger disc-brake package.
The G55 is a ridiculous vehicle! Ridiculously good fun with the sound and feel of a vehicle conceived in a hot-rodder’s garage or the mind of a Top Gear producer.
It blasts out of corners like a shell from a Howitzer with an equally numbing roar from its four side-exiting exhaust pipes, which became permissible in Australia only after a change to ADR a few years ago. Prior to that, exhaust outlets had to be located a set distance behind the rear-most body opening or door, but the chrome-tipped quartet on the G55 sings a song that would put the world’s best tenors to shame.
The G55’s supercharged 5.4-litre V8 roars around to redline and slams in to the next ratio of its five-speed transmission in an instant. The five-speed lacks the ratios and refinement of the 7G-Tronic but the 700Nm torque peak from the engine is not subtle and the AMG is never left in the wrong gear. It’s only when kicking down that this transmission feels a bit harsh when compared to the silky-smooth seven-speed.
While the G55 is a lot of fun it lacks the dynamics to match the performance of the supercharged engine and this isn’t something that’s easy to fix on this aging design.
With its great diesel engine and excellent off road performance the G350 makes somewhat more sense as it would make a good outback touring vehicle or off- roader - but at that price Mercedes-Benz might have a difficult time attracting this adventurous buyer.
Even a G350 stripped of its leather seats, HID headlights, Command APS and other luxury features would still cost as much as a top-of-the-range LandCruiser.
So who’s going to buy the G-class? Mercedes-Benz says it is holding around 40 pre-launch orders and a little more than half of those are for the G55 AMG. Of those who have placed orders many are existing Mercedes-Benz and AMG vehicle owners.
M-B Australia expects the model split to shift to around one third to the AMG and the rest to the diesel , with a company spokesmen saying Benz would be very happy to sell just 150 to 200 examples a year.
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