The Mercedes G-Class has been largely unchanged for 40 years, so can this tough old dog be taught any new tricks before it signs off? Andrew Frankel spent three months living with one to find out
Why is there no hot water?” It was a squawk from a daughter that sparked an investigation that led to an adventure that made me wish this Mercedes-Benz G-Class was staying not for a few months but the rest of my time on earth.
The answer was simple: for reasons too boring and revelatory of my domestic incompetence to tell, the Frankel household had run out of heating oil. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the ‘beast from the east’, that spot of proper weather that visited us in March. We live so remotely that every time I give someone directions, I include the line: “And when you find yourself thinking no one could possibly live down there, keep going.” The oil tanker struggles to get to us at the best of times but, with snow already inches deep and falling fast, if I wanted oil, I would have to go to it. And I didn’t want it, I needed it – desperately: we were about to be cut off for three days.
I rang the oil depot and to my relief got an answer, but the bloke said they were packing up before they got cut off too. I begged him to hang around. “How long?” “An hour?” “Thirty minutes.” “Forty?” I pleaded. “If you’re not here in 41, don’t come.”
By any objective assessment, this is a pretty terrible car
Normally I’d take my trusty old Land Rover, sitting on tyres designed to get an army through the Bosnian winter (yes, really), but it was just too slow. But if the major roads had been gritted, the G-Wagen might, just, get through in time.
It seemed a fool’s errand but with temperatures hovering around double digits below, pipes in our elderly and unevenly insulated house would freeze and burst, and not being able to keep warm or clean would soon be the least of our problems.
But then I got in the big Benz, slammed the door, heard the locks trigger all around the car to seal me in and was instantly suffused with a sense of well-being. Cocooned inside this indestructible vault, it seemed absurd to think it could be defeated by something as trifling as a few inches of snow.
And so it proved. On that 20-mile journey, the only other cars I saw not in the ditch were two Defenders. But I made it and recall no particular drama in doing so. By the time I’d loaded the oil and returned home, the lane near my house was identifiable only because it had no trees growing out of it. Only then, going up a steep hill, did I feel the car slow a touch and see the traction control warning light flash on. But the Merc had a little think, shuttled some torque here and there and carried on regardless. I didn’t even need the diff locks.
Once the initial drama was over and I could just go out and play in the snow, I alternated between the G and the Landie and discovered that for its ability to cut through what appeared to be almost impossible amounts of snow, the old car on its Bosnian tyres was even better, but as soon as the snow compacted down and became properly slippery, the Merc was in a league of its own.
I only had it for three months but in that time it became part of the family. When another daughter saw it for the first time, her exact words were: “This is the best day of my life, including the one on which I was born.” Even Mrs Frankel, who dislikes large cars and hates SUVs, would concoct ill-concealed excuses to take it out.
There was nowhere I wanted to go where it would not take me
I needed no excuse at all. Even in perfect weather, even when there was much more appropriate alternate means of transport, if I could I’d always take the G-Wagen. And what’s so surprising about all of this is that by any objective assessment, it’s a pretty terrible car.
For a start, it’s ruinously expensive, and that’s just to buy: £92,025 for the base-spec diesel model before any extras you might choose, and if that sounds pricey be advised that the G63 AMG is £136,020. Yes, that buys you an enormous SUV, but it’s one whose design is 40 years old, plus there’s bugger-all room in the back, not even that much in the front and it creaks like a galleon in a stiff breeze on a bumpy road.
The ride quality is lumpy at best, the handling approximate, the performance fairly dismal and the fuel consumption, well, a 25mpg day was a good day, and a rare one too.
Of course I knew it would be a hit with the family and I’ll admit now there are few cars that have turned up here that I’ve looked forward to more, but I knew also this was all novelty value and that it would therefore wear off, as novelty always does. And of course it looked effortlessly cool in that honest, industrial way that only things that were never designed to look cool end up looking cool, but the reality of life with the car would soon render that an irrelevance by comparison. Surely?
But no. Maybe after a year, I’d start to tire of its manifest on-road limitations, but in three months I never got close. On the contrary, I think what I enjoyed most about it was the way it forced you to get involved in a way that modern cars never do. You have to drive it really well on a decent road if your progress is not to slip into the sloppy and inept. I don’t know another road car where managing its mass becomes a full-time occupation in such circumstances. You can’t chuck, lob or fling it at corners because it would never even turn in, but if you guide it with your fingertips and make your lines as precise as the wobbly chassis will allow, you can actually hustle the old girl, implausible as it might seem. And in its own slightly incompetent way, it’s actually great fun to drive.
Even sitting on the motorway looking out of that two-dimensional pane of glass that forms the windscreen, I’d rarely wish to be in anything else. The driving position is imperious and noise levels are surprisingly muted given that it presents to the airflow with all the elegance and aerodynamic efficiency of a Victorian prison.
There was an unexpected bonus on most trips, too, because sooner or later someone in another very expensive SUV – Porsche Cayennes and Range Rovers mainly – would come sniffing at the G’s exhausts. Of course, I cannot know their motives, but the looks were always appreciative and I fondly like to think that they were wondering what on earth such a car must be like, because I can’t believe it sits naturally on the shopping list of someone looking for a thoroughly modern SUV.
I suspect just a few of the Range Rover customers have wondered whether it is in fact me rather than them who’s driving the world’s most authentic premium off-roader. Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know this actual car once drove across England from coast to coast without setting so much as a tyre tread on public roads. And I knew my time in the car would be incomplete were I not to fully evaluate this aspect of its character.
So I retired to the off-road course at the Millbrook Proving Ground with a bootful of knobbly tyres and a large jack for some proper, old-school off-roading. I say ‘old-school’ because, traction and stability control aside, this is an entirely analogue off-roader. There’s no hill descent control, no little dial to let you configure it for mud, snow or sand. There’s just a low-range transfer box and three mechanically, manually locking differentials. But the truth is I barely needed any of them. Despite hills of mud and gravel so steep it felt like driving up a cliff-face, there was nowhere I wanted to go where it would not take me with less than contemptuous ease. We had to drive it through a bog at speed just to get it muddy for the pictures, because the usual preferred technique of wheelspinning through mud simply didn’t work: instead, the car just gripped and accelerated as if on asphalt. In the end, I’d rather wished I’d left it on its street tyres because then at least I might have come close to testing its abilities. In the event, the G dismissed the course as Lewis Hamilton might a local karting track.
I felt slightly forlorn when it went back to Mercedes-Benz and I still miss it. But the truth is the G-Wagen was never a realistic proposition for me, not least because dropping a hundred quid into its bottomless pit of a fuel tank would add fewer than 400 miles to its range, which from where I live is Stansted and back. But in an age where function now follows form at a deferential distance in so many areas of our lives, it was an ice-cool blast of fresh air to spend even three months in the company of a car that is the way it is because that’s how best it could be designed to do the job it was made to do. Yes, there are limitations deriving from the fact that brief is now more than 40 years old, but the truth is that, despite it all, if there is another five-seat car out there with more raw charm than this, I haven’t driven it. And for all the improvements the all-new G-Wagen will undoubtedly bring, its single most important job is to ensure that its unique character survives the metamorphosis unscathed. A
PHOTOGRAPHY Luc Lacey
WHAT THE NEW G-WAGEN MUST DO
If the new G-Wagen is faster, more comfortable, more frugal and full of the latest technology, all well and good. But if it comes at the expense of even one mote of the old model’s unique character, something serious will have been lost. The good news is that all the evidence is that Benz understands this completely: it’s not just the fact that it’s preserved the look, but it’s still the only European premium SUV built on a ladder-frame chassis – and even the locks continue to sound like you’re being shut in a cell. Let’s hope it turns out to be as good as it looks.