What is it?
This is the latest, 2013-model, incarnation of the Mercedes G-Wagon, which is in its 33rd year of production as a passenger car. Now known as the G-Class, the vehicle was born out of a military vehicle project and its combat sister model is still in service across the globe.
The enduring popularity of the military version must be the reason that the G-Class - billed as being almost ‘totally handbuilt’ at the Graz plant in Austria - is still available in the showrooms. Only around 5500 road-going G-Classes were made last year, and just 100 were sold in the UK.
The car’s military roots also mean that even this blinged-up urban version is still a serious off-roader. The ladder-frame chassis is made from sheet steel that’s as thick as 4mm in places, it rolls on proper live axles, benefits from three electronic differential locks and has the requisite approach and departure angles. It also has a braked towing capability of a massive 3500kg.
All of the 2013 models might be very expensive indeed, kicking of with the G350’s £82,000 sticker price (indeed, the right-hook G63 is £123,000 and there’s a LHD V12 G65 AMG which is current retailing for £198,000) but the G-Class will undoubtedly cut it in both Morocco and Monaco.
What is it like?
For the 2013 model year, the G-Class has undergone another significant round of changes. Inside, the dashboard has been redesigned, the instrument cluster and centre console is new, Merc’s iDrive Command controller has been added and a console-mounted 7in tablet-style screen, which gives uncanny preview of Apple’s upcoming ‘Mini’ iPad.
Also new is the updated multi-functional steering wheel and the climate control fascia. The majority of the controls - including the electric window switches and column stalks - are familiar from existing Mercedes models.
Although dashboard is new - and covered in handsome, heavily grained leather - it retains the grab handle on the passenger side and the styling has not strayed too far from the original.
The most obvious exterior changes are the modern, folding, mirrors and LED daytime running lights. Modern essentials such as frontal airbags and window bags, ESP and anti-whiplash seat headrests are also standard. The seats are covered in ruggedly thick leather.
The rest of the car is impressively old-school. The exterior panels seems to have been stamped from super-thick steel and the body has wide shut lines that let the hinges poke through. The doors use old-fashioned latches that grab the doors with a deeply impressive ‘click’.
You have to climb up into the driver’s seat (it is worse in the rear because the back seats are placed even higher off the ground) and the closeness of the windscreen and the vertical attitude of the A-pillars is surprise at first. But the electric seat and electric wheel adjuster will move far enough apart for the moderately tall to get comfortable. Headroom is vast.
The V6 turbodiesel motor is a tight fit under the bonnet (one of the ECUs actually sits higher than the wing top) but the engine noise is impressively distant and more of a metallic thrum than death-rattle. The centre-console aluminium new shift lever - controlling the 7-speed autobox - is very neat and nicely made and it takes just a wrist flick to push it into ‘drive’.
The G350 is a surprisingly swift machine. The modern drivetrain gives the car a surprisingly modern flavour. Despite the bluff shape and weight, this car has got an impressive turn of speed. Stuck behind a container lorry on a B-road, the G350 made very easy work of a rapid overtaking manoeuvre.
It also rides surprisingly well, though the ultra-tall, fat tyres must help on the broken road surfaces, and the body control is also really remarkable good.
The big ‘but’ is the ancient recirculating ball steering set-up. It is not very easy to keep the G350 running in a straight line, and there’s also the suspicion that the big tyres also tend to follow camber changes. On the A3 in Surrey, the car needed constant steering correction a problem made worse by the fact that the steering needs bigger inputs than is normal, so it’s harder to be precise when trying to place the nose.
However, there’s something about the charm and authenticity of the G-Class which is surprisingly compelling. The visibility out of the car is extraordinary, the super-high driving position surprisingly relaxing, the car’s performance gratifying brisk and the chassis remarkably competent on-road for a hard-core off-roader. Only the vague steering and inability to run in straight line on some roads spoils what would otherwise be a remarkable modern driving experience.
Should I buy one?
Mostly hand-built it may be, but the G-Class is very pricy. Even this entry-level model is £10k more expensive than the new Range Rover, which is a far slicker product.
But there’s something about this fantastic mix of the best of old-school and cutting-edge Mercedes engineering that turns cold hard reason on its head.
The G350 will never make sense on paper, but I would bet that if affluent SUV buyers had a proper test drive in this car, Mercedes UK would sell significantly more than 100 per year.
Mercedes G-Class G350 BlueTEC
Price £82,945; 0-62mph 9.1sec; Top speed 109mph; Economy 25.2mpg; CO2 295g/km; Kerb weight 2570kg; Engine V6, turbo diesel, 2987cc; Power 208bhp at 3400rpm; Torque 398lb ft at 1600-2400rpm; Gearbox 7-spd auto