Review and road test of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class (1990 - 2017)
By Jonathan Crouch
Solid as a rock, tougher than granite and impervious to the sands of time, there's nothing quite like a Mercedes G-Class. Politically incorrect, hugely expensive and compromised on-road, it won't satisfy those simply after a Range Rover or Mercedes GL-Class-style luxury SUV. But those in search of the most awesomely capable off roader money can buy will love the thought of owning one.
5dr SUV (3.0 V6 diesel, 5.5 V8 petrol)
You know the real thing when you see it and, when it comes to off roading 4x4s, this is the real thing, the Mercedes G-Class. The 'G' stands for 'Gelandewagen', which roughly translates as 'go anywhere car', 'go anywhere' in this case meaning just about any inhospitable part of the globe you can think of, from the Sahara desert to -53-degrees C in the Siberian Arctic. Ordinary luxury SUV buyers, in other words, need not apply. And yet they do. Over thirty years after it was originally launched for Cold War military use as well as civilian transport, the G-class these days enjoys a new lease of life as a fashion icon you're as likely to find on the Kings Road as in the Kalahari. This hand-built off-roader is the longest serving passenger car in Mercedes-Benz's 120-year history, with a track record that includes everything from the transportation of two Popes to an outright win in the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally
Three decades have seen this car successfully overcome any obstacle it has encountered - including obsolescence. Which is why it's still going strong, offered in modernday form with a choice of six cylinder diesel or in wild AMG form with petrol V8 power. The concept behind the 'Gelandewagen' was first mooted to Mercedes by the Shah of Iran in 1970 and civilian versions arrived in 1979. The '463'-series model we look at here was first launched in 1990 and sold until 2018, when the car was thoroughly re-engineered for the modern age. It's the pre-2018 G-Class model we look at here as a used buy.
Only a Land Rover Defender could rival this SUV off road, a utilitarian alternative with feeble diesel power that few would want to run as everyday transport. The Gelandewagen, in contrast, manages to be just as capable, yet at the same time as powerful and luxurious as any Range Rover. It is, quite simply, unique - but then uniqueness can take many forms, not all of them desirable. Let's check this car out.
What You Get
By anyone's reckoning, this is an unlikely fashion accessory. Yet despite a setsquare shape with the aerodynamic qualities of a semi-detached house, that's exactly what this G-Class has become. We're looking here at the W463 series third generation model, first introduced way back in 1990. Other markets offered buyers short wheelbase hardtop or convertible three-door variants but here, only long wheelbase derivatives were on offer, all hand-built for Mercedes by off road specialists Steyr-Puch in Graz, Austria.
All models sit on the same, tough ladder-frame chassis and use the simplest mechanicals to ensure that they can be easily serviced and maintained in all parts of the world. Some of the bits are borrowed from Mercedes commercial vehicles and there's definitely more than a whiff of LCV once you take your high-set seat in the cabin. From here, you'll need no convincing of this Gelandewagen's half century of heritage thanks to ergonomics that remind you just how much automotive design has progressed since the late Eighties. Hence the upright driving position, the appalling low-set sat nav placement and the siting of the gearstick miles away from where you'd ideally want it.
To be fair, the interior design team have made some effort to justify the asking price with leather upholstery and burr walnut trim but you don't have to look too far beyond this to discover the lashings of utilitarian black vinyl that surround it. But again, it's all down to your expectations. This is essentially a car that was designed back in the Eighties, so expecting it to rival a modern large luxury SUV for interior ambience is a bit ridiculous. Anyway, it's certainly practical, the boxy glassy shape offering good all-round visibility marred only by that huge spare wheel on the rear door.
Which, when you come to load up the boot, makes said door a pretty heavy thing to swing back and forth. Still, get it open and a huge boot reveals itself. Push forward the rear seats and there's a removal van-like 2250-litres of space on offer, about the same as the more car-like GL/GLS-Class model from this era and easily dwarfing the 1950-litres you'd get from an apparently enormous Mercedes E-Class Estate. Both of those models of course can seat up to seven people, not an option for G-Class customers, despite this car's enormous 4.6m length. Still, for those you can carry in the back seat, things are relatively spacious and comfortable - at least for two adults. Three will be a bit more of a squash but kids will be fine and will love the commanding view out.
What to Look For
The G-Class is built solidly, but that doesn't mean all models are problem-free. In our ownership survey, we can across reports of prop shaft failure, evidenced by a heavy shuddering or shaking when driving. If the G-Class you're testing exhibits this, walk away. There are two key areas of the G-Class that are susceptible to corrosion: the tailgate and back lights are particularly known for rusting. If you hear a cracking noise coming from the sunroof on your test drive, beware. The cable that helps open and close the sunroof goes through a hose which can dismount from the motor frame, causing the noise. Finally, check for signs of over-enthusiastic off roading. There are known issues with the suspension springs breaking after heavy 'off piste' use. If you hear a loud thumping noise when you are driving over speed bumps or rough, it's probably caused by faulty suspension springs.
(approx based on a 2015 G350 CDI - Ex Vat) An air filter is around £20-£30. An oil filter costs in the £6 to £8 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £14 to £35 bracket for a set, while rear brake pads cost around £20 for a set. Rear brake discs can cost around £75. A thermostat is around £45. A fuel pump is in the £127-£153 bracket. A wiper blade is in the £4-£13 bracket.
On the Road
We can see why celebrities and the super-rich stump up supercar money for one of these. There's nothing quite like it. The door with its fat black button opens and shuts like that of a bank vault. Inside, you sit higher up than in any other 4x4, looking down imperiously upon a sea of pretend SUVs not fit to soil this Gelandewagen's mud flaps off the beaten track. HGV-style bonnet-mounted indicators mark the corner perimeters of a square stolid shape guaranteed to severely frighten any unfortunate supermini you bear down upon in the fast lane as at the wheel, you command both the road and your destiny. Just as a Ferrari makes you feel like Fernando Alonso, in a G-Class, you're suddenly a UN Peacekeeper in Sarajevo or in command of an Iraqi combat unit clearing insurgents on the road to Falujah. Brilliant.
And as long as you approach the driving experience in this frame of mind rather than expecting this car to be some kind of Range Rover or a Mercedes M or GL-Class model, all will be well. It's only when you return to the real world that you begin to notice the slow-witted steering, the wind noise from the massive door mirrors and the vague body control that makes sharp cornering something of an inexact science. Mercedes tried to do something about this by sharpening up the springs on UK models, but arguably only made matters worse by adding to this roster of faults a choppy ride liable to throw you out of your seat if you get a little over-enthusiastic through the sharpest tarmac bumps and dips. It's difficult to park too, as whether you look back through the rear window or through the reverse parking camera, virtually all you can see is that huge rear wheel.
No matter. The military surplus feel arguably adds to the whole experience, wearing though it might become were you to have to use this G-Class for everyday commuting. But of course, this isn't a commuting car. It is instead, the final jigsaw piece for many a millionaire's ultimate multi-car garage, not to sit inside with the Maseratis and the Maybachs but to guard the place parked out in front, covered in muck, battered happily by wind and rain.
You'll want to get this car covered in muck as often as possible if you're really to enjoy owning it. Most luxury 4x4s, however potentially capable, don't take kindly to this and their owners end up finding that off road excursions just aren't worth the hassle of scraped doors, scratched alloys and cracked spoilers. The G-Class is different, properly capable with plenty of ground clearance which is why it can ford 600mm of standing water - more than a Land Rover Defender. Plus of course, it's equipped with a proper tough low range transfer case that gives you another seven low range gears in sticky terrain.
But that's just the start. Get onto really rough stuff and you've the choice of locking each of the three differentials in separate sequence - rear, centre, then front - using the simple in-dash push-button system. This mechanical hardware is further enhanced by a specially developed ESP stability programme, BAS Brake Assist and, most importantly, '4ETS'. This 'Electronic Traction System' should get you out of the most glutinous bog by transferring power only to the wheels with the grip to use it. And the result of all this? Quite simply, a car that will get you through almost anything. Depending in the variant you choose, it can potentially scale gradients of up to 80%, preserve directional stability at a 54% tilt and offer 36-degree approach and 27-degree departure angles that will see it clamber over apparently insurmountable obstacles. It's all enough to completely embarrass supposedly capable off roaders like, say, a Toyota Landcruiser.
But of course, most of the time, the most challenging environment your G-Class will have to face is the school run. Inevitably, it's equipped for that too. Under the boxy bonnet of the G350 CDI BlueTEC variant most UK buyers chose in the 21st century's second decade sits a 3.0-litre turbodiesel that manages just 210bhp from its V6 powertrain and is matched to a 7G-TRONIC 7-speed auto gearbox and of course, permanent 4-wheel drive. With a prodigious 540Nm of torque (hence the 3500kg towing weight), its pokey enough to shock other roads users as much as it'll shock you when you bury your right foot, sixty from rest dispatched in 9.1s on the way to a 108mph top speed necessarily restricted by the barn door aerodynamics. With a 25mpg combined cycle fuel return, it's the sensible choice from the two G-Class variants on offer.
But then, if you were being sensible, you wouldn't be considering this car in the first place. So, what the heck, why not consider a completely unjustifiable option, the 500bhp G55 AMG Kompressor? Here, you get one of AMG's old-school hand-built 5.5-litre supercharged V8s with 700NM of torque capable of hurling this leather-lined military machine from rest to sixty in just 5.5s and somehow coax it onwards all the way to a 130mph top speed only attainable by the fired-up or foolhardy. Manage that and you'll be thankful for the carbon ceramic brakes.
Whether you want to make a really big statement with your choice of large SUV or you simply want the most capable, road-sensible off roader there is, the Mercedes G-Class offers a money-no-object solution. With a design dating back to the Seventies, it may be old in concept, but it remains classily cool with an appeal remaining undimmed against the changing fads of automotive fashion.
Yes of course the high pricing is difficult to justify. And you could spend far less on a larger, more practical and better handling luxury SUV. But G-Class buyers want something more than just another luxury SUV. They want something exclusive. Something unique. And something more capable in the world's toughest terrains than just about anything else on four wheels. It's at home anywhere, from Afghanistan to the Amazon, from Kensington to the Kings Road. And it is quite simply, unique.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class (1990 - 2017) review by Jonathan Crouch