We take an off-road ride in Mercedes' redesigned Geländewagen
When Mercedes set out to redesign its G-Class sport-utility for the first time since its 1979 introduction, one of its biggest goals was to improve the brick-shaped SUV’s on-road behavior. And boy did the G-wagen need it. The primitive recirculating ball steering is notoriously loose and requires constant correction to maintain a straight line. And let’s not even talk about the body roll.
Just remember, Mercedes originally envisaged this vehicle for use by farmers and Bundeswehr officers who had terrible terrain to traverse. That it became a favorite of the Cartier and Cristal set was a happy accident.
But no matter how modern and civilized the Geländewagen needed to become to satisfy the mall-crawler crowd, Mercedes wanted to ensure the new version satisfied its original purpose as a capable off-roader—perhaps even more so than its predecessor. That mountain goat aptitude is as much a part of the G-wagen’s identity as its squared-off styling. Without it, there would be no reason for the G-Class to exist.
To prove that the redesigned G-wagen is still one of the most capable off-roaders you can buy, Mercedes invited us to the Schöckl, the Austrian mountain it uses to test and develop the G-Class. The trails there are rocky and treacherous, far beyond the abilities of the modern-era car-based crossover.
Crawling up and down these trails in prototype vehicles, Mercedes’ professional drivers showed off not only the G-Class’ new features but also how shockingly capable it is off-road. And although the new version has swapped out its live front axle for an independent front suspension, it quickly became apparent that there isn’t much the new G-wagen can’t handle.
Perhaps more important, it tackled every obstacle in such a calm, controlled fashion, it almost felt like it wasn’t trying. Even when blasting down the trail at truly insane speeds (love the grab-handle location, BTW), the new G-wagen was remarkably composed. Could a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Land Cruiser keep up in a race down the mountain? Possibly. But everyone in the G-Class would be far more comfortable. The body control is seriously impressive.
How did Mercedes’ engineers do it? The frame is 34 percent stiffer, and body rigidity has been improved nearly 50 percent. And although the body is only 0.67 inch wider than before, Mercedes found room to widen the track by a whopping 4.4 inches. The fording depth, meanwhile, has been raised 3.9 inches, bringing it up to 27.6 inches.
Approach, departure, and breakover angles were all improved by 1 degree, and the tilt angle has been improved to 35 degrees. Suspension travel has also been increased, with the front axle offering 3.35 inches of jounce and 3.94 inches of rebound. The rear axle, meanwhile, gets 3.23 inches of jounce and 5.59 inches of rebound.
Other changes include switching from three-link to five-link location of the rear axle, adding a new transfer case that defaults to a 40/60 front/rear torque split, moving the front differential higher off the ground, and placing the fuel tank ahead of the rear axle. Mercedes also swapped in a new nine-speed transmission.
Don’t worry. The important stuff is all still there. The G-Class still sits on a ladder frame, gets side-pipe exhaust, and retains its three locking differentials. There’s also still a low-range mode that you must select when the transmission is in neutral. When you need to switch back to high range, you can do that on the move up to about 43 mph (69 km/h).
Mercedes says it has no plans to offer a low-speed crawl control like we’ve seen from several other automakers, but I can’t imagine anyone actually missing it. The driver made sure to demonstrate not only how easy the throttle was to modulate but also how much you can rely on engine braking to slow a descent.
One surprisingly useful feature, though, is the front-facing camera. It shows a clear, crisp picture of what’s ahead and, unlike the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, has guidelines that show how wide the vehicle is and where you’re headed. There’s also a 360-degree view to help you keep an eye on what’s next to you. Expect both to make tackling a difficult trail much simpler.
Mercedes also added a new off-road driving mode called G-Mode. Once the low range has been engaged or one of the differentials has been locked, G-Mode engages—automatically optimizing the adjustable dampers, steering, throttle, and shift times for off-road conditions. However, because we didn’t do any on-road driving, we can’t say for sure how big a difference it makes.
Put it all together, and it’s clear that even though the live front axle is gone, the new G-Class hasn’t lost a beat. It’s still a G-wagen, it’s still an absolute beast off-road, and with improved specs, it should easily outperform the outgoing model. Now we just need to see how it drives on a paved road.