Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
The Geländewagen has landed and it’s available in three guises: the G55 AMG, the G350 BlueTEC and the G300 Professional. Grant Spolander tests the Professional model, a military-spec 4×4 with no frills or fancies. Is this a practical off -roader or a niche-market oddity?
Antoine de Saint-Exupe, a French writer and aviator from the early 1900s, wrote these words: “Perfection is achieved, not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”
I couldn’t agree more – the simpler a design, the less chance of something going wrong. It’s a universal fact. But it’s also true that money complicates things, and this rings true with the G300 Professional.
The Professional’s cabin is so devoid of luxuries that for the sake of this road test – and the need to write more than just a couple of words – I’m going to list the items it doesn’t have: there’s no CD player, no radio, no electric windows, no cruise control, no cup holders, no console storage box, no alarm, no immobiliser and not a stitch of carpeting.
That’s not to say it’s completely featureless – you do get aircon, two lockable toolboxes, a flexible map-reading light and drainage plugs in the footwell area. Oh, and the steering wheel’s covered in leather.
So does this paucity of features make the G-Class Professional an uncomfortable vehicle? No, not at all. But while I can live without niceties like power-adjustable seats and cruise control, I couldn’t bring myself to spend R800k on a vehicle with such a sparse cabin.
What’s more, the G-Class’ lack of storage space – particularly for things like your wallet, cellphone and house keys – irritates me beyond reason. And, while I’m at it, let me add that the driver’s seat is a bit narrow and the handbrake lever is on the passenger’s side of the centre console – you have to reach for it.
On a more positive note, the boot area is squarely proportioned, easy to pack and boasts a respectable volume of 1 280 litres. Plus, there are loads of lashing points to secure your gear.
But what impressed me most in the Professional’s cabin is the overall build quality and durability of each and every item; all the buttons, levers and dials feel smooth, tireless and superbly made, like they could endure a lifelong operation test conducted by sugar-pumped kids suffering from OCD.
By contemporary standards the Geländewagen should be categorised in the vrek ugly and outdated class, but for some reason many folk find the G-Class hugely appealing, and I’m not just talking about avid off-roaders here, – ordinary car-driving people loved its lines too.
I like it myself, specifically its size. If it were any bigger, the G-Class would lose a lot of its appeal, which – for me – lies in its compact and agile appearance. I’m also quite fond of the small finishes that hint at the Professional’s off-road bias; things like the large windows for good visibility, its boxy clean-cut proportions, wire guards protecting the headlight and indicator lenses, steel wheels and protective rubber beading on all the doors and fenders.
For about four years now – the duration of my SA4x4 career – I’ve heard nothing but praise for the Geländewagen, such as “It’s the ultimate 4×4” and “They win all the 4×4 challenges”. I’ve also had G-Wagen owners phone me up just to tell me how great their vehicle is off-road.
The problem is, all this publicity (or propaganda) raised my expectations of the G-Class to a level that could never be met. Don’t get me wrong, with coil-sprung, solid-axle suspension and diff-locks front, middle, and rear, the G-Class is without a doubt a phenomenal off-roader (how could it not be?), but after listening to so much hype surrounding this vehicle, I expected even more.
The Geländewagen’s off-road spec sheet reads like a off-roader’s “Dear Santa” list. It goes on and on: a full-time 4WD system, 218 mm of ground clearance, a phenomenal 600 mm wading depth, approach, departure and break-over angles of 36, 31 and 23º respectively, a hugely impressive roll-over angle, three individually operated diff-locks, and, as mentioned before, coil-sprung suspension on solid axles front and rear. The G-Class also boasts a seriously heavy-duty ladder-frame chassis as well as underbody protection guarding the sump and fuel tank.
We tested the Benz at Klein Tafelberg 4×4 trail, a venue that features both soft sandy tracks and rock-riddled roads. The Merc sailed through the sandy section with ease – thanks largely to its über powerful (135 kW) 3.0-litre V6 diesel motor – but when it came to the rocky track a certain deficiency was exposed.
The G-Class has poor articulation. It’s not horrendously bad compared to most other 4x4s, but for a vehicle with solid-axle suspension it’s nothing spectacular. During our off-road test the Professional repeatedly lost traction through a number of cross-axles, forcing us to continuously engage one or more of the diff-locks.
So what’s the big deal – who needs articulation when you’ve got lockers, right? Well, engaging the Geländewagen’s lockers affects manoeuvrability because this increases its turning circle, and the lockers do little to help vehicle stability across seriously uneven terrain.
Because the G-Class has a relatively narrow track width in relation to its high roofline, the vehicle is predisposed to bodyroll; thankfully, Mercedes-Benz has addressed this problem by fitting extra heavy-duty sway bars.
Unfortunately, these super stiff anti-roll bars are a contributing factor to the G-Class’s relatively poor articulation, a problem that becomes apparent when the Merc’s weight distribution causes it to nosedive into downhill cross-axles. We’ve taken a Wrangler Rubicon through the same obstacles but because of that vehicle’s low roofline and superior front axle articulation, the Jeep’s body movements were more level and controlled. Articulation not only helps maintain traction, it also lowers a vehicle’s centre of gravity and reduces chassis movement when driving across uneven terrain.
A quick test on our RTI ramp confirmed our suspicions – the G-Class scored a pedestrian reading of 376, a figure slightly below the Isuzu double-cab’s 380 (despite that vehicle’s independent front suspension); this is a far cry from the Discovery 4’s measurement of 477. Again, it’s not that the Geländewagen’s wheel travel is bad, it’s just not great for a solid-axle 4×4 sporting coil springs all-round. To put it another way, without its front and rear lockers the G-Class’s off-road abilities would be nothing to brag about.
But the Geländewagen does have diff-locks front and rear, and because of this it is a terrific 4×4 that’s near unstoppable off -road. However, trail driving isn’t really what it’s all about – the G-Class is built for another purpose: overland travel.
With its OE-spec AT tyres, dual-battery system, the ability to draw either 12 or 24 V power for your accessories, snorkel, 96-litre fuel tank and a reputation of being one of the most reliable vehicles ever built, the Professional is without a doubt a great overlanding 4×4, one which doesn’t require much in the way of modifications or alterations. And although it lacks features like cruise control and an alarm / immobiliser, these items are intentionally excluded from the Professional model so as to create a product that’s pleasingly simple.
Up until now I’ve purposefully avoided comparing the G-Class to the Cruiser 76 or the Defender 110, largely because such comparisons seldom produce a clear winner – it really depends on terrain, tyres, line of attack and who’s driving. However, when it comes to on-road performance a more decisive opinion can be given as its a simple case of comparing spec sheets and driver comfort, without considering the abovementioned variables.
Like most off-road enthusiasts I appreciate the Land Cruiser 76 for its off-road abilities, comfort and reputation for reliability, however, on the open road this vehicle’s slower than a dagga-smoking hippy. Similarly, I like the Defender 110 for its off-road abilities, its heritage and the sense of camaraderie that comes with owning this green and gold icon. However, there’s the small issue of ergonomics and the fact that a Defender is about as comfortable as a pair of aluminium underpants.
In contrast, the Professional leaves no gaps. Off-road, the Geländewagen is as capable as the Cruiser and Defender, but on-road the Merc offers comfort, performance, and as far as iconic status goes, enough to rival the mighty Defender.
Of course, the Professional’s 300 CDI motor has a lot to do with its on-road success; with 135 kW @ 3 800 rpm and 400 Nm @ 1 600 rpm there’s no shortage of power or low-down torque. During our acceleration test we recorded a 0 – 100 km/h time of 11.58 seconds, a figure on par with most modern diesel DCs and one a lot better than the LC76.
The Geländewagen handles tight corners confidently, the brakes are incredibly sharp, the suspension is firm but bearable, and Mercedes quotes an economy figure of 9.7 and 13.4 l / 100 km for freeway and urban use respectively.
Altogether, it’s a well-rounded 4×4 that despite its off-road credentials still delivers respectable on-road performance and reasonable levels of comfort – two qualities that its rugged rivals can’t match.
I want to love this vehicle. I want to be one of those blokes singing the Geländewagen’s praises to whoever will listen. But at R773 990, I just can’t.
I know it shouldn’t bother me – even if it were R200k cheaper I still couldn’t afford one – but I feel irritated nonetheless. I fully understand the G-Class’s appeal, its capability, dependability, uniqueness and hand-made construction, but I still don’t see how that alone can justify a R774k price tag.
The Professional makes me think of that story regarding Nasa’s million-dollar space pen versus the Russians and their trusty pencil. However, in this case the Geländewagen is a bizarre combination of the two: a highly overpriced pencil.
What’s more, on the subject of reliability there’s nothing simple or low-tech about the 300 CDI motor; it’s fitted with an ECU and an assortment of sensors and gadgets that most of us couldn’t identify let alone fi x. Plus, I refuse to believe that this motor could be more reliable than the Cruiser’s normally-aspirated 4.2-litre diesel donk.
And, in the unlikely event that the G-Class may need mechanical attention, you’re gonna have a tough time finding spares in the middle of Africa, a place where you can almost always find parts for say, a Hilux or a Defender.
To look at it another way, the Professional requires a service every 10 000 km, not a lot of mileage in terms of cross-border travel. What then? You’ll have to plan your trip around the location of a Mercedes-Benz dealer while making prior arrangements so that they have the necessary spares and the correct training to work on your vehicle.
So what is a reasonable price for such an incredibly well-made, well-designed 4×4? Fair enough, it can’t be priced the same as the Cruiser 76 or Defender 110, but likewise, it shouldn’t be more expensive than feature-packed vehicles like the Discovery 4 or Land Cruiser 200. So would it be a worthy buy at R600k?
I think so. At that price you’d be buying a better-made vehicle than the Cruiser 76 without paying the Mercedes-Benz premium. But it’s all academic when you consider that according to MBSA they’ve already sold every unit they’ve imported. That doesn’t surprise me – who wants to follow logic when you can revel in the melodious rhythms of pure, unadulterated envy?