Words by Neil Harrison. Pictures by Neil Harrison and Mercedes-Benz
You know that famous rule for off-road driving, “As slow as possible, as fast as necessary”? Well, it’s poppycock, complete rubbish, fiction of the basest order. As long as you’re driving a G-Class, that is.
We’re being driven up an off-road track on the Schöckl, a mountain near Graz, Austria. This route is reserved for Magna Steyr test drivers, whose company is contracted to Geländewagens for Mercedes-Benz. The trail begins as a tweespoor track through a pretty alpine meadow – the kind of place where you expect to see an ever-young Heidi skipping through the lush grass. The ground below our G-Wagon’s tyres is dark and loamy, but every 30 metres or so we encounter a rock step: the kind of obstacle that would have you and me dropping back to low-range first, and idling over at a slow walking pace. Our driver doesn’t appear to be familiar with this technique. He doesn’t slow down.
He doesn’t choose a better line. He hits the steps at running pace. Okay… Austrians are famous for doing things their own way. We climb into the forest and the trail quietens, thanks to a thick layer of pine needles underfoot. But soon we break out into the brittle sunlight again as we reach an open section of mountainside. Now, the trail changes to loose rock, and here and there we encounter an obstacle – short, steep bumpy sections which would have you and me asking our navigator to climb out and guide us through. But, besides stabbing at the diff-lock buttons, our driver doesn’t slow down. He doesn’t choose a better line. He just points the G-Wagon heavenwards and hits the gas. “Diff-lock is gute, is mechanical, doesn’t break,” he says after one particularly hairy section.
It suddenly strikes me that I haven’t once heard the sound of rock on metal. I haven’t once heard a rattle, a squeak, or any sign of mechanical discomfort. The relative silence inside the cabin is almost eerie.
A little later on, we circle back, and it’s time for us journalists to have a go. Driving a LHD vehicle off-road takes a little getting used to; I find that the best technique is to concentrate on the LHS to get your positioning right, with the occasional glance to the opposite side. It’s not an exceptionally difficult section we’re driving – perhaps a grade 4 by our standards – and this vehicle makes it easy. Triple diff-locks, a powerful engine and an auto transmission are an unbeatable combination.
Our instructor is not completely unhappy with our performance, and he lets slip that groups of journalists from other countries have not fared as well. “You haf off-road in your country, ja?” “Yes, we do have some; you must come and visit us one day.” Inside, I’m thinking, ‘Ja, come visit, my china; we’ll take you to Baboons Pass after a rain-storm and then we’ll see how good you really are.’
We break for lunch. Curiously, we’re advised not to eat too much. It seems that some people have been sick; maybe from the altitude. I can’t remember what we ate but it was probably similar to what we ate most of the time during our short stay in Austria: pork products of various descriptions, a green salad doused in oil and vinegar and containing käfer beans (last-mentioned pronounced in a way which proves to be rather discomfiting to us South Africans), and a dessert involving cream, pastry, and baked apple. Then it’s time to head back down the mountain. The convoy of G-Wagons stands idling in the shade. Our instructor takes the wheel again. We’re behind the lead vehicle. He sets off and we follow closely behind. Good grief!
We’re hitting the same trails, but at an incredible pace. I watch the lead vehicle travel down a short steep pitch on its front wheels, the rear a good metre or two in the air. And then we’re doing the same obstacle, and the windscreen is filled with a disconcertingly close-up view of trail. We race down a comparatively smooth section, one that you and I would do at a running pace, and I glance at the speedometer. We’re doing 90 km/h. A series of rocky outcrops loom; the lead vehicle brakes briefly and bounces over them. Our driver mutters, “Too slow,” and then, incredibly, he accelerates. Our Geländewagen hits the first outcrop and launches itself into the air. By my reckoning we’re airborne for about 15 or 20 metres before we slam down on the other side of the last outcrop, where the driver turns to me and smiles; “Fast is better.” It’s too much for me, and I start laughing. This gets the driver laughing. And we laugh all the way down to the bottom.
I have never been over this sort of terrain this fast, and I doubt that I ever will again. We broke every rule in the off-road driving handbook, but, boy, was it fun. We did this driving stock G-Wagons on stock tyres. I don’t know if it’s possible to do this in other 4x4s, so all I can tell you is that these Geländewagens seemed to take it in their stride. It’s a product demonstration like no other.
The next morning we head for the airport, in Vienna, some two hundred clicks away; our short stay in Austria has come to end. But the fun isn’t over yet. They’ve given us a G63 AMG to drive. Sadly, there are no autobahns in Austria; but no-one’s figured out how to legislate against brutal acceleration. This model growls like an enraged Rottweiler and hauls ass like Bolt on meth.
So why did we go to Austria? Well, to drive the G 500 and the G 63 AMG, two models which are coming to our shores to complement the existing G 300 CDI and the G 350 BlueTEC. The G 500 has a 5.5-litre V8 that puts out a useful 285 kW at 6 000 r/min, and 530 Nm at 2 800 r/min. The G 63 AMG is good for 400 kW and 760 Nm, which allows it to reach 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds, which – surprisingly enough – is only 0.7 seconds faster than the ‘standard’ G 500. Both models sport the 7G-TRONIC auto box. It’s a sign of the times we live in that the AMG variants are the most popular models in the Geländewagen range, accounting for over 40 percent of total sales.
What else has changed? Well, the G-Wagons sport new interiors, principally in the form of a new dashboard that boasts a 7” display and new instrumentation, plus a new multifunction steering wheel with shift paddles. You also get COMMAND online, a beautifully Teutonic name for a voice-operated system that includes an FM radio, 6-disc DVD changer, internet access, navigation system, integrated hard drive, and off-road functions such as route recording and a compass. New safety features include Blind Spot Assist, a parking aid, and revised ESP which includes trailer stability and a hold function. On the outside, change is limited to new exterior mirrors and LED daytime driving lights; on the G 63 AMG, you’ll spot a new radiator grille, bumper, red brake callipers, and 20” rims.
Considering that this vehicle was designed in 1978, and besides mechanicals, hasn’t changed much since, it’s surprising that the G-Wagon is still relevant some 34 years on. I mean, really, this vehicle is a relic, a throwback – it’s built entirely by hand on a non-automated production line; in 2011 they sold just 6 600 of them, and that was their best year in almost a decade. This is the vehicle that any self-respecting bean counter would bin; it makes no sense at all. But, drive one down a mountain trail at speed, and you’ll quickly realise that there’s a purposefulness to it that is almost entirely absent in an age of compromise and cross-market appeal. We remain deeply impressed.