Call it the Geländewagen, the G-Class, the Mercedes-Benz 460-series or the Puch G, the reality is that 95 percent of the G-wagens you see never go off road. The ratio was certainly better through the eighties and the nineties, but while the Gs might have ended up being fashion accessories in the 21st century, make no mistake: When the zombie apocalypse hits, you'll still want to end up driving one of these bricks through the toxic crowd on your way off the face of the Earth. And one without an AMG badge might even get you there.
The G-Class story started with the Shah of Iran, who happened to be a major shareholder in Mercedes-Benz in the early seventies. He suggested that Mercedes should come up with a civilian version next to the military truck, and was convincing enough for the Germans to roll out their first prototypes by 1975. It took another four years to set up the production line in Austria at Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the company known today as Magna Steyr. The current makers of the Mini Countryman will also produce the upcoming BMW Z5, the Toyota Supra, the new Land Rover Discovery and various 5-Series bits, but get into the Nr. 12 building of the plant in Graz, and you'll see none of that.
Here, it's been Gs, and Gs only since 1979, and today, a 2000-strong team continues to build all seven body styles on the same line–except for the awesome, but sadly discontinued Cabriolet–mostly by hand. The body-on-frame construction includes the assembly of 800 parts through 5000 welding points and making the seats in house as well, with annual production staying comfortably under 5000 units. Although Mercedes won't talk about the hard numbers due to the military side of the business, what's for sure is that most of the civilian Gs go to America, followed by Japan, Germany, the Middle East, China and Russia.
Some 12 miles outside the city of Graz is a 4741 feet tall mountain called Schöckl. Like every Austrian peak, it's home to a nice guesthouse where they serve a meat soup filled with pancake strips, but unlike every Austrian peak, it also features a 328 foot FM-and TV tower known as . This industrial masterpiece was erected in 1956, and if you're a hardcore cyclist, you can pedal your way up to it on a well-paved mountain pass. But since that's rather long, Magna's G-Wagen team uses a shortcut.
What I'm sure doesn't look too steep on Google Maps is a single lane dirt road through the massive rocks, compressing a 2000 foot climb into just a few miles. It's Magna's test track for the G-Class, and has been since development started in 1972. All the stones and exposed roots got polished by four decades of Geländewagens looking for traction, and while it might not be the most challenging trail in the Pre-Alps, it's a real workout for both the suspension and the brakes downhill. It's also a great place to demonstrate how far you can go with the G's three fully locking differentials in absolute comfort.
To put the G-Wagen's system into perspective, let's just say that while the Mercedes will shift into low- or high range at speeds up to 24mph and engage its diffs with a push of a button, a basically brand new Land Rover Defender–a truck I want to own dearly–will need you to push a lever while stationary, and then hope for the best, because its gears won't always get into position at the first try. Or the second, despite what the light on the dashboard suggests.
Such a cheerful failure is unimaginable in a G500. This 37-year-old proof of evolution is built like a fortress, and its drivetrain even gives you the liberty of stopping in the middle of a steep rock, only to continue whenever you please without any tire slip.
With approach and departure angles set at 36/31 degrees front and rear, the G makes off-roading so easy, it's ridiculous. After completing the upper side of the pass on my own, it became obvious that even a monkey could drive such a 4x4 up roads that would rip off the wheels of a normal car in about 50 feet. Following our afternoon coffees at the top, Magna's test drivers demonstrated that it's "not possible" to sustain such damage with a G.
Basically, we went down the same route, only this time, our speed was exceeding 30mph wherever the "nearly normal" conditions allowed it. Mind you, "nearly normal" meant frame-bending in this case. If that sounds unbelievable on paper, guess how much fun we had while tightly hanging on to our belts, giggling all the way down as the Gs just kept jumping from one rock to another. Magna's drivers know their craft, and in their hands, the 7054 lb G500 behaves like the bastard child of a WRC car and a Trophy Truck. Packing 382 horsepower and lined with the finest leathers, that is. Mercedes claims "up to 43mph downhill in low range", and after this, I don't doubt that for a second.
After leaving Schöckl and putting back our organs roughly where they belong riding on the smooth tarmac, our fleet of Gs headed straight to Magna's private test track located right next to the factory. Here, the team got ready to demonstrate what modern Gs can do using despite having doors that would also fit a 1979 Geländewagen. The safety features developed by Mercedes go an especially long way in such a boxy vehicle.
Magna's test cars included G63 AMGs as well as a very early G500 4x4² and the numero uno six-wheeler, the white G63 6x6 prototype. They got to keep that one.
Before we get into what six G-Wagen wheels can do for you, let's have a look at the almost subtle .
It's an off-roader available in such natural colors as solarbeam yellow, sunsetbeam orange, galacticbeam purple and Special Agent Mulder's favorite: aliengreen. And to live up to its shouty colors, it also comes with portal axles, dual spring/damper struts in each corner and the new twin-turbo V8 producing 416 horsepower and 450 lb-ft. It's still a G500 with the side-pipes and all, just more of it. A lot more.
In many ways, the G500 4x4² is like the $6200 G-Shock. Casio looked at the G-Shock, knowing that even the most basic version is tough enough to get through more than anybody wearing it. So, they reinforced their watch with some DLC-coated titanium, only to decorate it with hand-hammered oborogin (silver-copper alloy) plates, under which lies their latest and greatest solar-quartz technology.
What sort of a board meeting did Mercedes came up with the automotive equivalent of this is a good question. But what's for sure is that the 4x4²'s wider track and ground clearance raised from 8.3 inch to 17.7 means it will deal with waters up to 39.4 inches deep, while it's also capable of getting to sixty in under six seconds, on any terrain. That's just nuts from something out of the box.
It's needless to say that the G500 4x4² has plenty left above sixty as well. 416 horsepower usually guarantees that, although Mercedes recommends you keep it under 100mph with the off-road tires on.
What's surprising is how it behaves once you get into trouble. The famous moose test at speed? No sweat. The electronic dampers keep the body roll under control, and the vehicle brakes itself to a halt without you touching the pedals. Whatever Mercedes has learnt after the first A-Classes started to roll over in 1997 really came to a whole new level by 2016. The advanced stability control will also keep the Gs in line when the wheels on one side have zero traction under heavy breaking, while the ABS stops them in such a short distance that you can't help but feel bad for the front tires (and pads) while being utterly impressed.
Step into the 6x6 though, and you'll have so much fun that it'll be impossible to feel bad about anything once the onboard compressors inflate its six giant tires. It's not the first six-wheeled Mercedes in history, but by far the best.
With the G63 AMG's 544 horsepower, 560 lb.-ft. of torque and the same portal axles you find on the 4x4², the six-wheeled desert special will drift through the dirt and go up a steep ramp just to get airborne at the top like a happy puppy. Before going for a dive, it will also tell water to get the hell out of its way with a dominant roar through its side-pipes, and water will obey. It has to.
It would be hard to imagine a production car that's more entertaining than the G63 6x6 both inside and out, and the fact that its essentially a luxury car from Mercedes-Benz only makes the experience more surreal.
Since the G Wagen is an off-road vehicle and everybody keeps telling me the AMGs are terrible anyway, the 63 and 65s are out of the question for me. I'm also a very humble guy, and just like how I couldn't wear a 54.7 mm in diameter G-Shock, I couldn't live with a 4x4² or a 6x6 either, despite how terrific they are.
And yes, , I know I should be fantasizing about the diesel, the G born to go around the world over and over again. Yet what I really want is a G500, made of titanium. With that, I could plow through abandoned buildings, a whole army of zombies, strong magnetic fields, you name it. Then, I could just paint it flat green, and it's free parking, anywhere.