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We Drive the Awesome EMC Wolf G-Wagen Restomod: Slow Is Good

EMC upgrades key features on an ex-military G-Wagen, but the engine isn’t one of them, and that’s half the charm.

The Wikipedia entry on the first-generation Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen says the truck needed 27 seconds to hit 62 mph. In my case, foot flat on the floor, hustling the long shifter as quick as I could, I stopped counting after 15, because who cares at that point? This is a vehicle with a supposed top speed of 112 kph, or 70 mph, on flat ground at sea level; I got it up to 120 kph (75 mph) going down a big hill on the freeway. No, an ex-military G-Wagen redone by Expedition Motor Co. isn't about speed whatsoever, and that's half its charm.

You don't need to drive a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 250GD like this one with your foot quite on the floor constantly to keep up with modern traffic, but you might as well. The naturally aspirated OM602 inline-five diesel was selected for its durability and longevity, not its 93 horsepower and 117 lb-ft of torque.

Hills are a problem. Driving this $102,150 attention magnet through Malibu, California's canyons—where corners are tight and keeping your momentum up isn't an option—I tried to keep my speed at more than 20 mph. Choosing the right gear is a constant game: Technically a dogleg five-speed, it's really an H-pattern four-speed with a crawler gear. That crawler gear is where you'd expect second to be, and reverse is where first would usually be. It feels like you're starting in third when you put it in first because you just push the shifter forward.

Even in first gear, there's so little torque that you need to slip the clutch a lot more than you expect. It's much easier to get moving smoothly in that crawler gear, even if the engine runs out of revs before the speedometer—which begins at 20 kph, or 12 mph—even registers movement. Oh, and there's no tachometer, so you just guess at shift points. Right about the time the engine sounds like it's going to explode is a good rule of thumb.

This is all exactly the way EMC founder Alex Levin likes it.

Every G-Wagen EMC restores is an ex-military model, usually a 1990-92 example, as they're the youngest of the first-generation G but old enough to qualify for U.S. importation. The company has direct lines to multiple European military forces, so it can pick and choose the best examples. German NATO forces used this particular one in Afghanistan.

Levin, originally from Belarus, prefers the military spec known as the Wolf in the German military, for its fold-down windshield and soft top. But he'll build you one with the factory optional hardtop, automatic transmission, and/or gasoline engine if you ask nicely.

Once EMC has the truck in one of its facilities in Germany, Poland, or New Jersey, it strips it down to the last bolt. In a departure from most other restorers of old off-road SUVs like Icon, EMC puts almost everything back the way it was. Engine swaps are nonnegotiable. Levin won't even install the turbocharged variant of the OM602 inline-five diesel offered in other Mercedes-Benz products of the era. He likes his Wolves the way Mercedes-Benz built them, and that's how he builds them. He's not interested in doing engine swaps, so he doesn't.

A few features make EMC's Wolf restomods instead of restorations, among them air conditioning by Vintage Air, a Clarion stereo with four speakers, modern LED headlights and taillights, a 1.6-inch lift courtesy of Eibach springs and Bilstein dampers, nonstandard colors for the vinyl interior with optional contrast stitching, and any single-stage paint color you can find the code for.

The list of optional extras is equally short. EMC makes a winch-ready front bumper (with or without winch), a bull bar, and wire guards for the headlights, turn signals, and taillights. It'll also fit a snorkel kit and jerry can made by Mercedes and aftermarket foglights. End of list. The body-color shovel stored literally on top of the engine? That's standard.

Other EMC-made bits are necessary parts of the restoration. For example, Mercedes no longer produces the rear roof structure, so EMC re-creates it, and the fabric roof itself is a reproduction. Custom wood panels in the rear incorporate stereo speakers. The suspension is upgraded from rubber to polyurethane bushings with eccentrics to account for the lift. Plastic cupholders up front look like they could be original, but they're custom. The shiny plaque between the shifters is much easier to spot and would be even if it didn't have "Expedition Motor Company" engraved between the shift patterns.

Patterns, plural, because all of that old-school off-road hardware is present and accounted for. Mercedes designed the transfer case with two four-high gears, each on different synchros, so you can shift from two high to four high to four low without stopping—very handy in a vehicle where you can't afford to lose momentum. Two unlabeled knobs actuate the hydraulic axle lockers. Given the price tag and the shiny paint job, we didn't do any serious off-roading with the Wolf, and EMC says most of its customers don't, either. But with BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A tires and this much clearance all around, you'd need to get yourself into some real deep snow or mud, or on a pretty gnarly trail, to even need four-wheel drive.

Like most six-figure restomod off-roaders, these Wolves will likely spend their retirement as beach runners and weekend toys. And with meaty sidewalls and modern shocks, the Wolf actually rides nicely. Yeah, the whole body shakes when you hit a bump, but surprisingly little vibration makes it into the seats. It's actually pretty nice to putter around town in, so long as you don't want to hold a conversation without yelling.

Meanwhile, you wouldn't expect it on an old truck, but EMC's Wolf has better brake feel than some sports cars. The pedal is pleasantly firm, bites immediately, and provides linear stopping power. It won't get up to speed very fast, but once it's there, it'll get rid of the momentum real quick.

Stopping is about the only thing the Wolf does quickly. The steering is slow and light on center, weighing up like only an old car can when you turn past 45 degrees. For a tall, heavy truck, it corners all right, but you want to treat suggested corner speed signs as gospel. The comfortable seats don't do a lot to keep you from falling out, and the way the truck leans over, you might fall out if you don't grab something.

At least you have the steering wheel to hold on to. Passengers have fewer options, but they do have plenty of space. As with any other coupe, getting in the back requires climbing over the folded front seats, but there's plenty of room once you're in.

Or you can come in the back or climb over the side if you've got the roof off. Held on with dozens of simple pegs secured by straps (and a bit of Velcro), the roof is easier to remove than a new Wrangler's. Putting the windshield down requires a wrench and is about as complicated as the Jeep's used to be.

This is the EMC Wolf. It's all contradictions and compromises, but each of them contributes to its charm. It's built to a purpose, repurposed for something entirely different, and somehow just as good at it. No, it doesn't have a supercharged V-8 like other restomod off-roaders often do, and frankly, it's cooler for going its own way.

1990 Mercedes-Benz 250GD "Wolf" by EMC
BASE PRICE $102,150 ($37,578-$41,659 in 1990)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 4-pass, 2-door SUV
ENGINE 2.5L/93-hp/117-lb-ft diesel SOHC 10-valve I-5
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT 4,450 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 98.5 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 166.3 x 66.5 x 76.4 in
0-60 MPH 27.0 sec (est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 15/17/16 mpg (est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 225/198 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 1.40 lb/mi (est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Now