Driven: 2013 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
As we noted when we first sampled the slightly-revised 2013 Mercedes-Benz G-Class earlier this year, the G's "off-road ability is the only rational reason to choose it over Mercedes' far more modern SUVs." But just what exactly can the G-Class do off-road? Mercedes-Benz invited us to Graz, Austria, to see for ourselves.
Behind The Curtain
As Austria's second-largest city, Graz is home to more than 290,000 people, but for the past 33 years, it's also been home to G-Class production. The Gelandewagen was developed in partnership with local firm Steyr-Daimler-Puch, which specialized in off-road vehicles like the Pinzgauer, Haflinger, and Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro. Although the firm was taken over by Canadian supplier Magna in 1998 and renamed Magna Steyr, it's still responsible for cranking out nearly 54 G-Class vehicles each day.
Interestingly, it still builds G-Class models in the same manner it did three decades ago. If you're looking for automation or robotic aids, you'll find precious little along the G-Class assembly line. The vast majority of each truck is hand-built, including the body: after receiving panels from a stamping facility, workers position them in place by hand, and perform each and every weld manually. Employees hand-prep the body for priming and painting, and bustle to push shells to the paint line - which may be the sole automated portion of the line. The G-Class's boxed-frame chassis is assembled manually on a separate line, and workers mate the built-up frame with the painted body in an old-fashioned "marriage" at a later point on the line.
Commercial-grade and military-spec vehicles - including some wild 6x6 chassis cabs destined for the Australian army - are built right alongside G550 and G63 models. Presently, the new G63 AMG accounts for roughly 60 percent of production, but officials tell us that's mostly due to the fact there wasn't an AMG-branded G-Class last year. Expect that figure to drop to roughly 40-50 percent once that pent-up demand is satisfied.
With a 34-degree approach angle, a 29-degree departure angle, and eight inches of ground clearance, Mercedes-Benz says the G-Class is capable of scaling 45-degree inclines - and a short run up the Iron Schoekel course proves that. Looking like a two-story Erector set with a teeter-totter placed on top, the steel structure essentially serves as a jungle gym, allowing the G-Class to flex its muscles. The climb on either side forces you to scale a 45-degree incline, and doing so points you toward the sky in roller-coaster fashion. Dramatic, but you're not done yet: scale the summit, and the see-saw points you back down again, forcing the G to descend a 45-degree incline. Our driver wanted to show off, and stopped the vehicle on the descent, and then casually backed the G550 wagon up the same slope.
Although the G-Class gains a number of electronic goodies for 2013, terrain response and hill descent controls aren't part of the list. The G-Class's off-road prowess is the result of some sophisticated hardware. The full-time four-wheel-drive system can function in an automatic mode, which is suitable for most on-road situations, but the driver can manually lock three differentials. Locking the center permanently splits power 50/50 between the front and rear axles. Lock the rear axle, and power is split evenly between the rear wheels; lock the front axle, and the same happens to the front wheels. Disable ESC, engage low-range, and the G-Class is more than happy to crawl up and down most anything you throw at it, especially if you manually keep the seven-speed automatic in lower gears.
The Real Schoekel
We had our first opportunity to put all this to the test 35 miles outside of Graz, when we drove to the real Schoekel- a local ski resort that's also popular with alpine hikers and mountain bikers. For the past fifty years, it's also served as a proving grounds for Magna-Steyr, allowing it to hone its products on the rocky, rutted paths that bisect paved main roads. While Magna Steyr teams maintain these trails by clearing trees and replacing chunky gravel, they're hardly cultured as a result.
This venue offered our first chance to play with the differential locks. Operating these takes some thought and practice: the center diff should be locked for most off-road ventures, but locking the front or rear differentials will affect the G's steering - and in some very narrow spots, where we're forced to thread between rows of slender pine trees, that's an important consideration. We typically stayed away from the front lock, save for a few spots where we needed to scale tall rock faces, or climb uphill while one front wheel was raised.
We were impressed with the G's ability to settle down and scamper over terrain that would be incredibly difficult for a human to traverse by foot, but the demonstration wasn't over yet. A factory driving team then proceeded to race us down the mountain on the same paths, but at a seemingly suicidal 35-40 mph. I've yet to examine my x-rays, but I'm certain a few of my internal organs appear as if they went three rounds in a UFC octagon. The G-Class? Though it bounced, shook, and swayed its way down the mountain, the G was no worse for the wear. Impressively, there were no buzzes or rattles during the whole ordeal, and the only squeaks came from the mortified passengers, grabbing any available handle with snow-white knuckles.
All For Naught?
Outside of the armed forces or, conversely, smugglers, we've no idea who would really need to drive a G-Class in such a manner, let alone who would be skilled enough to manage one driven at its ultimate limit. Regardless, it's clear the G remains one of the most rugged off-roaders available - even if its opulent leather-trimmed interior, chromed exterior bits, and - on AMG models - lowered bumper fascia aren't as trail-friendly as they could be. Mercedes-Benz does sell a more rudimentary, commercial-grade G-Class abroad that would likely appeal to the hardcore off-road set abroad, but Mercedes-Benz USA won't sell it here.
And why would it? North American owners don't necessarily use that prowess to its fullest, and they're not necessarily looking to. They instead want a status symbol; a vehicle that's solid, capable, opulent, and handcrafted to their exact taste. But they also want an icon; an authentic vehicle whose ability has been proven time and again. Even after 33 years on this planet, it's hard to argue the 2013 G-Class doesn't tick each and every one of those boxes.
On sale: Now
Base price: $113,395 (G550); $134,395 (G63 AMG)
Engine: 5.5-liter V-8 (G550); 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 (G63 AMG)
Power: 388 hp @ 6000 (G550); 544 hp @ 5500 rpm (G63 AMG)
Torque: 391 @ 2800-4800(G550); 560 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm (G63 AMG)
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Four-wheel; two-speed transfer case
Curb weight: 5578-5625 lb
Tires: 265/60R18 (G550); 275/50R20 tires (G63 AMG)
0-60 MPH: 6.0 seconds (G550), 5.3 (G63 AMG)