You want to hate it because, well, it’s the ancestor of shiny city roamers helmed by celebutantes who wouldn’t be caught dead fording a river or climbing a trail. You also suspect it’s raw and crude and agrarian. But the ill associations are entirely unwarranted. The 40-year-old origins of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class are about as legitimate as a four- (and sometimes six-) wheeled conveyance gets.
The 2019 G-Class took a drastic turn toward modernity with its independent front suspension and oh so slightly rounded corners. But it’s a continuation of a throughline that originally sparked in the ’70s thanks to a nudge from none other than the Shah of Iran, who presciently recognized the value of stripped-down, go-anywhere vehicles that lacked Range Rover-esque luxury pretensions. It also didn’t hurt that he was a major Mercedes-Benz stakeholder.
Early G’s aren’t quite as agricultural as, say, early Land Rovers, which make John Deere tractors feel like interplanetary rocket ships. But they’re close. Austria’s daunting Schöckl mountain usually gets all the glory for the G-Class’ rugged roots, but Southern France’s sprawling Circuit du Château de Lastours is where Mercedes finessed much of the G’s off-road skill sets; it was along those craggy trails and jagged hillclimbs that we experienced old and new G-Classes back to back.
First, getting behind the wheel of the proto G-Classes turned out to be a fortuitous cadence; after all, the athletic prowess of the modern 416-hp G 550 and 557-hp AMG G 63 is so elevated that following up with the ancient trucks would have required a complete reverse calibration of the ol’ butt-o-meter. Turns out it’s best to start slow and steady and get acquainted with the boxy ute by putting one foot in front of the other, learning to walk before running, and all those sorts of things.
Our first tester, a 1980 230G, is a naive-looking short-wheelbase (94.4 inches) example finished in a fetching shade of fire-engine red (not to be confused for the actual 230G fire truck). Riding on steelies and powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine, this inaugural 460 series G is the epitome of “Before They Were Famous” innocence, from a time when a Geländewagen was a Geländewagen, a term that stuck around until 1998. From its plaid cloth seats to its hand-crank windows, rubberized steering wheel, and four-speed shift-it-yourself gearbox, this earliest G is the purest expression of the breed. Freed from superfluities such as air conditioning and catalytic converters, the 230 fires up with a quiet crank and gets on its way with unassuming ease.
Because it’s unburdened by extras, the 102-hp powerplant feels adequate for its petite body. The shifter features long throws and feels rather mechanical in its operation, but it engages smoothly and cleanly. Piloting the little guy over hill and dale inspires aggressive driving despite the lack of driver aids: Because there’s so little bodywork between you and the outside world, your spatial awareness feels extra strong, as though aided by a neural 360-degree camera. The organic relationship between the non-power-assist steering and the carbureted engine makes it thoughtlessly easy to thread the narrow tires through terrain, and the outstanding visibility breeds confidence. Damping is surprisingly compliant, and wheel travel is generous despite the non-independent front and rear axles; there’s some light jostling over particularly uneven surfaces, but the ride is surprisingly plush. Through it all this compact 4×4 averts the modern trappings of power, weight, and complexity, offering a small, unassuming, and earnestly simple driving experience.
Moving one small step up the G-Wagen evolutionary ladder is like meeting an awkward middle child after being charmed by the bright-eyed baby. The five-door 1985 230GE gains fuel injection that’s good for 125 hp. But mated to an automatic transmission and with a 112.2-inch wheelbase, the essential character of this rig feels markedly different. Sure, there’s still the thin body panels and trademark letterboxed windshield, but there’s also a slightly encumbered feeling due to the choking effect of the torque converter gearbox and its difficult-to-predict shift patterns. Overcome inertia and get it up to speed, and this G feels palpably more substantial than its short-wheelbase counterpart; its long wheelbase lends an air of stability and smoothness. But on steeper elevations and tight corners, it also feels less spry and eager to play along with the off-piste games. There’s still a prevailing sense of purity, but it sags slightly under the weight of the layout: the rear seats, the cargo area, the family- (or troop-) friendliness of it all.
In the interest of gaining much-needed livability on the road and broader market appeal, the G-Wagen underwent an extreme makeover in 1990 with the introduction of the 463 series. The long-overdue second-generation G-Wagen ditched its part-time all-wheel drive for a permanent AWD setup while gaining a considerably more capable 5.0-liter V-8 producing 241 hp. Inside, the changes make it all but unrecognizable, save the familiar 16:9 windshield proportion, upright posture, and defiantly rectilinear ergonomics. Although pleated leather and burl veneers swathe the flat surfaces, familiar elements such as the dashboard-mounted grab handle still recall its humble progenitors. The body panels are thicker due to the addition of more substantial crash structures but don’t intrude into the cabin like they do in later versions.
We plucked a fetchingly period-correct, aubergine-tinted 1993 500GE for a two-hour stint between the medieval French town of Carcassonne and Barcelona, and we didn’t regret the decision. Although it can’t match the 21st century refinement of the latest/greatest all-new model, this G feels less anachronistic than you might expect. Sure, the steering ratio is painfully slow, and its road-going demeanor makes it feel like it would be far happier tackling a trail than spinning the odometer over pavement. But compared to later models whose competitors were more evolved SUVs, this example from the early ’90s proved easier than expected to live with. There’s still plenty of perceptible road noise and wind howl, but there’s also a more refined suspension and copious torque for high-speed cornering and easy-peasy passing. And don’t forget, this G still occupies an era of innocence—it predates the advent of the AMG treatment, which introduced an incongruous element of performance that runs counter to the platform’s off-road origins.
Going full circle to the completely reworked modern G-Class reveals a startlingly familiar soul despite changes to nearly everything except the headlamp nozzles, door handles, and spare-tire cover. And yes, the 2019 G-Class is ostensibly a superior vehicle. It manages both off-road abilities and on-road civility. But those markedly refined characteristics are nothing without the fundamentals that were established four decades prior.