Legend has it that a suggestion from the Shah of Iran (then a major shareholder in Daimler) led Mercedes to design a military off-roader. Development began in 1972, and Austrian company Steyr-Puch was contracted to build what became known as the G-Wagen.
By the time the first production cars went on sale in 1979, the Iranian Revolution had swept the Shah from power. But the G-Wagen has gone on to become the longest-running Mercedes production vehicle of all-time.
Civilian versions were offered right from the start, and while there have been many updates and engine upgrades in the past 34 years, the G-Class’ boxy body is largely the same today as it was in the seventies. It’s still produced in the same Austrian factory, too, although the company is now Magna-Steyr.
The slab-sided shape, upright screen and flat rear door give the G-Class an unmistakable profile. There are two models in the current line-up: the insane G63 AMG or the more sensible G350 BlueTEC diesel tested here. But at £82,945 without options, even this cheaper version is a seriously expensive proposition.
Still, clamber into the cabin and you’re greeted with a modern Mercedes layout. Material quality is as good as you’d expect, while standard equipment includes front and rear heated seats, leather upholstery, a Harman/Kardon stereo and Mercedes’ familiar COMAND multimedia control system. But any illusions of modernity are broken by doors that shut with a harsh clunk and a very upright and cramped driving position.
There’s even less space in the back, where legroom is tighter than in a city car, while the boxy yet short luggage area is highly impractical. The rear seats fold down and flip forward, but they’re heavy and cumbersome.
Still, there’s a reason for all this. Comfort wasn’t high on the list of priorities when the G-Wagen was designed. The body-on-frame chassis and chunky mechanicals that eat into cabin space are a by-product of focusing on rugged off-road capability. And you only have to look at the row of chunky differential and low-range transmission buttons at the base of the dash to realise that the G-Class’ legendary all-terrain ability remains undiluted.
On the road, you might initially be fooled into thinking you’re driving a modern SUV. The 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox shifts smoothly and the 3.0-litre V6 diesel is refined and powerful. But the throttle is stiff at low speed, there’s lots of engine resonance and the turning circle is terrible.
When you head out of town, the antiquated recirculating ball steering means you need to add plenty of lock in corners where a modern car would only require a tweak of the wrist. Driving on twisty roads is unnerving, as the body leans dramatically in corners and there’s very little feel through the controls, despite the car’s decent grip and excellent traction.
On motorways, the Mercedes wanders around and requires constant steering corrections. And although ride quality is better than in the Land Rover, the G-Class is still unsettled and its bluff body generates lots of wind noise. On top of that, the brake pedal feels very soft – unlike the upgraded Brembos fitted to the Twisted Defender.
Yet despite all these compromises, there’s been no let-up in customer demand for this peculiar retro 4x4. It looks like nothing else on the road and offers a unique experience at the wheel. Mercedes has committed to producing the G-Class until at least 2015, so there’s plenty of life left in the old soldier yet.
But is it better than the Twisted Defender – a vehicle that takes the idea of a distinctive and unusual 4x4 to an even higher level?