CARCASSONNE, France – Here’s the dilemma: you make a vehicle that’s been basically unchanged for 39 years, the public adores it (so much so that 2017 was its best sales year ever, with 22 000 units sold) and it’s become a bona fide automotive legend. But new safety regulations coming into effect in 2019 mean that you can no longer produce it.

Do you use the opportunity to start from scratch, ditching the compromised ladder-frame chassis for a modern monocoque construction and allowing your designers to pen a completely new body with just the faintest of nods to the lineage (this, by the way, appears to be what Land Rover is doing with its next-generation Defender, which is facing a similar fork in the road)? Or do you take an evolutionary approach, as Mercedes-Benz has done with the 2018 G-Class?

What's new?

Despite looking almost identical to the outgoing model, the new G-Class has been redesigned from the wheels up. Again, that needs a qualifier. It’s "all-new" in the sense that every part bar the headlamp spray nozzles, spare-wheel cover, exterior door handles (and their mechanisms) and one or two other bits and bobs, has been completely redesigned. The basic DNA, however, remains, meaning it retains its ladder-frame chassis and that famous boxy silhouette.

Even from close up, the G-Class looks practically identical to the original Geländewagen that first rolled of the production line way back in 1979. Aluminium now features throughout the body shell, while high-strength steel, together with improved production processes, has lowered the vehicle's weight, claims Mercedes-Benz, by an impressive 170 kg. The G's torsional rigidity has also been greatly improved from the outgoing model’s 6 537 N.m/degree to the new model’s 10 162 N.m/degree.

The stronger and lighter chassis now has its suspension towers fitted on top of the frame, with a massive suspension strut between them to add rigidity. The rear system, while still employing a solid axle, now features a superior five-link setup. Whereas the front suspension used to be a solid axle, it has been replaced with independent double wishbone suspension.

For the first time on the G-Class, Mercedes-Benz offers its Dynamic Select with five driving modes (eco, comfort, sport, sport + and individual) that allow the pilot to choose the appropriate suspension, engine and transmission mappings, as well as steering settings. There is also a "G-mode" that harnesses all the vehicle’s off-road tech. This system is standard on the G63 and optional on the G500.

Behind the wheel

Climbing up into the plush leather- and Alcantara-trimmed cabin, the square-ish door shuts with a typically solid clack. Being wider (64 mm, as well as 53 mm longer) than before, there is slightly more room in the cabin for all passengers. As before, you sit high with a commanding and familiar view through the squared-off windscreen and across the flat bonnet with those trademark indicators atop the fenders.

The G63’s cabin is a sumptuous affair featuring the pair of 12,3-inch infotainment screens we’ve seen in the brand’s luxury sedans, supplying a plethora of information to the driver. In the G-Class, these also have special off-road menus.

The seats are another highlight. Apart from being heated and cooled, the pews – like those offered in the E- and S-Class – have air chambers that inflate and deflate depending on the enthusiasm with which the vehicle is threaded through corners.

Despite retaining its ladder-frame chassis, the new G63 boasts vastly improved on-road manners. The larger footprint and revised suspension improve the handling no end. Its limits are still easy to find, but you have so much fun getting there that you can’t help but laugh out loud as 430 kW and 850 N.m of torque make their way from the engine to the wheels.

There are nine gears, so you’ll be kept busy using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, but this only adds to the enjoyment of exercising this glorious V8. Of course, you can also leave the ‘box to its own well-programmed operation.

On the highway, the G63 quickly hits 200 km/h, with the 4,0-litre V8 engine’s exhaust note rumbling through the rev range. Thanks in part to additional transverse stabilisers at both the front and rear axles on the AMG model, the G63 feels particularly stable at these speeds. The side exhausts, you may be happy to know, are also perfect for startling pedestrians.

As good as its manners on asphalt may be, it’s off the beaten track where a G-Class has to prove itself. The engineers made it quite clear their brief was to improve the vehicle in pretty much every way, but that the off-road capability must at least remain the same as the outgoing model. As such, the new G-Class still has three 100% locking differentials (centre, rear and front), along with improved approach, departure and breakover angles and a wading depth of 700 mm (100 mm more than before).

Daimler AG will launch the new G-Class with just two models, the G63 and G500 (the latter still to be confirmed for South Africa), but it’s likely more are in the pipeline (including diesel variants). On voicing my opinion that a more affordable, stripped-out version (similar to the outgoing Professional) would give the vehicle wider appeal, the diplomatic response was: “We have several plans going forward.”

Summary

So, will Mercedes-Benz’s decision to retain that essential “G-Wagen-ness”, by designing a new-generation vehicle to be fundamentally similar to its predecessor, succeed? As mentioned, it appears Land Rover is taking the opposite approach with its new Defender. My money, though, is on the Germans.

The G-Wagen is like a 4x4 version of the Porsche 911, a motoring icon that customers expect to gently evolve. As modern as this new generation is, the G-Class remains an automotive throwback. And that’s a good thing. The G is an antidote to a world with an increasing focus on mobility rather than motoring enjoyment. Its owners will also have the distinct pleasure of knowing they are driving a vehicle unlike anything else in the market...