Mercedes-Benz updates a cherished classic to great effect, but compromises remain. We test the new Mercedes-AMG G63...
In the vast Mercedes-Benz stable, where model lifecycles can run for more than a decade, the original Geländewagen was something of an over-achiever. Available since 1979, only the Unimog has been in production longer.
Of course, that original W460 went through a number of evolutions during its lifetime, morphed into a more refined variant in 1990, spawned some wacky limited editions – who can forget the G63 6x6, a few of which can be spotted roaming the narrow streets of Stellenbosch? – and culminated in a vehicle with street cred for days and beloved by both the farming and hip-hop sets. Geländewagens are timeless, which is why you shouldn’t be at all surprised to notice the new vehicle on these pages looks almost exactly like the previous model. Why toy with the design of an icon? Instead, Benz’s engineers focused on updating the crucial components – chassis, interior space utilisation, infotainment and safety tech, and drivetrain – while retaining the G-Class’ legendary off-road ability (and, somewhat less importantly and yet essential, how the latches sound when you slam those heavy doors closed).
The new G-Class is 53 mm longer than before, 121 mm wider (owners of the outgoing Geländewagen will attest to the narrow front cabin being very much an elbow-rubbing affair; it’s best to wind down the window and rest an arm on the sill, Defender-style) and its underbelly is now 6 mm further above the ground. Despite this bloat in dimensions, the average weight saving model to model is 170 kg.
Although the vehicle is quite a bit larger, there’s no mistaking it for anything else on the road. Notice the exposed hinges, indicators sitting proud of the flanks (they were apparently expensive to engineer because they have to deform from any angle and be visible from road level a metre away from the car), bulging bonnet and side-hinged rear door embellished with a massive spare wheel encased in a stainless-steel cover. Oh, and the upright windscreen is raked by less than a degree more than before.
Thumb a button to release a catch, savour the mechanical clack as the door unlatches and hoist yourself into an indulgently comfortable driver’s chair – cheekily, Mercedes-Benz South Africa charges R30 000 extra for a multi-contour seat package inflating the bolsters to keep you and your passenger steady when the G leans exuberantly into corners, plus pulses massage bladders down your back – and you’re greeted by a cabin successfully melding modern technology and retro design. It’s also beautifully finished and feels solid throughout, with very little creaking of plastics over rough terrain thanks to body rigidity that’s up by 55%.
Visually, the biggest change comes in the form of Benz’s widescreen cockpit concept, which fuses two 12,3-inch screens into one seamless panel. The right-side one takes cares of the instrumentation and supplementary driving information and can be toggled between classic, sporty and progressive themes. The second screen functions as the infotainment control. Both displays are crystal clear and the graphics and resolution are excellent. Because it was launched internationally early last year, the G-Class has Benz’s older trackpad and lacks the new MBUX system featured on the new A-Class and GLE. Despite that, it’s easy to grasp the Comand system’s workings.
According to the carmaker, legroom in the rear has leaped by 150 mm and certainly our measurements show it to be a more spacious proposition. Headroom throughout is ample and a tall passenger can just about contentedly sit behind a beanpole driver. The boot is big, too, holding 368 litres, but the narrow door requires some clever manoeuvring to load large packages.
Under the bonnet sits one of the great current V8s. Replacing the equally effective 5,5-litre, the twin-turbo 4,0-litre places its blowers inside the cylinder V, making it as compact as possible and sharpening response. It also features cylinder management, which on partial load between 1 000 and 3 250 r/min cuts cylinders two, three, five and eight (an arrangement that works unobtrusively, yet our combined-cycle fuel route figure of 15,4 L/100 km will see the 100-litre tank empty at a scary rate).
But, blimey, you’ll have fun burning through that fossil fuel… Despite weighing 2 599 kg, the G63 breaks through the three-figure barrier in just 4,44 seconds (or, as one member pointed out, in about the same time it takes a C63 S to complete the task) and requires less than three seconds to swing the virtual needle from 80 to 120 km/h. It also sounds fantastic; perhaps not quite as brash as the outgoing G63, the new model emitting a sweet V8 rumble from its four side-exiting exhausts. They’re perfectly placed to give pedestrians on the sidewalk a jump, but you didn’t hear that from us…
Lately, Benz appears to be getting the best from its inhouse-developed nine-speed torque-converter automatic, too, the Speedshift transmission offering mostly imperceptible shifts and not selecting the next gear automatically in manual mode when the engine hits its limiter.
Underneath the brawny body, the G-Class sports another crucial change: gone is the solid front axle and an independent arrangement has been installed in its place. Breathe easy, though; the solid rear axle and three diff locks have been retained. The G63 also boasts AMG Ride Control suspension tuning which tweaks the damping at each wheel individually according to the driving style, road surface and selected suspension setting (slippery, comfort, sport or sport+). There’s also an individual mode, which allows the response from the engine, suspension, transmission and steering to be tailored.
In our experience, the G63 works best when in the latter setting, with the suspension and steering tuned to comfort and the drivetrain set to sport+ (to allow those drainpipe-like exhausts to bellow freely). Yet, even in comfort mode, the ride is too easily troubled by road scars, not helped by this test vehicle’s optional 22-inch wheels on 40-inch tyres. It’s vastly better than before, though, just not on the level of a pure luxury SUV like the Range Rover.
Body roll is decently contained – although calling it sporty would be a careless overstatement – and the new rack-and-pinion steering system now feels like there’s an actual connection to the front wheels. However, enthusiastic cornering sets off the electronic nannies to abruptly trim power transfer to the wheels (40:60 front to rear in normal driving). Nope, what the G63 prefers is you hooning it on the straights, the pipes firing at the rockface, before stomping on the 400/370 mm ventilated discs to scrub off speed before a bend.
We also took the G63 off-road, where the 850 N.m available from 2 500 r/min and three rough-road modes – sand, trail and rock – had it kicking up massive rooster tails on sand one minute and easily idling up steep inclines the next. If you’re planning serious sojourns off tar, it’s best to replace the Goodyear Eagle F1s with multi-terrain rubber (or rent a 4x4 and leave your prized G63 safely parked at home).
Judged by the standards of the luxury-SUV class, the new G misses the mark in key areas. While refined at a cruise, that upright windscreen creates a flurry of wind rush; the ride is good but not great; dynamically, it's acceptable but not composed. It's also expensive, although no more so than the competition.
But you know where this is going. The G-Class is an unstoppable force of feel-good motoring. It's appealingly non-conformist and, for that reason and many others, may Mercedes-Benz continue to build it for at least another 40 years.
*From the February 2019 issue of CAR magazine