Boldly going where few have gone before
It is expected in this business that any member of car company staff trusted to talk to journalists will sing like nightingales in praise of their own product. It is less common for them to do so about those of their closest rival.
But there I was, teetering at an impossible angle somewhere outside Frankfurt on some sadist’s off-road course in a new Mercedes Geländewagen while my German instructor lamented at length and with considerable passion the recent passing of the Land Rover Defender. “That was an amazing car,” he said, “and now it is gone. Now we feel we have no competition, nothing to really challenge us.” It was perhaps an odd comment given the least anyone can spend on a new G-wagen (or G-class as Mercedes would prefer us to call it) is now £87,795, but I still understood exactly what he was saying: when the going gets not simply tough but absurd, these are the two cars to whom the real off-road experts time and again will turn. United by their flexible ladder chassis, low-range transfer boxes and ridiculous wheel articulation, these are the off-roaders’ off-roaders. Or were.
Until Land Rover reveals its plans for the new Defender, there can surely be no doubting the G-wagen’s supremacy beyond the paved road.
Not from where I’m sitting at least.
I know I should be thinking about the fact that the new G350 CDI has had its power boosted from 211 to 245bhp and that the G63 now punches out 571bhp instead of 544bhp, but right now I’m thinking only about the muddy cliff off which I have been instructed to drive. All G-wagens have improved damping and recalibrated, less intrusive ESP systems, but none of these is going to stop me plummeting towards the planet.
“Where’s the hill descent control?” I ask. “There is none,” comes the reply. “The car does not need it: you will see.”
So over the top and into oblivion we go, the car nosing down until the blood rushes to my face and my seat belt locks around me. Then just as we appear certain to hurtle out of control, a vast but unseen hand holds us back. We descend at barely perceptible pace with my heart in my mouth and my feet off both pedals. And I learn that hill descent control is useful only on cars already compromised by their lack of low-ratio transfer boxes or other impediments. If a car such as this gets away from you, geared as it is in low-range first to make a glacier look sprightly and with driver-lockable front, centre and rear differentials, you really have driven off a cliff.
In more everyday surroundings, even this greatly modified G-wagen is pretty terrible. Its steering is best described as approximate, its ride quality is largely absent and its packaging akin to an inverted Tardis.
But still it has charm. For all its faults and the incredible prices Mercedes asks you to pay for them, you cannot fail but to look forward to every outing. There is nothing rational about the decision to spend that amount of money on this kind of car. But now the Defender is gone, it’s a car that does things no other can do. And when you experience what those things are, you might not agree with someone’s decision to buy one, but you’ll certainly understand it.