We go off-roading in British Columbia with a 2016 G550 and discover what it means to be tough as nails and still deliver on premium luxury.
-Whistler, British Columbia
For an ex-Land Rover technician and the former president of the Toronto Area Rover Club, the opportunity to put a Mercedes-Benz G-Class through its paces off-road is a dream come true. So when Motor1 Canada was invited to Whistler to participate in an event specifically designed to introduce the model to potential customers from around the world, I eagerly volunteered my services.
Naturally I’ve driven the G-Class before but borrowing one from a friend, is a far cry from being handed the key to a brand new 2016 G550 in the stunningly beautiful, yet rugged mountains of British Columbia. On top of this, for a man who not only currently owns a Land Rover Defender, but also a Range Rover and several older vintage LR products, this was set to be a true test of loyalties. How would the G-Class compare, and after 12 years of being on the outside of the Land Rover business (I used to own and operate my own Jaguar/Land Rover independent workshop), could I truly take on this challenge with unbiased journalistic integrity?
Well, I’ll admit that the G-Class has always somewhat appealed to me because it is unlike all other high-end SUVs on the market today. While most take a luxury product and attempt to make it perform well off-road (to varying degrees), Mercedes-Benz approaches this from the complete opposite direction. The company takes a full military-grade platform, one which performs combat and peacekeeping duties around the world (yes, even the Canadian military employs the G-Class now), and furnishes this with full Military dress number ones or what others might describe as luxurious appointments. Yet, wood and leather aside, it is what’s beneath this vehicle which sets the G-Class, for want of a better word, in a class of its own.
Based on heavy-duty ladder frame construction, the G-Class utilizes tried & tested engineered products such as swivel balls to protect the front drive-shafts. Yes, while most SUV products today (including the Range Rover) have moved on to rather less-expensive, together with being less-protective, rubber-booted CV joints, Mercedes-Benz continues to use these military-grade units typically only seen on larger military vehicles. The same thought process can be seen elsewhere, in the fact that while others now rely on sophisticated traction control systems to negotiate rough terrain, the G-Class has stayed with the basics of lockable differentials (each & every model comes standard with lockable front, rear and centre differentials). In fact, although the modern G-Class carries its full complement of ABS/Traction control systems, engaging its electronic lockable differentials automatically deactivates these systems and effectively replaces this with what can only be described as old-school durability. While both formulas provide impressive results, the demands placed on these by military requirements (field service, ease of repair), means that while your average SUV may perform adequately when required, the G-Class will do this day-in day-out, over several years of hard service.
The same could be said of certain other items, such as the rather robust exposed door hinges. While these may appear somewhat strange to many, soldiers aren’t exactly known for their delicacy when operating equipment, especially that which has been paid for by others! Yet, these will take burly service personnel hanging off the side of them, together with their often chosen method of closing said door, with their combat boots.
Is this truly necessary on a civilian-marketed G550, and aren’t Mercedes-Benz going a little over-the-top on this when most G-Class sales take place in bustling downtown areas devoid of angry crowds carrying AK47s? Well, the company has seen fit to forgo the underbody armour plating on its civilian models and I can assure you that our tax dollars aren’t currently financing leather seating with adjustable lumbar, nor glorious polished wood accents.
However, for all intents and purposes, the civilian G-Class underpinnings are probably still 90 percent military-spec (accepting that Canada doesn’t receive the diesel-powered G-Class sold to other continents and used for most military applications), which should supply some comfort to those investing in one. And investing is the right word, as a brand new G550 will set buyers back $127,200 and they won’t source many deals on this as there is consistently a waiting list for G-Class models in Canada. On the other hand, while this may sound like a substantial amount of money, one needs to recall its intended purpose because, with proper maintenance, the vehicle will quite likely outlive its owner.
Of course, one could choose to spend considerably more as the range simply starts with the 4.0-litre DOHC V8 (416 horsepower) G550. Drop in the initials AMG and prices start to escalate rather rapidly. In fact, reach for the stars with the top-of-the-line V12-powered 621 hp AMG G65 and you’ll be writing a cheque for well over $200,000 together with joining a rather exclusive club.
So who exactly purchases these vehicles? Is it the serious off-road enthusiasts seeking the ultimate adventure wagon, or is it downtown businessmen looking for a truly distinctive set of wheels? Well, it’s likely a little of both. You will certainly come across the odd G-Class kitted out for expedition work because, in truth, nothing comes straight out of the box so well prepared for the job. This was made abundantly clear to me during our trek up the mountains of British Columbia. As you’ll notice from the pictures, we came across the odd challenge or two, yet only once did this require the engagement of all three locking differentials and this was more for the reason of terrain conservation than anything else (we didn’t wish to be spinning wheels and chewing up the land). For most of the day, we simply employed the centre unit and, with slightly more aggressive tires, we probably wouldn’t have even needed this.
Yet together with my fellow off-road enthusiasts, you’ll also likely find many a G-Class ferrying visitors up to their owners’ chalets in the Swiss Alps. After all, if one can afford the price of admittance to such a desired neighborhood, why wouldn’t one purchase the most capable snow-crunching SUV available today? Plus the G-Class looks rather appropriate when parked alongside their private jet. Which is possibly why you see so many of these cruising around downtown areas or along Hollywood Boulevard because they simply look so ultra-cool.
So yes, as hard as it is for a diehard Land Rover enthusiast to admit, the G-Class is now the epitome of off-road capable SUVs. It is simply a no-compromise product in a growing world of increasingly compromised SUVs (others simply aren’t built as tough as this today). It is a fact that while some SUVs will happily cross a damp field, others will tackle this task even after a thunderstorm. Some will follow the farm tractor in the ruts as it plows the field, yet if I were the farmer on that tractor and I got stuck, I’d sure be hoping that a G-Class owner would come along.
It’s boxy, it’s in-your-face, yet there’s nothing else quite like it on the market today. Which is why I one day plan on having one sitting in my own driveway.