FIRST DRIVE: Mercedes-Benz G-Class through the ages

PERPIGNAN, France – If you want to look famous or tough or rich or all three, there are only a few better ways to get a G-Class.

During its 39-year history, the flagship of Mercedes SUV has slowly become a status symbol, largely due to its clientele of rappers, armies, princes, explorers, celebrities and the occasional pope.

Just in time for his 40th anniversary, Mercedes rolls in the first really new G-Class in its history. The biggest change for 2019 is that it is now driving, finally as you would imagine a Mercedes-Benz. More about that later.

First some history. The G-Class originated from a collaboration between Daimler-Benz and the Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch in the early 1970s (now part of the Canadian company Magna International). The resulting Gelandewagen – or "field vehicle", commonly known as the G-Wagen – debuted in 1979.

"It was launched as a kind of commercial vehicle for extreme conditions, and it became more and more a luxury car – but it retained its off-road capacity," says Gerhard Heidbrink, archivist at Mercedes-Benz Classic.

The G-Wagen was invented long before the terms "sport utility vehicle" or "crossover" were conceived. The best sales season ever for the G-Class was in 2017, showing you how far ahead of its time.

The original Gelandewagen looks a lot like the new one – a shed on wheels. The driver sat straight and very close to the flat windshield. Shifting gears were needed to lean over and reach down to a stocky gearshift. The steering wheel felt completely vague, just like the tiller on a yacht.

The engines, ranging from 75 to 150 hp, do not take you anywhere fast, but as long as you were patient, you could drive around the world with the 4×4 G-Class.

In 1975, the Shah of Iran placed an order for 20,000 unreleased G & # 39; s for his army. The revolution effectively canceled that order, but the G nevertheless found favor with regional German police forces and the Norwegian, Argentine and later Swiss armies.

The Canadian armed forces added the G-Wagen to its fleet as the Light Utility Vehicle Wheeled. It is currently used for command and reconnaissance work as well as for military police.

Incremental improvements in the coming decades made G more attractive to citizens and eventually changed to the luxury status symbol that it is today.

"It was not our intention to produce a cool vehicle for an extra cool audience," says Andreas Hoppel, a product manager for G-Class. "We stuck to the basic concept, the off-road capability and the world realized what a fantastic vehicle it is and jumped on it."

The development team operates with unusual freedom within Mercedes-Benz, such as a company within a company, says Hoppel.

"I believe that the G-class, in terms of Mercedes, is something different, it is different, and we know that our customers are different," he added.

In 1980 Pope John Paul II was about to make a tour through Germany. For the trip he used a white Mercedes 230 GE with a plexiglass phone booth on the back from which he could wave to meetings. After an allotment attempt in 1981, the glass cabin was made bullet-proof.

From 2007, Pope Benedict XVI preferred the more powerful eight-cylinder G 500 as its official Popemobile. It was painted "mystically white".

The Mercedes 230 GE from 1980 (also known as the Pope Mobile) that was used by Pope John Paul II. - (DAIMLER AG)
The Mercedes 230 GE from 1980 (also known as the Pope Mobile) that was used by Pope John Paul II. – (DAIMLER AG)

The G-Class took Jacky Ickx and co-pilot Claude Brasseur to victory in the grueling and often deadly Paris-Dakar Rally in 1983. Their 280 GE short wheelbase van was specially modified with lightweight aluminum body panels and aerodynamic add-ons before the race.

The 2.8-liter six-cylinder engine produced only 220 hp, but the determined reliability of the vehicle made them beat faster and more powerful machines.

Arnold Schwarzenegger recently had his G-Class converted to work on electricity. Eco-friendliness was never the strength of Gelandewagen. From 2018, Natural Resources Canada ranked the 12-cylinder AMG G65 as the second least efficient vehicle in Canada. The first is the Bugatti Chiron.

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia reportedly bought 30 or 40 white G classes for himself and his retinue. Since then, the G-Class has become an almost patriotic choice, explained a Saudi Arabian car criticism.

In recent years, the G-Class has reached new levels of price and absurdity. The limited edition 4×4 Squared, which is larger than a bungalow, had a price tag of $ 295,000 in Canada. The 6×6 had six driven wheels on three axles. And then there is the Landaulet.

The Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet. - Daimler AG
The Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet. – Daimler AG

Officially styled the Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet, it is an open SUV with adjustable S-Class rear seats, 4×4 Squared gantry axles, and a twin-turbo V-12 engine from AMG. Priced at more than half a million dollars, all 99 Landaulets sold out quickly.

The greatest G-Class, however, was not of a celebrity or a prince or a pope; it was Gunther Holtorf and his wife Christine. The couple left in their 300 GD with long wheelbase on a journey to see the world, hoping to visit as many countries as possible.

Gunther Holtorf visited 215 countries, regions and territories, covered 900,000 kilometers in the same car and had been on the road for 26 years. He is shown here with "Otto", a Mercedes 300 GD, on Mount Everest. -DAIMLER AG

The journey lasted 26 years, covering nearly 900,000 kilometers, of which 250,000 off-road and passed through 215 countries. That distance is equal to driving from the earth to the moon and back, and then twice around the earth.

Just like a Louis Vuitton case or a Rolex Daytona watch, the G-Class has stood the test of time largely unchanged. It looks the same as in 1979.

"The existing G-Class is, from the point of view of production, based on the construction and concept that dates back to 1979," said Hoppel.

"It was very important for us, for our designers and engineers, to preserve the iconic shape of the vehicle," he said. The goal was to improve the performance on the road and make it future-proof for many years to come.

A new model, he said, was the only way to keep the G-Class in production in the long term. Future requirements for accident testing, pedestrian safety and fuel economy required a redesign.

The 2019 G-Class is longer, wider and has a completely new design of the front suspension. Double suspension arms replace a rough, solid axle. The new model is 170 kg lighter than the outgoing, which tipped the scale at a juicy 2700 kg.

A pair of 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8's stay under the hood, bringing 416 horsepower into the G550 or 577 horsepower in the AMG G63.

In the cabin you will now find the latest infotainment technology, including a pair of widescreen displays. Advanced auxiliary functions for the driver are now also available, including automatic emergency brakes.

Sit on the driver's seat and the 2019 Galedawagen immediately reminds of the version from the eighties. You are still fairly upright, behind a wide flat flat windshield, looking at a square hood. You can still see direction indicators that are on top of the hood as before.

The doors close with a familiar sound. Once inside, it feels like a safe. Building quality is as good as possible; the new G feels as if he can survive the apocalypse.

It only takes a few minutes to realize what the biggest improvement has been. The G-Class now runs like a Mercedes should. Thanks to the new design of the suspension, the handlebar feels on the wheels. Turning around a corner is no longer a guessing game. Driving on a daily basis would be a much more comfortable prospect than before.

There are, however, compromises. The military roots of this truck are still visible, despite the fact that there is a lot of fine leather. Because of that barn-through aerodynamics, there is considerable wind noise on the highway, albeit less than before. The driving characteristics of this bodywork truck are not particularly smooth – not like a GLE.

Off-road performance is better than ever. The three fully locked differences remain. All important measures for climbing and crawling have improved somewhat. Even the back-up camera was made waterproof because it is below the waterline at the maximum wading depth of the G-Class.

In the past 39 years, so many other SUVs have come and gone. But the G-Class remains; his reputation is only increasing.

"From time to time the question arose, do we have to end production of the G-Wagen? In the end it survived them all", says Gerhard Heidbrink of Mercedes Classic. With the new model, the G-Class looks ready to last another 40 years.