Think Mercedes and the images which will flood the mind of general public will be of stately sedans and opulent luxury. Think hard and they may even think about the Sprinter, but it will be very hard to conjure the name of Mercedes with a go any were, hard hitting tough as nails SUV.
But ask the people in know and they will all agree to the fact that one of the best SUVs out there, which can run rings around almost any other SUV manufactured by any other manufacturer in the planet is built by Mercedes Benz. Yes, we are talking about the Geländewagen or, more popularly known as G Class, the granddaddy of rough and tough SUVs.
A legend is born:
The G class was born after a suggestion from Shah of Iran (who was a major stakeholder in Mercedes at that time) as a military oriented 4X4. Since Mercedes was a new entrant to this field, they entered into a partnership with Steyr-Daimler-Puch to develop this vehicle. This SUV was designed to be a Military and Civilian model from ground up, and the testing started at 1974. The testing happened in extreme conditions – over Sahara desert, over coal mines in in Germany and even in the Arctic Circle.
The official production started in 1979 and the earlier models were hand build. There was a short wheel base model and a long wheel base model on offer, with two door convertible and two door wagon (for SWB models) and four door wagon for LWB models. There was also a model without the rear windows, much like a panel van. Model numbers W460 were used to designate the civilian versions while W461 was used to designate the military and other non-civilian versions.
The G Class was an instant success with the military, and it served as a platform for lot of modifications like fire truck, ambulance etc. Part of this success came from the fact that the SUV had a tough as nails ladder on frame chassis and three fully locking differentials, paired with bullet proof Mercedes engines. But the civilian version did not meet with instant acceptability due to the fact that the interiors were Spartan in nature and the price point at which the SUV was released pegged it as a luxury go anywhere SUV. 1981 saw first major update and Mercedes loaded the SUV with an automatic tranny, air conditioning, auxiliary fuel tank etc. along with bits and pieces from its upmarket sedans and external embellishments like headlight grills. This was followed soon by more comfortable front seats borrowed from the sedans and year by year, bit and pieces were added like electric heating, power windows, wider tyres, power antennas etc.
The first image boost of G class happened in 1983 were it went on to win the most grueling rally in the work – the famed Dakar Rally. This made many people sit up and take notice of the offering from Mercedes and worked as a sales booster.
To celebrate the first anniversary of G class, Mercedes upgraded the G class with all-time 4 wheel drive, ABS and electronic locking differentials in 1989. The interiors were spruced up with wooden trims, a much refined center console and optional leather upholstery. The chassis was also upgraded and was named W463.
The year 1993 saw the introduction of the first real luxury G class – the 500 GE, powered by a monstrous V8 engine, and finished with real walnut wood and leather interior. Initially, this was produced as a limited run of 500 models, and in many ways, paved way for the future G class. In 1994, this was renamed to G500, following the revamp of naming conventions across the Mercedes range.
The next major update in the lifecycle happened in 1997-1998 period. The chassis was upgraded, and a host of new power plants were introduced by Mercedes during this period. They also introduced a convertible model with powered top. This year also saw the return of the mighty G 500. Till the year 2003, periodic updates kept rolling in. There were improvements like multifunction steering wheels, a MID with a trip computer etc. and in the year 2002, the G class was officially introduced in USA. Though there was a loyal fan following, the one common grouse about the G class was the lack of power. At last, in 2003, Mercedes decided to fix this for once and all, and handed over the G class to their in house turning arm – the AMG. This was a pivotal moment in the history of G class.
The mad hatters at AMG extracted about 57 more BHP and 51 69 Nm of torque from the V8, pushing the total output to 354 bhp. The model was called G55 AMG, and came with 18 inch wheels and featured visual tweaks such as aluminum brush guard and exhaust vents which exited from side. This was further enhanced by the introduction of the first supercharged G55 model with a 5.4 liter V8 engine block churning out 476 bhp. This was the first model which could do 0 to 60 under 5.5 seconds, an astounding feat for such a SUV. This was later followed up by a more powerful tune, delivering 493 bhp, in 2006.
In 2007 and 2008, Mercedes introduced two facelifts – the first was comparatively minor in nature. The models gained LED tail lamps, revamped interiors with a new instrument cluster and center console and additions such as entertainment system with radio and CD player and an in dash six CD changer (DVD changer for G500), navigation, rear view camera, TPMS, power outlet etc. Also on offer was an optional Harman Kardon surround system with high performance speakers all around and an optional TV tuner. In 2009, Mercedes further added creature comfort options such as climatised and multi-counter seats, ambient lighting, and dashboard wrapped in leather, aux-in in the glove box etc. This year also saw the introduction of iPod and USB support and some new body color choices.
The last major upgrade was received in 2012, with LED DRLs and turn indicator integrated mirrors but the majority of the changes happened under the hood and inside the cabin. The interior gained a new multifunction screen in color, new COMMAND screen, and restyled center console and dashboard. The model was also equipped with the latest DISTRONIC cruise control, PARKTRONIC park assist, Blind spot assist, MBrace2 telematics and an updated stability program. The AMG versions were updated to G63 and G65 with a 5.5 liter twin turbo V8 and 6.0 liter twin turbo V8, outputting 563 bhp and 621 bhp respectively.
The G class is the longest in production Mercedes ever (if we discount the Unimog) and from 1979, the body shape have never seen any drastic changes. The car always remained true to its roots and despite having plans to pull the plug of the production, Mercedes never came across to do it ever because of the ever increasing popularity and fan base of this SUV. The car remained loyal to the fan base by keeping the iconic body style and by never diluting the off road prowess and by adding bits and pieces to the firework by the way of AMG firepower under the hood and the finest of luxury from the stables of Mercedes inside the cabin. If you compare the car with the top of the line offerings from other manufactures, the G class may not do well, but it doesn't matter – for, G class is not just another run of the mill SUV. This is an icon, a piece of history, much like the Land Rover or the Jeep, but with a fine balance of hand built luxury and tough as nails reliability. And that makes the G class very special, for the people who lust one.