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  1. Introducing the new G-Wagen. Only it’s not – either new, or
    called the G-Wagen. It’s now the G-Class, and although this is the third-gen
    W463 model, it’s hardly in the first flush of youth. Mercedes’s iconic
    off-roader first arrived in 1979, and this version came along 10 years later.
    So it’s now 22 years old. But that doesn’t seem to have put Merc off, because
    in the same way you crate up a zoo rhino and release it back into the
    Serengeti, it’s reintroducing the G to the UK. Just at the right time and right
    price to go head-to-head with the latest Range Rover. How thoughtful.

    Words: Oliver Marriage
    Photos: James Lipman

    This feature was originally published in the May issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Now it’s well-known that the Range Rover is the darling of
    the landed gentry, a car as comfortable slugging across fields on Lord
    Rathbone’s pheasant shoot as gliding around Belgravia. It is, in other words,
    the essence of town and country. Nothing, but nothing, has yet arrived to match
    its peerless duality.

    Until now? There can’t be any doubt that Mercedes’s G-Class
    is a dyed-in-the-wool four-by-four. No Porsche-Cayenne-style delusions of
    sporting ability are contained within the castellations and fortifications of
    the G-Class’s battle-hardened flanks. And we do mean battle-hardened. In its
    career, it’s seen service with 63 armies, while Mercedes has had to promise
    NATO it will carry on building the G-Class until at least 2025. 

  3. This thing has earned its stripes and looks damn cool
    rumbling around the urban jungle. So these two are a class apart, and if you’re
    not convinced about that, try this easy test: say ‘SUV’ while looking at either
    of them. See? Feel how incongruous the term seems? It doesn’t fit. But enough
    of labels - for the purposes of this test, we’ll ignore what they stand for and
    concentrate on what they do.

  4. And first what they cost. Before attaching options, the
    Mercedes G350 Bluetec is £81,665 and the Range Rover TDV8 Autobiography is
    £83,145. Scary money, huh? Now you don’t need to add much to the big Brit,
    since it comes with everything from electric heated and cooled rear seats to a
    leather headlining as standard. Not so the G-Class. This one wears £14,195 of
    wood, floormats, TVs, alloys and illuminated door sills, the overall effect of
    which is akin to kitting out a prison in Laura Ashley soft furnishings. It
    might enhance the overall effect, but it can’t disguise the fact you’re still
    in a cell.

  5. The trouble is that behind these fripperies, the
    Geländewagen still has the look and feel of a proper utilitarian vehicle. It’s
    right there in the slabby trim and square-edged plastics, the lack of ergonomic
    friendliness, the way the doors have to be hurled shut, the roof guttering and
    dado rails round the flanks, and the careless width of the panel gaps. The
    overall suggestion is that passenger satisfaction and comfort weren’t primary

    is a term that only applies to the Range Rover’s cabin here. Everything is bang
    up-to-date; there’s harmonious use of the best materials, design and
    technology; and the result is a truly superb place to spend time. It’s also far
    more spacious - not so much for luggage, as both have giant boots - but after
    the G-Class’s narrow rear doors and knees-up seating position, the Range
    Rover’s Bentley-esque rear compartment provides its occupants a chance to
    stretch out and relax.

  6. Maybe that’s not so surprising, as the Range Rover is
    substantially bigger: a whopping 350mm longer and, including wing mirrors,
    209mm wider. Remove those from the equation, and the Merc is only 1760mm wide,
    and although it seems laughable for a car of this type, that does allow it to
    be threaded through some surprisingly small spaces. The view out helps here.
    From your lofty perch, you look down on the bonnet, the far corners of which
    are handily marked by bulky indicator housings. The Range Rover provides the driver
    with an equally fine panorama, but it simply will not squeeze through the same

  7. Oddly, you get this outsize impression from the driving
    position. In the Range Rover, you’re greeted by a handsome, expansive dashboard
    and wide centre console, your hands gripping a gargantuan steering wheel. It
    all makes you feel a bit on the miniature side. Given what we were saying about
    the design and ergonomics earlier, expectations are lower on entering the
    G-Class, but you find yourself getting comfortable quickly and easily, legs
    stretched out into the footwell, smaller-diameter steering wheel nicely placed.

    However, surviving cities is rarely about darting down
    alleyways, and we’re not about to pretend that a G-Class can follow in the
    footsteps of a G-Wiz. No, in urban areas, it’s all about isolating yourself
    from the hubbub outside - and the height and stature of these two help no end
    with that.

  8. The Range Rover is so urbane and detached that things
    happening the other side of the glass seem as if they’re being viewed on TV.
    And the G-Wagen? Well, people just don’t come too close. Whether that’s the
    devil-may-care impression created by its air of military toughness is
    debatable. More likely is that onlookers imagine the driver is quite handy with
    a baseball bat.

  9. Bigger it may be, but the Range Rover is the easier car to
    pilot. Just twist the gearknob to D, and you won’t be aware of another
    gearchange for the duration of your journey - the eight-speed ZF has to be the
    world’s best auto, and it’s matched in excellence by the latest 4.4-litre TDV8
    engine. In fact, so well do they work together, it’s hard to tell where one
    ends and the other begins - the transfer of torque is effortless, and it pulls
    away immaculately from standstill. And you can’t ignore the air suspension’s
    beautifully calm ride. Well, you can, because there’s nothing distracting about

  10. This ease of use contrasts with the Merc’s more cumbersome
    mechanicals. The auto gearbox may have seven speeds, but it’s slower to choose
    between them, plus the engine is more raucous and less keen to respond quickly
    and accurately. The 3.0-litre single turbo diesel also gives away 102bhp and
    118lb ft to the twin-turbo V8 Range Rover, and while you don’t notice this lack
    of thrust around town, you do elsewhere. 

  11. The G is thrashier and busier; gas it, and you hear a gusty
    roar from somewhere over your left shoulder that blends with wind noise coming
    off the A-pillars and reminds you that the exhaust exits under the left sill.
    But the noise is far less of a distraction than the ride. Around town, the G
    felt firm, but beyond city limits, it’s properly hard. You can see why this is
    - Merc has sought to improve body control by fitting stronger springs to limit
    roll and improve cornering ability. They work alright, but the trade-off is
    that the G hops and skips where the Land Rover flows. OK, so the two-and-a-half
    tonne Rangey doesn’t like tight roads and quick direction changes, but it
    barrels round sweepers majestically, engine purring and powering through.

  12. The Mercedes is cruder, if not quite as archaic as you might
    imagine. The steering needs a lot of lock before the G starts to tack, at which
    point it weights up considerably, and soon after the nose gets rather vague as
    the front tyres yield to physics - often before the stability control has got a
    sniff of what’s going on. But even so, it does speed and grip in a way that
    lets it keep pace with modern stuff without too much effort.

  13. Part of this difference is down to the way the two cars are
    constructed. The British machine has a bespoke integrated chassis design that
    melds the strength of a traditional ladder frame with the refinement of a
    monocoque construction - which also explains why it weighs so much. The German
    uses the traditional ladder frame design with the body mounted separately on
    top. This makes it very tough (look underneath, and it’s like a construction
    site - all RSJs and scaffolding), but this design has fallen out of favour for
    road cars, due to its susceptibility to torsional flex.

  14. Nonetheless, it’s a strong platform from which to hang other
    clanking, oily bits - which the G-Class has in the shape of rigid axles front
    and rear, three 100 per cent lockable diffs, and a low-ratio gearbox. Using
    these is straightforward - you push the buttons on the dash - but you have to
    know when you need to engage which one… there’s a level of assumed knowledge
    when driving the Merc off-road.

    The Range Rover can be driven by the off-road novice.
    Instead of stabbing hopefully at buttons, you just use the Terrain Response
    system toselect the type of ground you’re on, and the car’s electronics do the
    rest - it shows you what’s happening on the dash display and will even ask to
    be put into low range if it deems it necessary.

  15. Both are incredible off-road (it’s doubtful we actually
    needed to fiddle with the 4WD set-up at all), but have very, very different
    mannerisms. The Rangey flows and glides over terrain - thick parallel logs felt
    no bigger than twigs, while ruts, slopes, craters, boulders, wading pools and
    everything else that wasn’t tarmac was imperiously dealt with. Everything
    except mud. And that was purely down to the tyres, as the RR’s Pirelli Scorpion
    Zeros had less bite and traction than its rival’s Dunlop Winter Sports.

    The inevitable consequence is that you soon get to feel
    rather cocksure in the Range Rover, and it’s about then, when you’re axle-deep
    in prehistoric scenery, that realisation dawns. Realisation of how you’re
    treating this £80,000 off-roader, realisation that although it can perform
    incredible feats, it also feels rather precious, too special to treat like

  16. Now, if you’d spent a similar amount on a G-Class, then
    doubtless it would also be pretty precious, but it goes about off-roading in a
    very different way. To put it bluntly, the G attacks. It’s not subtle or
    sophisticated, but by heck is it effective. It charges at obstacles, and you
    never feel held back by its lower ground clearance or inferior turning circle.
    The G is unstoppably pugnacious, belly flops into mud like a hippo, and
    generally feels pretty impregnable. It’s not a comfortable experience because
    of those tight springs, but you get masses of feel, a real sense of connection,
    and- just like driving an Elise on a B-road - there’s a sense that the car is
    in its element. In extreme conditions, I don’t think it’s any better than the
    RR - possibly the opposite - but it feels more up for it.

  17. So for off-road amusement, the G-Class has it, but it’s too
    one-dimensional, and simply doesn’t have the breadth of ability that the Range
    offers. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t - in fact, aside from the
    ride and sleepy steering, the ageing 4x4 (the longest-serving passenger car in
    Merc’s history, incidentally) is better than we expected - provided your
    expectations, like ours, were that the G-Class is closer in ethos and execution
    to a Defender than a Range Rover. It’s about midway, but I honestly think that
    if Mercedes can persuade people to drive one, they’ll pick up more sales than
    they expect. It’s one of those cars that, if assessed objectively, is deeply
    flawed and bobs uneasily in the Range Rover’s wake, and yet you find yourself
    warming to its infectious nature. It’s the real deal, a genuine
    scenery-smashing tough nut clad in a thin sheen of civility. Still loses this
    test, though.

  18. The verdict

    The Range Rover is better in every way and so steamrollers the G-Class. But there’s something about the Merc’s honesty that makes us want one. Quite badly.

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