You’ll find them in communities known as Yaletown, the Westside, Shaunessy and the British Properties. Chances are they will be driven by women who look as though they spend a year’s blue-collar salary on beauty products alone. They are probably driving it, only because it has a Mercedes tri-star on the grille and is the most expensive production SUV money can buy. However, you must admit, there is something seductive about the G-Class. It has all the classy looks that make it popular in the posh crowd, but it also has a sense of adventure about it as well.
What modern owners of G-Classes may not know is that the G-Class is also known as the Geländewagen, and was never meant to be a luxury product. Quite the opposite actually, as the G was built for the battlefield.
To understand the double life this unique vehicle lives, we must go back to the beginning. In the early 70’s, Iran was looking for a durable, rugged 4x4 to be the military’s primary means of transportation. It just so happened that the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was a major shareholder in the Daimler Corporation. Not wanting to let down the King of Kings, and with tensions in Iran rising, Daimler-Benz began a joint project with Austrian carmaker, Steyr-Daimler-Puch, to build a rugged little army vehicle. It would be called the Geländewagen in Europe, which translates to “tough terrain vehicle.” The Geländewagen was compliant with all NATO specs, featuring three locking differentials that helped it climb grades up to 36 degrees and straddle lateral inclines up to 24 degrees.
In 1979, Mercedes saw that the Geländewagen could be a successful civilian soft roader as well, as the Toyota Landcruiser and Land Rover Defender enjoyed the mass popularity of this segment. So a civilian version was offered to the public straight away, and quickly became a popular contender to the Japanese and British competition. Customers could choose between three body styles, a 2-door SWB convertible, a 2-door SWB wagon and a LWB 4-door wagon. In military guise, the options added a windowless version of the 2-door wagon as well as a pickup, and a chassis-cab with a wheelbase of 2850, 3120 or 3400 mm, being the base vehicle for army-ambulances, communication vehicles or any other custom fabrication wanted.
The early vehicles came with several choices of power. Petrol engines included a 2.0 and 2.3L inline-four, as well as a 2.8L V-6. Diesel power plants included a 2.4L inline-four, as well as a 2.5 and 3.0L inline-five cylinder. In 1980, Mercedes built a custom-built version of the G for Pope John Paul II to protect him from wind and rain when he visited Germany. After an assassination attempt in 1981, the bodywork was finished with bulletproof glazing. In all, over 50,000 G-wagens were built in the first decade.
In 1990, the first generation G-wagen (W460) was replaced with the second generation W461. The second-generation vehicle was all but identical to the first, however would now offer a more luxury minded interior and a 5.0L V-8, as well as a 5.4L supercharged V-8. This new luxury line taken by Mercedes opened up an all-new market for the G-Class now being imported into all of North America. The G500, offered the wealthy civilian a 32-valve 382 horsepower 5.5L V-8 engine, while the G55 AMG kicks out an impressive 500 horsepower 5.4L V-8 engine, and can get from 0 to 100 kph in a mere 5.5 seconds. Not bad for a vehicle that weigh’s 2,555 kg but comes at the cost of being Canada’s worst polluting vehicle for those vehicles with published environmental numbers.
In 2004, the Canadian Department of National Defense signed a contract to purchase 357 G-wagens for the army, more importantly for combat operations in Afghanistan. The outdated Volkswagen Iltis had long been the workhorse for the Canadian Forces, but offered soldiers little in the way of protection. The new G-wagens came with an Armour Protection System, which can be installed in the vehicles in less than eight hours, and offered protection from small arms and small explosive munitions. However, Taliban fighters simply made the IED’s bigger, making the G-wagens armour out-dated with in the year. Other problems the Forces have met with the G-wagen has been its center of balance. With military versions equipped with a massive armoured machine gun turret on the roof, the G-wagen becomes very unstable when cornering. In fact a good many CF G-wagens sport damaged sides as they tip over so easily, now causing the CF to rethink how they arm the vehicles.
So we come to the present day and the G-wagen is still living the double life of luxury SUV and military support vehicle. Today there are 28 nations that use the G-wagen for all sorts of different military operations, while the civilian version is just as popular as ever. The updated G550 now sports a 5.5L 382 hp V-8 while the manic G55 AMG pumps 500 hp from the supercharged 5.4L. With such a passionate following, both wealthy and off-road enthusiast based, Mercedes has scheduled the G to continue production into 2012. The Geländewagen really does represent a unique show of versatility for a vehicle to straddle two very opposite ends of the spectrum so successfully for thirty years now.