It's been nearly 16 years since Merc SA last imported a Gelandewagen - now the G-Class - give or take a dozen left-hand drive AMG conversions. Now, thanks to a big sales deal with Australia that brought right-hand drive production back in-factory, you have the choice of something other than an equally rugged station-wagon version of Toyota's Land Cruiser or Land Rover's Defender.
FRESH ASHORE: Mercedes Gelandewagen - now called the G-Class - is back in South Africa after 16 years. Image gallery.
However only seriously rich off-roaders (and posers) need apply because they could have to write a cheque for the high side of R2-million if the accessories bin is plundered while choosing a top-of-the-range G55 AMG with its 5.5-litre turbo engine, 5.5sec to 100km/h, 55 profile tyres and 5.5km/litre fuel consumption...
But let's get the Aussie connection out of the way, along with some numbers...
LEFT RIGHT, LEFT RIGHT
The Down-Under government, for a project called 'Overlander', has ordered 1200 G-wagens to keep its army and police force mobile in the Outback as well as downtown Adelaide and other exciting cities. Given that the factory in Graz, Austria sold only 4000 units in 2010, that's a large chunk of tom earmaked for export from the Aussie to the Austrian treasury. But there was a catch...
Oz, like South Africa, Britain, India, Singapore and a necklace of Far Eastern island states, drives on the left side of the road* and until now only about five percent of G-wagon production reached the drive-on-the-left market.
And those few cars came from a conversion company that took LHD models and turned the steering rack around.
So the whole G-Wagen build has now gone in-factory to fill the Aussie order and Mercedes' money moguls figured that, what the hell, the cost of the production line, once running, could be amortised more quickly with the return of the G-wagen to other lefty markets - including South Africa. Which is why I found myself deep in the 55-million-year-old (there's that double nickel again!), 80 000 square km sandpit called the Namib Desert so Merc SA could re-introduce me to one of the world's best, toughest and most expensive hand-built off-roaders.
WARM WELCOME IN THE DESERT: Deep in the Namib Desert or outside a shopping mall - the Mercedes 'Gelandewagen' is back in SA after 16 years.
And, amazing as it might seem, around 45 percent of production will go to buyers who want an AMG techmeister's name on a plate on top of their car's engine and a full house of optional accessories.
Other chassis are not so personally lavish. They're finished as ambulances, police cars and fire tenders or armour-plated for customers in parts of the world far less peaceful than the Namib - Afghanistan, perhaps, or Guatemala?
THE PRICES (including CO2 tax and VAT)
G300 CDI Professional - R773 990
G350 BlueTEC - R1 227 140
G55 AMG - R1 875 100
By comparison, a Nissan Patrol will cost about R694 000, a Toyota Land Cruiser 76 R470 600 and Landy Defenders start at R342 000.
Mercedes makes no apology for the big numbers, pointing out that the G-Class is hand-built with superior materials and paint finishes that make a 30-year working life perfectly possible; indeed, many of the early units are still in use. Eckhart Mayer, divisional manager for Mercedes cars in South Africa, said at the launch:
"This is a car that doesn't need to hide behind its competitors. It's a long-life investment - more than 75% of the 30-year-old units are still in service. Previous customers will not be disappointed."
All three models share the same drivetrain behind a trio of engines.
The top G-Class - the G55 AMG - has a supercharged 5.5-litre V8 capable of 373kW and 700Nm of torque which puts it on par with regular supercars, despite its bulk and heavy drive train which shares its rigid axles and three lockable differentials with the other two models...
BASELINE BARE METAL: The G300 Professional is for the diehard 4x4 fanatic - or a well-heeled outdoors working man. Not only are they no frill, but there's also no carpets, radio, soft finishes or power windows.
It will shift from rest to 100km/h in 5.5 seconds but AMG has wisely limited its top speed to 210km/h. A number of “design refinements” identify the G55, starting with the three horizontal louvres ahead of the radiator that are painted to match the bodywork but have chromed inserts.
New high-gloss grey 19” AMG five-spoked alloy rims also advertise the power message. They’re 24cm wide and wear 275/55 rubber, filling the wheel arches like a Namibian oyster fills it shell. Stainless-steel running boards shade oval double tailpipes.
No example was at the desert launch but the media material reported “the G55 AMG also emphasises its exclusive interior character with a roof lining in anthracite Alcantara and a designo leather interior featuring new, silver designo emblems on the front-seat backrests and the colour scheme is matched by the designo wood trim and a wood/leather steering-wheel and selector lever with G55 lettering”.
The real-world choice of the three variants is the G350 BlueTEC diesel, the name punting Mercedes’ self-cleaning exhaust system that injects an aqueous urea solution (called AdBlue) into the exhaust stream to turn as much as 80% of nitrous oxide gases into harmless nitrogen and water. The liquid is carried in an owner-fillable tank that needs a refill about every 12 000km.
OTHER END OF THE SCALE: The G55 AMG version of the latest G-Wagen is the epitome of luxury - not to mention devastating power and performance.
The V6 diesel is plenty powerful for heavy-duty off-road work – as the cars showed in the mighty high-dunes of the Namib inland from Walvis Bay. It makes 155kW of power and a very impressive 540Nm of torque, the latter from 1600-2400rpm, delivered through a 7G-Tronic auto/manual sequential transmission.
The standard specification includes an electronically controlled traction system, electronic stability control and the three diff locks selectable at the push of one or all of three switches. The permanent all-wheel drive has a low ratio.
The “entry level” G300 CDI ‘Professional’ is the working man’s choice. As in a working professional who spends his “office hours” outdoors wearing heavy-duty clothes and big, heavy boots suited to severely rugged terrain. The car is pretty rugged too: fancy trim, upholstery and carpets – even plastic cappings – are almost completely absent.
Painted metal is the finish of choice, covered in strategic places (such as the footwells) by patches of rubber matting. There are drain holes in the floor should the Pro model get seriously wet – or need hosing out. Some of the fittings (steering-wheel, for instance) are distinctly retro.
Robust is too weak a word to describe the tank-like aura of the Pro; camelthorn trees will shy away from it! Mercedes calls the Pro “a no-nonsense cross-country vehicle carrying first-class technology and capable of meeting any challenge head-on”.
DEAD-END CAMP: Deep in the Namib is a hidden valley shaded by 55-million-year-old rocks. While not exactly roughing it, Mercedes was basic with the accommodation for the 'Gelandewagen' launch in Southern Africa.
It’s equipped with a V6, 2987cc diesel engine capable of 135kW at 3800rpm and 400Nm from 1600-2600rpm and can swallow even poor diesel fuel (think VERY remote areas) thanks to a fuel filter with a water separator. There’s only a five-speed auto transmission.
While the G350 and G55 carry the last word in luxury items, the Pro doesn’t even run to a sound system, let alone wussie stuff such as power windows, electric mirrors or even a basic audio system (though wiring for one is included in the harness) but there is a crash bag for the driver; the maintenance contract on the other cars is available – for R23 750.
Among the luxury options are adjustable front seats, seat heating, tow hitch, wooden rear decking to carry cargo rails – take all the available extras and add about R47 000 to the base price.
HOW MANY MARKETS?
It’s the working wagon for forestry, municipal services or arduous long-distance expeditions. You're unlikely to see one - they'll be out going where your family car and most 4x4's would fear to tread.
*I'd never actually checked how many states drive of the left side of the road. A query with Wikipedia came up with an amazing answer - the number is 62, and here they are...
Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bermuda, Bhutan, Botswana, British Virgin Islands, Brunei, Cayman Islands, Channel Islands, Cyprus, Dominica, Falkland Islands, Fiji, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Lesotho, Macau, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Montserrat, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, St. Vincent, Grenadines, Seychelles, Sikkim, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, St Kitts and Nevis, St. Helena, St. Lucia, Surinam, Swaziland, Tanzania, Thailand, Tonga, Trinidad & Tobago, Uganda, United Kingdom, US Virgin Islands, Venda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.