Surveying the vast bulk of the new Mercedes-Benz G-class (aka G-wagen or Geländewagen), my friend announced: “At least it’s still ugly.” The original was conceived by the Shah of Iran in 1972 as a military 4x4 and has been built for the last 39 years, virtually unchanged, by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria. What they don’t tell you is that by the time they’d made a civilian version in 1979, the Shah had been deposed by Ayatollah Khomeini.
The G-wagen saw service as soft-skinned transport in the German armed forces and, when fitted with Peugeot engines, with the French. In military circles the G is a bit old hat now, but if you’re re-equipping you private army then Mercedes’ Defence Vehicles division will be more than happy to take your call for an armoured version.
This is the first all-new model since 1972 and it is 53mm longer, 64mm wider and 15mm taller than its predecessor, but 170kg lighter thanks to the new body being built of different grades of steel, with aluminium wings, bonnet and doors.
Comprehensively reworked by Mercedes’ AMG specialists, the new G-class retains a ladder-frame chassis, but with independent front suspension rather than a solid axle, and five-link location for the solid rear axle including four radius rods and a Panhard rod for side-to-side location.
While the engines and the nine-speed automatic gearbox are new to the G-Wagen, the vehicle retains its old-style mechanical locking differentials in the front, rear and centre units and its transfer box giving a complete set of crawler gears and the potential to maintain progress with just one wheel gripping. Drivetrain and suspension control has been partly assumed by a new Dynamic Select electronic brain which has five driving modes, including a new off-road G-mode.
The interior has been redesigned to take advantage of the new dimensions, with a bit more shoulder and a lot more leg room. However, given the size of the thing, leg room is still cramped for rear-seat passengers and the load space is pretty mean.
The dashboard looks to have been taken straight out of the new E-class, with its twin 12.3-inch screens ranked across the centre and in front of the driver. They've kept the distinctive passenger grab handle, which threatens the teeth of any front passenger foolish enough not to wear a seatbelt, along with the old chromium diff-locking controls across the central facia.
In this £143,305 G63 version the interior is a bit blingy, but it certainly is more comfortable and spacious than the old version - to the extent that you can even contemplate a long journey in one.
Externally, the new G is pretty much still the tough, go-anywhere vehicle of old. Mercedes even boasts about retaining the charm and fixtures of the old model, including external door hinges, the rear-mounted spare wheel and the “hippopotamus-nostril” front indicators set on top of the wings above the headlights, which cost a squillion times more than the originals to engineer and are now visible from passing submarines and sputniks. They now sink into the bodywork in the event of an imminent crash.
The upright windscreen has been raked by just one degree from the original so insects still splatter on to it like asteroids on the surface of the Moon. Mercedes also claims to have maintained the “characteristic closing sound of the doors” - read a mechanical cacophony - and the central locking noise, which thunks like a firing-squad’s rifle bolts.
Despite the best efforts of Mercedes’ marketeers, the G’s demeanour remains less theatre and more theatre of war.
Barely understandably, the first new G-class into the UK is this G63, powered by the 577bhp/627lb ft, 4.0-litre biturbo V8, which propels this 2.5-tonne behemoth to a top speed of 137mph, with 0-62mph in 4.5sec, an EU Combined fuel consumption of 21.6mpg and CO2 emissions of 299g/km. The transmission is Mercedes’ nine-speed torque converter automatic.
Apart from the badging, you’ll know this car by its exhaust pipes which exit between the wheels from under both sills. It looks like an experimental Luftwaffe fighter and sounds like one; start it up and wake the neighbours, rev it and scare them away.
Other versions arrive next year, including a 416bhp G500 V8 petrol version and a much more sensible G350 diesel, but for the moment this is it.
This £143,305 Mercedes met a surprisingly polarised reaction from other road users; some love it, others (and there are more of these) hate it.
Other impressions at low speed are the increased interior space (you're no longer clashing elbows with your passenger), more comfortable seats and a pretty decent ride quality.
The transmission tunnel is simply huge, though, and the pedal box is quite cramped so those wearing military boots might struggle. The steering system is stiffly weighted and accurate, but the enormous tyres divorce the steering from the road.
Speed up and the improvements in body control are more noticeable. Actually they’re amazing, even if on any given corner the new G would be outcornered by the average family hatchback.
It rolls, of course, but the roll control is quite clever; soft at first then stiffening quickly and progressively so you know where you are. Apart from a guilty feeling that you are driving enthusiastically in a piece of agricultural machinery, new G handles quite well.
Since you only hear half of the cylinders (depending on which side of the car you're sitting in) it never sounds smooth, more snorting, pawing-the-ground performance.
Driven briskly, you’ll surprise not only the driver you are overtaking but yourself as well; it simply charges, enraged, for the horizon.
Mind you it absolutely loves fuel. On one long stretch of fast, twisting A-road, I got it down to an average of 15.5mpg, although long journeys and motorways should yield a steady 17.5mpg. You might laugh, but that's an improvement of 13 per cent.
It would be tempting to comment that the loudest thing in the car are the fuel pumps, but that’s not true - the exhausts would drown out pretty much everything else.
The gearbox does well in containing all the power, though it's apt to change abruptly at low speeds. And with all that power the transmission would struggle to maintain slow, plodding progress on low- or no-grip surfaces, but then that's not the point of this particularly G63 version, despite the G-Wagen’s peerless off-road pedigree.
So as a device for impressing other oligarchs, the new G63 is unparallelled – but, back in the real world, could we have the diesel version please?