Luxury 4x4s

The word icon is probably thrown around too easily these days, but the Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen are two vehicles that certainly fit the tag. .

Others to earn 4X4 icon status would be the Willys Jeep and Land Rover Series/Defender vehicles.

While the originals of these iconic vehicles were no-frills, extremely capable, and more affordable models, the current Rangie and G-Class are top-shelf off-roaders accessible to just a lucky few with the considerable dollars to spend on them. They remain capable and will take on some of the most serious terrain you will point a production vehicle at, but now they come with all the frills and are not so affordable.

They might be iconic, capable and expensive 4X4 wagons, but the Rangie and G-Class are very different vehicles. The Range Rover has more than 40 years of heritage behind it, yet the current model is the third generation of the original luxury 4X4 and it is expected to be replaced by an all-new, fourth-gen Rangie in 2013. As such, it is a totally contemporary vehicle that incorporates all mod-cons, and safety and performance features.

The Mercedes-Benz G-Class, on the other hand, has been around for 32 years but, unlike the Rangie, the G remains true to the original vehicle, and many of the body panels are still stamped in the original presses. The square, upright body is more that three decades old, and while a modern drivetrain and features have been retro-fitted to it, you can’t go past the fact that this is a vehicle based on a 30-year-old military wagon. A true Land Rover equivalent to the G-Class would be the Defender fitted with the Discovery’s TDV6 engine and passenger equipment, rather than the Rangie TDV8 lined up here.

At $164,350 for the Rangie and $170,380 for the G, these two vehicles compare well on price. Those prices are as tested and don’t include on-road costs. The Range Rover TDV8 costs $160,500, but add $1050 for the rear e-locker, $1800 for metallic paint, and $1000 for the black lacquer veneer interior trim on the test car. The G 350 Blue TEC lists at $161,680, but our test vehicle was fitted with a $3200 electric sunroof, $900 alarm system, $900 woodgrain trim, $1500 wood and leather steering wheel, $1100 tinted glass, and $1100 telephone pack.

The Mercedes is the newer vehicle of this high-priced duo to Australian shores after being reintroduced to the local market in 2011 following a 25-year hiatus.

Ironically, it was the Geländewagen’s high price that limited its success here back in the 1980s. The 2011 version arrived with two models — the G 350 Blue TEC as tested, and the G 55 AMG with a supercharged petrol V8 engine that costs upwards of $217,000.

The G-Class retains rugged commercial underpinnings with a separate ladder chassis and live axles front and rear, supporting a box-like five-door wagon body. The axles ride under traditional coil springs that deliver a firm ride on road, yet still give plenty of travel when off-road.

The firm ride is one of the first things you notice after taking to the road in the G 350. Small bumps and joints in the road are felt through the vehicle, making the ride jittery and unpleasant. So obvious was this that we stopped to check and adjust the tyre pressures at the first opportunity, but lowering them to the specified level did little to improve the ride.

The fact that the Benz rolls on 18-inch alloys wearing 60 series rubber doesn’t help the ride quality, but thankfully the G 350 can be optioned with 16-inch wheels wearing more practical 265/70R16 tyres. These would certainly be the go for off-road use and this size opens up many more options for all-terrain tyres. Mercedes-Benz Australia knows that most buyers of this vehicle will never take it off-road so it specifies the 18s as standard, and the 16s are a no-cost option.

Even on the 18s, the G offers a killer off-road combo. The suspension might give a stiff and flat ride on the tar, but it loosens up during low-speed off-road work to allow those live axles plenty of sway to keep the tyres in touch with terra firma. Both front and rear axles are fitted with manually activated, electronically switched differential locks, as is the centre diff. Three simple buttons conveniently placed high in the centre of the dash activate the diff locks in sequence; lock the centre diff as soon as you leave the tar and then the rear and front diffs respectively as the terrain gets tougher.

The G-Class is also fitted with electronic traction control, but this is disabled when low-range is selected. As a result, the G is next to useless off-road unless you actively operate the diff locks. It’s left spinning its wheels as soon as weight is transferred off them in loose or slippery terrain, so it’s best to choose your diff lock options early when heading into the rough stuff. Get that right and this old wagon is unstoppable. The punchy 540Nm turbo-diesel V6 engine provides the might to the locked axles via a full-time 4X4 system with high- and low-range. This is the latest version of the 3.0-litre engine delivering the increased torque output and 155kW of power. On paper, this high-tech mill promises 11.2L/100km of fuel use on the combined cycle, but the G 350 proved to be the thirstier on test, returning 13.13L/100km to the Rangie’s 11.89.

On the highway, the G 350 cruises at the speed limit quietly and effortlessly. Squeeze the long-travel throttle down and let the seven-speed automatic transmission shift back a couple of cogs and the car surges forward to overtake briskly or tackle hills with ease. It doesn’t have the urge or refinement of the Rover’s V8 engine, but it doesn’t lack for anything in the performance department.

The Range Rover V8 turbo-diesel engine was punched out to 4.4-litres last year and it’s one of the sweetest mills you will experience in the current crop of new 4X4s. It is now available exclusively in the RR Vogue. The parallel sequential turbocharged TDV8 makes 700Nm of effortless torque and 230kW of power. It is quiet at idle and cruising speeds, but emits a glorious V8 roar from its exhaust when you put the pedal down and point that huge bonnet for the hills.

The inclusion of the new eight-speed ZF transmission, again exclusive to the TDV8 Vogue, makes the model super economical when you consider its size and 2800kg weight. Its quoted combined cycle fuel numbers better many family sedan cars at 9.4L/100km, while on test it returned 11.89L/100km to better the Benz.

The third-generation Rangie has been around for nigh-on 10 years now, and is nearing the end of its life cycle. While the Geländewagen uses a traditional chassis with live axles and coil springs, as it has for more than 30 years, the current Rangie strayed from the trad formula when it was launched in 2002, with a monocoque chassis and full independent suspension using air struts.

Many purists will say you don’t get the desired wheel travel from independent suspension, but the Rangie does a great job by using long control arms to give heaps of travel. When low-range is selected in the transfer case, the air struts are cross-linked so that opposing wheels act upon each other just like those on a live axle to give plenty of articulation. Add in the height increase available from the adjustable air struts and it is close to the ultimate on- and off-road suspension package.

On the road in high-range, the corners are un-linked and the independent air suspension delivers taught dynamics and a luxurious ride befitting the ultimate luxury off-roader. Ten years on and there still isn’t a production 4X4 suspension system that offers the best of both worlds, as the Range Rover’s does.

The Rangie features Land Rover’s Terrain Response system that has five setting to optimise the calibration of the electronic traction and stability control, ABS, differentials, throttle, transmission and other adjustable systems for various road conditions. Coupled with the height adjustable suspension, it makes taking on tough terrain a bit more complicated than it is in the G 350. You need to select low-range, choose the right Terrain Response setting and the correct ride height. The centre diff is automatically locked as required and the rear diff lock is a similar e-locker that is a $1050 option. There is no factory front diff lock available on the Range Rover.

Our testing has found that there are really only three of the five Terrain Response settings you will need for general use: Normal, for everyday driving and most off-road use; Sand, for driving in soft sand or snow; and the Rock setting which is the sharpest off-road setting for the best off-road performance. Using these three settings will get you through most situations and, to our surprise, even the Normal setting did a great job off-road.

Breaking away from a muddy track to cross a deep rut to test out the G 350 required all three of its diff locks to get it across. At one point the front diff got hung-up on the ridge, but a bit of a re-align and some momentum got it over with plenty of action and mud-slinging. For comparison, we pointed the Rangie at the same rut and with its independent suspension it didn’t get hung-up on the crown, it had equal — if not more — wheel travel, the centre and rear diffs locked automatically, and it crawled over with ease, with TR in the Normal setting. Without a front diff lock there was more wheelspin at that end and we did find it a bit more difficult to place on rocky terrain with steering lock on as the rear end pushed the front axle straight ahead. Something that will restrict the Range Rover off-road is its 255/50-R19 tyres. The 19-inch wheels are the smallest diameter pieces you can fit over the Rangie’s massive disc brakes, and the low-profile tyres are susceptible to damage off-road There are very few options for all-terrain tyres for them.

Both these vehicles are exceptional off-road performers, but the Rangie does it easier and more comfortably. With its tough commercial vehicle platform you might expect the G-Class to fare better in the long term, but that is yet to be proven.

The Rangie is easier to drive on the road too, and much of that is thanks to its big and airy cabin with a huge glasshouse that gives great visibility all round. The Benz’s cabin is dark, narrow and tall, and its windows are much smaller making the interior feel more cramped than it actually is.

The Rangie’s rack and pinion steering is a lot lighter and more direct than the G’s recirculating ball steering box and, again, this makes driving more pleasurable and easier. Both vehicles corner flatter than you might expect of high-riding heavy wagons.

The Vogue’s interior makes it a winner for comfort as well. Light and spacious, it is loaded with luxury and convenience features even though the test vehicle was the lower specification of the TDV8 Vogue range. The TDV8 Vogue Autobiography sells for $212,500. Being a modern vehicle design, all the equipment is easy to reach and use.

Benz has loaded the G 350 with features such as heated power-adjustable leather seats, premium sound system and satnav — just like the Rangie has — but fitting them in a 30-year-old design has proved a challenge. An example is that the screen for the satnav and reversing camera is down low in the dash, beside the driver’s left knee, instead of being placed high where it is easier to see and operate without looking so far away from the road ahead.

You would have to really want the Mercedes-Benz to shell out your 170,000 clams for the G 350 ahead of the TDV8 Vogue. The Rangie matches the Benz off-road, is better on-road and is all round a more luxurious and easier vehicle to live with every day. Sure the G is exclusive, tough and purposeful, but for that sort of dough, you want all the luxury and trimmings that only a Range Rover can offer.

Few buyers of these vehicles will take them off-road regularly, so any advantage the G-Class might have there is nullified by the time spent on the roads in town. Nothing matches the Vogue for its blend of opulence and on- and off-road performance. The G 350 would be on the money for half the price, but at $170K, it’s difficult to see where the value is. Perhaps the military-spec, stripped-out G-Wagon Professional would be better priced and specified for the off-road user if it were to become available here.

 

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