Mercedes-Benz G 500 4x4² Concept review

Thirty-seven years and counting; the Mercedes-Benz G-Class defies convention, and sales of this ancient, iconic 4x4 are actually on the increase. Christof Stanger, Head of Marketing and Strategy G-Class, says Merc shifted 14,500 Gs last year, and the boom doesn’t seem to be slowing.

Officially the outlandishly proportioned Mercedes-Benz G 500 4x4² you see pictured here is a concept car, but nobody’s ruling out production. After all, if Mercedes-Benz managed to shift more than 100 examples of its outrageous G 63 6x6 around the world for about US$550,000 a pop, then there is sure to be a market for the Mercedes-Benz G 500 4x4² - and a profitable one at that.

The concept owes a lot to that 6x6 model which in turn owes a lot to the 6x6 developed for the Australian Defence Force. Stanger nonchalantly says that they had the bits lying around and thought ‘why not?’, so a set of the 6x6’s portal axles were hauled off the shelf and popped on a 4x4. They are suspended by a dual coil-over shock set up. One damper per wheel is a conventional passive design, the other offering Sport or Comfort settings. It’s reactive too, so if you’re in Comfort mode and chuck this three-ton machine into a bend with any sort of enthusiasm it’ll tauten up its dampers accordingly. All of which makes that Sport setting a bit redundant, especially as all it does on the straight bits between the corners is add some pattering intrusiveness to the ride.

Unlikely as it sounds, the Mercedes-Benz G 500 4x4² adds some serious on-road ability to the G-Class. Where the standard car has always had an element of 'turn and hope', the G 500 4x4² brings some agility. Relatively speaking of course. The people from Merc’s G division claim it’s got sports car-chasing ability, which is as bold a statement as the G 500 4x4²’s looks. It’s not that good of course, but its chassis is a step-up from its lesser brethren. Nonetheless, it’s still a big, side-of-a-barn size and weight-of-its-contents machine that’s riding high and built on an ancient ladder frame chassis. Its agility then is indeed surprising, in context, which is up high in direct line of sight of truck and bus drivers.

There’s still a buttock-clenching pause between turning the wheel and the G 500 4x4² actually turning in. You quickly learn to adapt to that, and the response after that tense wait is more faithful than in the regular G. To say there’s genuine feel through the wheel would be an exaggeration, but there’s something there, at least enough to allow you to up the pace a bit with some degree of confidence. That’s on the 325/55 R22 road wheels and tyres, as the responses are significantly muted if you’ve swapped out the 22-inch wheels for the 18-inch, Hutchinson two-piece wheels and beadlocked 37-inch Pro Comp tyres. Best save them for the rough stuff, where they’ll take the G 500 4x4² to places other off-roaders wouldn’t dare venture.

The normal G-Class, with its three locking differentials and low-ratio transfer case is not an off-roader where many will have gotten out of thinking that they need more ability in the wilderness, but that’s exactly what the G 500 4x4² brings. The numbers associated with it are ridiculous, those portal axles adding significantly to its ability, while also benefitting the drivetrain by lessening loads through it - in particular the driveshafts - thanks to reduction in the hub drives.

Compared to the regular G 500 the ground clearance increases from 210mm to 450mm, increasing the potential fording depth from 600mm to a full metre. There are skid plates underneath, but short of trying to drive over houses you’ll be doing well to touch them of anything. Those wheels and tyres do sensational things for the angle of approach and departure too, the front and rear on the G 500 4x4² being 52- and 54 degrees respectively, compared to 36 and 27 in the standard car. The G 500 4x4²’s breakover is 47 degrees compared to 21 degrees and the tipping angle improves by 2 degrees for a 30-degree limit.

The wheelbase remains the same at 2,850mm, though the track swells from 1,475mm to 1,774mm, which explains why the massive wheels and tyres are covered by removable carbon fibre wheel arch extensions. Those, and the ones on the mirrors, serve to remind you of the G 500 4x4²’s unique proportions, as otherwise the cabin’s the same narrow but tall architecture from another era as any other G-Class. Charmingly old school, then, with a smattering of modernity uncomfortably stuck on.

Under the near head-high bonnet is an entirely new engine for the G. It’s basically a redeveloped version of the 4.0-litre biturbo (those turbochargers nestling in what Mercedes-Benz call the ‘hot V’) that sees service in the AMG GT sports car. With a vastly different brief here it’s been enhanced to suit its half metre higher situation. It develops 315kW between 5,250- and 5,500rpm, while peak torque of 610Nm arrives at 2,250rpm and monster on until 4,750rpm - it feels eager in every one of the auto’s seven gears. It’s a shame then that the gearbox is a traditional Mercedes unit, in that it’s never too willing to shift when you ask it to via the wheel-mounted paddles - particularly on down changes. There’s a wet sump on the V8 now too, as in the Mercedes-AMG C 63, while the pumping circuits for both oil and cooling have been modified to better manage the potential inclines that it may be required to work in.

That V8 may not wear an AMG badge, but the howl’s pure Affalterbach in its make-up, that helped by the side-exiting exhausts - something that Merc’s people say (with an obvious smirk) has been done to improve G 500 4x4²’s off-road prowess. Nothing to do with sounding awesome, oh no…

There are no performance figures as yet, other than a 290km/h top speed, which is electronically limited as Merc couldn’t find suitable tyres with a higher speed rating. Use the off-road tyres and that vmax drops to 160km/h. Educated guessing suggests a 0-100km/h time of around 6.5- to 7 seconds. That's all the more incredible as it’s genuinely achievable anywhere. That’s the beauty of the G 500 4x4²; a regular G-Class will get you almost everywhere it will, but the G 500 4x4² allows you do so at the pace you choose, it making every path the one of least resistance. Terrain that would require a crawl normally is shrugged off, the G 500 4x4²’s only limitation the bravery of the driver behind the wheel, and, of course, any height restrictions…    

A p-p-p-p-piece from here, a p-p-p-piece from there

Christof Stanger, Head of Marketing and Strategy G-Class, describes building cars like the G 500 4x4² Concept and G 63 6x6 as: “more cost effective than making television commercials.” Extreme creations of a vehicle that’s spanned 37 years, the G-Class’s ancient construction is what allows those who look after it to indulge in such outlandish models. The 6x6 and G 500 4x4²’s portal axles are something you’ll find on Merc’s other off-road legend, the Unimog, and they’ve been used for a while now with the G on military models like the LAPV (Light Armoured Patrol Vehicle as driven in 4x4 Australia April 2014 issue).

The G has always been popular with the military, and is now the chosen light vehicle for the ADF replacing the long-serving Land Rovers. Given its ladder chassis construction the G-Class can be anything from a single or double-cabbed pick-up to an AMG-badged performance car, the engine bay able to take anything from a four-cylinder diesel to a biturbo V12 engine. The cabriolet version was dropped in 2014.

Legislative forces periodically suggest it will be dropped, but Stanger says: “it’s our task to find ways to continue to make it.” Certainly there’s a production contract at the Magna Steyr facility in Graz, Austria that runs to 2022. Safety, given the Mercedes-Benz badge on the front, is an ongoing issue, but Stanger says they’ve got some solutions even for more rigorous pedestrian impact tests due in 2019 - an earlier response being that all G’s now feature the plastic bumpers of the AMG versions, steel being used up to 2012. It remains a shape-shifting icon, that’s able to offer incredible utility mixed with luxury, not to mention sensational performance. As Stanger says: “legends come and stay,” and it doesn’t look like the G-Class is going anywhere for a while yet. 

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