The 2018 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is "ninety-nine point nine percent" new, says head of development Oliver Metzger. Not that you’d think that at first glance, its boxy shape immediately recognisable under the not-fooling-anyone swirly camouflage paintwork.
Born of necessity, rather than style, the G’s upright sides were a feature to allow helmet-wearing soldiers to sit alongside each other without banging off each other or the vehicle itself. It’s an oddity; a military, utilitarian machine turned civilian – though if you’ve ever driven one you’d realise it’s anything but civilised.
Even so, over 20,000 found homes in 2016, and while 2017’s figures are as yet incomplete it certainly outperformed models we'd conventionally describe as "much better". The sales states are incredible anyway, given it’s been around since 1979, selling over quarter of a million since then. That the new one looks the same as the immensely popular previous model is deliberate, and, admits Dr Gunnar Güthenke, Head of G-Class, very difficult.
Keeping those iconic looks was particularly hard when it came to crash tests, which modern German cars are expected to pass. Those indicators that sit proud on top of the front wings – so useful for helping place it off-road, and certainly part of the car's 'look' – were a pedestrian safety nightmare. (One that was solved, though, by designing them to collapse into their housings if struck with enough force.)
That determination to retain the G’s appearance and feel dictated the entire project. That 0.1 percent that is retained is made up of the sun visors, the tow bar, the rear-wheel cover, the headlight washer nozzles and the button you press to open the door – the G's reassuring mechanical click the locking mechanism makes is identical to that of the old car.
It’s grown a bit to fulfil those crash requirements. The wheelbase is a touch longer (40mm if you’re asking) which has improved interior space a little. Climbing inside still requires some effort, but things like the massive grab handle on the passenger side dashboard helps – it one of the many difficult carry-over signature items that caused headaches to get the airbags to work with. We’ll be exclusively in that passenger seat today, riding in a near production-ready prototype, as it proves its ability around Schöckl, the 1,445m mountain in Austria that’s been the home of G-Class development since its introduction.
Even sat in the wrong seat, the changes are clear. The dash features a pair of screens the likes of which would have been science fiction when the original was introduced, fitted in an interior that’s evocative of the old car’s look and feel, but massively less compromised.
Watching Metzger behind the wheel it’s apparent he’s working less, too. The outgoing G-Class was a nightmarishly vague vehicle to drive, but the new front axle helps bring the car's heft under control, as does a more modern rack and pinion (over the old car’s ancient recirculating ball setup) and new links on the rear axle.
Powering it is a 4.0-litre turbocharged V8 petrol mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. A diesel is a certainty, as is some high-power lunacy from AMG. It’s still a body on frame build, but that body is largely aluminium, and the newly designed chassis is significantly stiffer.
That’s brilliant off-road. The G-Class romps where others wouldn’t dare; 'G-Mode' will prime the G’s systems to allow it its phenomenal off-road ability. Metzger admits with the G-Class they deliberately avoided the addition of push-button elements like Hill Descent Control.
“We want to be in the old world,” he said. “And the old world for us is the low range and the three differential locks.”
It works, too, off-road it being unstoppable, but the short on-road sections are where the differences are even more apparent, this a G-Class that’s got some civility.
We’ll find out properly soon enough, but on early evidence the small dedicated team who have worked to replace Mercedes-Benz’s icon have done so faithfully. Making it better where it needed to be, allowing it to pass current and future crash and emissions regulations, adopt all the new technology, convenience and safety equipment luxury car buyers demand, yet retaining the classic elements that make it unique, iconic, even.