Rugged off-roader is cool to drive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 May, 2010, 12:00am

In its 31-year history, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class has won the Paris-Dakar Rally, is used as the Popemobile and is a multipurpose cross-terrain vehicle employed by many modern armies.

A new version, the G 300 CDI Station Wagon, is now available in Hong Kong. The big, rugged off-roader weighs more than 2.5 tonnes, sits more than two metres high and stretches more than 4.6 metres in length. With ground clearance of more than half a metre and the seats perhaps another half-metre higher, accessing the inside needs a military-style technique. Once inside, the accommodation is utilitarian, even with optional leather seats. The arm rest between the front seats houses not storage space or cup holders, but a 24-volt battery. Just in case that battery drains, there are two others in the engine compartment. Apart from electric side mirrors, nothing is powered, not even the door windows that require a boxer's biceps to close. The only nods to luxury are decent air conditioning and a CD player.

A wire mesh panel behind the rear seats complies with the Environmental Protection Department's requirement that all non-exempt diesel vehicles be classed as goods vehicles and have a partitioned cargo space. However, unlike similar vehicles, the wire mesh looks right. It suits the rugged personality.

It's a pity that the off-road abilities of the G 300 can't be tested for, on paper, they look impressive indeed. With its short front and rear overhang, it can handle a 36-degree angle of approach and 31-degree angle of departure. It can go through streams of up to 600mm deep, aided by a long snorkel for the air intake that rises above the roof line. Its maximum gradeability on roads is 50 per cent, or 22.5 degrees of slope angle, while off road, it is capable of an astonishing 80 per cent gradeability, or a 36-degree slope angle.

A 3.0-litre V6 normally aspirated diesel engine drives all four wheels through a five-speed automatic gearbox. It's quite a refined engine, with none of the clatter associated with diesels, and it revs willingly. However, like most diesels, it tends to run out of puff when the revs exceed 4,000 rpm. Maximum power output is 185 bhp at 3,800 rpm, while the maximum 400 Nm of torque is available from 1,600 rpm to 2,600 rpm, enough to get the G 300 to a top speed of 160km/h. The engine gets a Euro V rating for emissions, making it eligible for a reduction in first registration tax, and fuel consumption is quoted at 11.7 litres per 100 kilometres.

Driving the G 300 is quite an experience. The steering has almost four turns lock to lock and, as a result, there is a need to steer more than feels natural to avoid running wide in corners. With rigid axles and coil springs, the suspension is cart-like but, although the ride is firm, it is well controlled. The sheer size of the car and the high seating position discourages any banzai attempts at cornering.

The HK$680,000 G 300 CDI is the antithesis of a modern saloon. It is a military vehicle adapted for the road, with no airs or graces, frills or fancies, just oodles of practicality. But despite its utilitarian nature, it is still a Benz, with the build quality and prestige associated with the marque. And it does exude a certain coolness, especially in black. It would look great cruising Lan Kwai Fong on a weekend night and, for some, that alone may be worth the price.