No mere makeover for Mercedes-Benz ‘Gelandewagen’

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AT the Frankfurt motor show in September 2017 Mercedes-Benz displayed a pickup truck, with the model opened up to customer orders during the event. Called the X-Class, the pickup marked the brand’s first serious foray into the leisure/light-duty truck segment, as opposed to some variants of its commercial-use vehicles that Mercedes-Benz has been selling for decades (and, no, the privately done Grosser “Benzomino” conversions do not count either).

At the Jan. 13 opening of the Detroit auto show Mercedes-Benz will make another bold move as it sets to unveil a new model that’s neither car nor cushy SUV. Scheduled to debut at the year’s first international motor show is the new G-Class. Unlike the Nissan Navara platform-propped X-Class though, the upcoming “Gelandewagen” — or G-wagen, meaning “cross-country vehicle” — is a totally fresh rendition of a model that has soldiered on in basically the same form for nearly four decades.

All right, the G-wagen that came out in 1979 was a bare-bones machine originally pitched for military use. But in the years since the model had transformed into a luxurious, gadget- and tech-laden fashion and lifestyle statement that somehow managed to retain its basic structure and capacity to go places where roads have yet to exist. Still, four decades — and more than 300,000 examples along the way — is a long time, and the original G-wagen apparently cannot be evolved any further.

As such, Mercedes-Benz, in official news releases, is hyping the new G-Glass’s improved cabin — one spot the outgoing G-wagen has reached its limit. Besides the passenger grab handle on the dashboard and switches for the differential lock that mimic those on the original models, the latest G-Class’s features have gone utterly modern (even when compared against items fitted on the top-spec or special variants of the most recent G-wagens). As an example, Mercedes-Benz said the upcoming G-Glass will allow its driver to control the infotainment system via a touch screen, similar to a smart phone’s, on the steering wheel. Haptic impulses and additional feedback from speakers will further help the driver in using this touchpad.

Like in the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class, the new G-Glass also has a large display screen showing virtual instruments in the driver’s direct view, as well as on another screen above the center console. The display graphics can even be set to Classic, Sport or Progressive themes. And, as the standard has been for the G-wagen during the last decade or so, the G-Class’s interior is lined with wood trim, leather-covered furniture and plenty of metal or carbon fiber pieces. Only now the upcoming car’s cabin promises to be roomier.

While promising a host of significant improvements, Mercedes-Benz at the same time is careful not to alter too much the traits for which the G-wagen has been adored through the years. And so going by most indications (as well as unofficial photos), lying beneath the upcoming G-Class’s vinyl sticker camouflage are classic G-wagen styling cues, chief among which are the pronounced and protruding door handles, protective hard-plastic strip running the length of the vehicle, spare wheel mounted on the rear door and large indicator lights. The G-Class appears to retain these industrial-design items along with its squared-off silhouette and upright, virtually flat greenhouse. Even the sound emitted by its doors being shut — likened by Mercedes-Benz to that made by the door of a bank vault — is the same, according to the car maker.

To appease enthusiasts who fear the G-wagen may have gone soft in its new G-Class form, Mercedes-Benz ahead of the Detroit reveal issued photos of the vehicle tackling off-road trails. It also confirmed the model will retain its ladder frame, three 100% differential locks and a low-range ratio — marks of a genuine off-road SUV. The G-Class still has a solid rear axle, too, but this time around the vehicle is fitted with an independent, double-wishbone suspension in front. The rear suspension also sprouts a Panhard rod. Combined, these suspension changes should significantly improve the G-Class’s behavior on pavement.

Addressing concerns that double wishbones will reduce ground clearance, Mercedes-Benz said it mounted these wishbones directly to the ladder frame, dispensing with a sub-frame altogether to ensure adequate distance off the ground. A host of electronic systems, like the new G-Mode (which adjusts damping, steering, throttle and gearing), as well as permanent all-wheel drive, are purported to make the G-Class as capable off-road as its ancestors have always been. — Brian M. Afuang