After nearly 40 years, you’d think that Mercedes-Benz would run out of tricks for its G-Class. After all, the company’s box-on-wheels doesn’t look much different today than it did back in 1979, when it first hit the road as a go anywhere, do anything four-by-four.
But the hits keep coming: You will soon be able to buy a G-Wagen, as it’s known to its fans, with a lift kit and military-grade portal axles installed at the factory. And that’s if you missed out on the bonkers 6x6 that, as its name implies, routed 560-plus horsepower from a hand-built AMG engine to six wheels. And just last year, the factory shoehorned a V-12 under the G’s hood to create the G65 AMG.
At this point, we’re waiting for a convertible dually G-Wagen powered by a V-16.
If anything, the G-Class is in the midst of a renaissance, and its Graz, Austria, assembly plant is bursting at the seams.
We traveled to Graz, where the G-Wagen (that’s short for Geländewagen, or “cross country vehicle”) has been largely hand built since 1979, to find out why about 300 people per month in the United States plop down a minimum of $125,000 to experience this distinctly outdated vehicle.
In Graz, the G-Class is assembled on its own production line. In contrast to other vehicle assembly plants, Graz is a relic from the past. Robots are rare and nearly every weld is done by hand. You get the impression that the workers welding the buff G-Wagen together are artisans justifiably proud of the work. The plant isn’t part of Mercedes’ network of factories but is instead run by Magna Steyr, a Canadian firm that also builds some Minis under contract on a decidedly more modern assembly line.
The G-Wagen has called this place home for nearly 40 years, but don’t think of Graz as a factory town that revolves around this boxy SUV. Spotting one on the city’s picturesque cobblestone streets is rare; for the most part, the driving landscape looks like any other medium-size European city.
Pounding skid plates
It’s at Schöckl Mountain, which looms in the distance about 45 minutes from Graz, where Magna Steyr has built a punishing test course that climbs to the summit. Schöckl, engineers told us, is the spiritual home of the G-Wagen. It’s where this big SUV was originally torture tested. It's such an important part of the G's heritage that Mercedes calls the portable metal grates it uses to show off the G's tenacity in rather less mountainous locales "Iron Schöckls."
That's German-Austrian humor for you.
It’s not that the road itself is actually all that challenging, it’s that Mercedes and Magna engineers see a spirited sprint to the top, over sharp limestone rocks, as an essential part of the G’s brand identity. The route is a skid plate-pounding race, something that one seasoned driver told us only takes him about 9 minutes. It took us double that amount of time, and we can’t imagine shaving more than a few seconds off without turning our stomachs into blenders.
Our group set off in a caravan of G-Wagens emblazoned with “G-Class Experience” stickers. The G-Class Experience isn’t a program open to the public, or even to paying customers. Instead, it is reserved for VIPs. Think the kind of people who plunked down $800,000-plus on a 6x6, or perhaps have a couple of AMG GTs and want to augment their Dubai-based fleet with something nicely suited to dune bashing.