Testing Mercedes-Benz’s Toughest Off-Roaders in Their Natural Habitat
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You never truly know what a vehicle is capable of until you see it pushed to its limits by a pro — someone who isn’t particularly concerned about, say, the cost of new tires. But even manufacturer demonstration drives tend to have their limits; in the case of off-road vehicles, you’ll scramble over a few gnarly boulder trails or up and down some steep slopes, sure, but all under the precise direction of helpful instructors. It’s like off-road kindergarten, where you learn and see assorted tricks and capabilities without pushing the vehicle too hard — or discovering whether you’d be able to outrun a charging elephant down a dry creek bed in the thing.
This summer, on an Austrian mountain named Schöckl where Mercedes tests its off-road offerings, the company allowed its expert drivers to show off its famed G-Class SUV’s ability to straight-up assault a steep, craggy downhill at seemingly full throttle, with nary a concern given to preserving tires or the delicate insides of the media occupants.
It was a startling experience, one that proved how little even journalists sometime know about what modern machines are capable of. Of course, these were pro drivers who know the trucks and the trail like the backs of their hands, but all that ultimately amounts to is relative certainty that there won’t be any surprises on the way down. Otherwise, keeping pace means precise but relentlessly aggressive throttle and brake applications while sawing at the wheel constantly to keep the gyrating, undulating, oscillating and cavitating vehicle on something resembling a straight line. Were it not for the steady hand of my gimbal-mounted video camera, the cockpit views would cause you to throw up.
The caravan of G-Classes kept in tight formation all the way down, the only (entirely predictable) incident being a flat tire in one of the vehicles, which the Germans swapped out in minutes without a jack, canting the truck onto a trailside berm in order to hike up the right rear wheel enough to change it.
As eye-opening as the wild freefall was — and even with my newfound appreciation for how much abuse a Gelandewagen can absorb — such adventures are best left to those with years of experience and intimate knowledge of the vehicles. Of course, one of the ways to acquire that experience is through the kind of (repeated) coaching we in the automotive circuit often benefit from. To that end, Mercedes just opened a new G-Class Experience Center on the grounds of the former Nittner Air Base, near Graz, Austria. The center won’t provide quite the hair-raising thrills of our plunge down the nearby Schöckl, but it does more than adequately demonstrate the capabilities of the G-Class via a gauntlet of challenges, from steep metal and dirt slopes to staircases to deep-water fording in a woodsy trail that’s peppered with numerous axle-twisting threats.
During a visit there ahead of the opening, the company provided the media with a selection of Unimogs, the legendary Mercedes-built utility vehicles that ride high on massive tires and are frequently seen embarrassing smaller vehicles on global races such as the Dakar Rally. Their appearance at the G-Class center seemed as though it was meant as much to satiate our collective desire to test the massive machines as it was to demonstrate the full spectrum of off-road prowess the company has honed over the decades. (Fun fact: The Unimog line is now 70 years old.)
Sadly, we couldn’t actually drive the snub-nosed bruisers, due to strict rules about who can drive what even on private property. But we were readily able to get a sense of their what they can do — along with enjoying the fright of riding in a tall machine that’s capable of tilting 38 degrees to the side without falling over.
The Unimog leans heavily on several key qualities: its high-torque output — 660 pound-feet from a 231-hp, 5.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel engine; front and rear locking differentials; adjustable tire pressure to allow for maximum surface contact; and its 16 inches ground clearance, which comes by way of portal axles that help keep the undercarriage clear of all the hardware. The ‘Mogs also have eight forward and six reverse speeds and reduction gears to optimize stability at low speeds, as well as axle articulation of up to 30 degrees, which means the chassis can contort itself over bumps and depressions simultaneously while keeping all four wheels in contact with the surface.
Rumbling around the Experience Center’s courses, my veteran driver deftly controlled the industrial vehicle while effortlessly navigating the terrain. During the water fording, spray burped up into the cabin from gaps in the floor of the vintage model we were riding. Unlike the latest G-Wagen, the Unimog is no luxury ride, but it feels like paradise when you really need something that can do what it can.