It is unwise to mess too much with an icon, and the much-loved G-wagon has been a perennial favourite in the Middle East for decades. But the new, modernised Mercedes-Benz G500 has retained its enduring appeal, while dramatically improving its performance, inside and out.

Lance Branquinho

Last year was a particularly successful one for the world’s oldest automotive brand. In 2017, Mercedes-Benz reclaimed its status as the world’s most popular luxury vehicle brand, outselling all rivals. With an indisputable legacy and tremendous Dhs50 million spent each day on R&D, this success is hard earned and hardly surprising.

Amazingly, the most iconic of all Mercedes-Benz’s products was also its most dated. Affectionately known as the G-Class, the Geländewagen, loved by owners and brand fans all over and proven in terrain of such diversity as the UAE’s Empty Quarter and Norway’s arctic forests, is an outlier to all modern marketing principles.

For 38 years, its military design origins have remained mostly unaltered — delivering an SUV that looked like no other and drove exactly in the manner for which it was originally designed: for soldiers in a hurry on manoeuvres, instead of for families enjoying a weekend dune-bashing excursion.

Time, as it does with all beings and things, has finally taken reckoning of the G-Class. After nearly four decades of stirring the imagination of adventurers and drawing admiring glances from all other road users in traffic, this year brings with it the tumultuous event of a completely new Geländewagen — something many ardent luxury SUV customers thought might never happen in their lifetime.

Proven in terrain of such diversity as the UAE’s Empty Quarter and Norway’s arctic forests.

Strangely, the comprehensively redesigned and engineered G-Class 2.0 does not look dissimilar to the original — and purposely so, Mercedes assures us. It’s a terrible burden, having to redesign an icon. It’s why celebrated buildings are rarely altered in an epoch. Designers were mindful of retaining much of the original Geländewagen’s sharp corners and military vehicle proportions, hence the round headlamps, exposed indicator lights and raised, V-shaped hood.

At a distance, even the most Mercedes literate car people will be challenged to tell the new 2018 version and other Geländewagens apart. However, despite the similarity in appearance, a mere five minor components are carried over from the 2017 Geländewagen to this new one: sun visors, headlight washer nozzles, the door mechanism push buttons, tow bar and spare wheel cover. Not exactly a list of defining elements that retain the G-wagon spirit. Parked side-by-side, the Geländewagen 2.0 is a touch longer (53mm) and wider (121mm), but despite the increase in size, it’s amazingly lighter too, by a not insignificant 170kg.

Mercedes engineers managed to create Geländewagen-lite, while increasing its size, by replacing its steel body panels with aluminium. The change in material has not changed its symmetry, and in a world of fluid SUV shapes, Geländewagen remains a delightfully retro interpretation of the classic two-box design.

If you want to truly appreciate, and judge, the extent of evolution Mercedes has achieved with this new Geländewagen, it requires you to discover the details. And beneath the surface, a lot has changed — for the better. Its rock-solid off-road ability was never in doubt, but passenger comfort and driving confidence at speed were never part of its arsenal.

Originally designed as a military vehicle for NATO staff officers in a hurry during their German Cold War deployments in West Berlin, Geländewagen always had an embarrassment of headroom (because it was designed for occupants wearing infantry helmets), but never the corresponding leg- and shoulder-room one would expect from a Mercedes-Benz.

There have been terrific gains in all aspects of comfort and convenience for Geländewagen passengers, with the latest version featuring 150mm more rear legroom and an enormous swathe of digitised infotainment available through two 31.24cm screens. Both rows of seats have massaging, heating and cooling functions fitted, while the rear passengers can also recline for additional comfort on those longer journeys across the peninsula for a weekend in Oman.

More impressive than the enhancements in cabin architecture and comfort are the advances in Geländewagen’s driving dynamics. A characteristic all Geländewagen owners can attest to is the ponderous steering. With a Geländewagen you could make a host of small inputs and corrections, and absolutely nothing would relate to changing the angle of those front wheels and the direction of the vehicle.

At crawl speeds in off-road terrain this absolute lack of any steering feedback or accuracy was tolerable, but if you were trying to get up, or down, the inspiring corners and fast sweeps of a road such as Jebel Jais, a Geländewagen’s military vehicle steering heritage was terrifyingly ill suited.

There’s cause for celebration among those who like to drive their G-wagons on the limit as a new rack-and-pinion steering system now replaces the horribly outdated recirculating ball setup, which was borrowed from the trucking industry and it showed in the performance it provided. Assisting the new steering rack in helping owners place their Geländewagens with greater accuracy and confidence when driving at speed is a reconfigured front suspension system, with the traditional solid-axle replaced by an independent double-wishbone one.

The sacrifice in ultimate off-road durability is minimal and the improvement in ride quality and cornering agility remarkable.

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It might feel a lot more like a Mercedes inside and finally drive less like a military truck, but Geländewagen’s famed off-road ability has not been sacrificed. It will still wade through 700mm of water and, with all three differentials being lockable, haul you up 80 per cent gradients and over obstacles that even the most agile Thar would avoid. Mercedes-Benz’s latest nine-speed automatic transmission features a G-Mode function too, which activates when any of the three differential locks or low-range is engaged.

G-Mode acts as a master algorithm, which appropriately calms throttle response, relaxes steering geometry and limits the gearbox’s shift steps during low-speed, full-power, off-road driving in technical terrain. The genius of G-Mode is that you always want the Geländewagen’s engine to do as little as necessary and allow the proven suspension design to be responsible for safe and successful progress. Not that there’s anything remotely lacking with the engine. It’s Mercedes-Benz’s renowned four-litre bi-turbocharged V8, boosting to 422hp and supported by 610Nm.

For many loyal Geländewagen customers in the Middle East the crucial question is that of an AMG, and yes — there will be a proliferation of engine derivatives and a louder, faster, more dramatic-looking 2018 Geländewagen AMG is certainly one of those, debuting later this year. As with all G-Class models since the very first prototypes back in 1979, the new G500 was only validated for production after ascending and descending the torturous Schöckl mountain, a 1,445m peak in the Austrian Alps, for an accumulated test cycle of 2,000km.

If it survives the testing Mercedes engineers subject it to there, bounding up and down treacherous rock gardens and straining gradients, it should outlast most of its owners anywhere else in the world. That’s the reason this new one has a special badge honouring its Schöckl credentials, mounted on the b-pillar. The philosophy is that each time you open that driver’s door and survey the comfortable interior, there’s a reminder of just how tough the Geländewagen still is.