Canada's Online Auto Magazine

Grant Yoxon

June 14, 2004

2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG Kompressor
2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG Kompressor. Click image to enlarge
Twenty-five years of the 'G'
Story and photos by Grant Yoxon

On road or off, the 'G' is top of the class

First Drive: 2005 G 55 AMG
Preview: Canada's military G Wagon

GRAZ, Austria - In Europe, where the Mercedes Gelaendenwagen has been sold for 25 years, the boxy Benz has achieved cult status.

But the G-Class, as it is known today, is a rare sight on our roads. It has been available in North America for just two of those 25 years, and its price in Canada starts above $110,000.

So it can be well understood if the importance of a quarter-century run for a vehicle that few people in Canada have even seen, let alone can afford, is lost on the average motorist here.

Yet the anniversary is doubly significant for Canada. The G-Class is built by a Canadian-owned company, and in its military version will serve as basic transport for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Its manufacturer, Magna-Steyr AG, is the descendant of Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG, with which Mercedes-Benz worked to develop and produce the Gelaendenwagen. For most of its history, the G-Class was built under contract by Steyr at its factory here.

Canada's Magna International Inc. acquired control of Steyr-Daimler-Puch in 1998, giving Magna, one of the world's largest auto suppliers, the ability to produce whole vehicles. Today, Magna-Steyr also produces the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler Voyager, BMW X3 and Saab 9-3 convertible.

G-Class variants in Vienna
G-Class variants in Vienna

G-Class variants in Vienna
Mercedes-Benz G 500 at Schöckl test site

G-Class variants in Vienna
Mercedes-Benz G 270 CDI at Schöckl

G-Class variants in Vienna
Mercedes-Benz G 270 CDI at Schöckl
Click images to enlarge

Production of the G-Class began in 1979, with all of the vehicle's components being manufactured at the plant in Graz, a tradition that continues today. Only 24 of these mostly hand-built vehicles leave the assembly line each day.

The G-Class was originally conceived as a civilian vehicle, but Mercedes and Steyr soon started thinking about military applications after the Shah of Iran - a major Mercedes-Benz shareholder - placed an order for 20,000 units in 1975, just as construction on the factory in Graz began. That contract was later cancelled by the revolutionary government, but nearly a third of all G-Class vehicles built have been purchased by other nations for military or emergency use.

The most recent client is the Canadian Armed Forces, which placed an order for 802 long-wheelbase G-Class wagons in October 2003. Sixty have already been delivered to Afghanistan, while another 40 have arrived in Canada. The remainder will be delivered over the next four years, and Mercedes-Benz hopes the Canadian Forces will be pleased with its purchase and execute an option to buy 499 more of the sturdy, capable four-by-fours.

How capable? With a strong ladder frame, rigid axles, coil springs and gas shocks, three electronically locking differentials, a synchronized transfer case, a low-range off-road gear ratio, electronic traction control, stability control and brake assist, the G Wagon can go just about anywhere.

In civilian trim, it is able to climb or descend slopes of up to 80 per cent. Its maximum stationary tilt angle is 54 degrees. Ground clearance is 29 centimetres (11.4 in.) It can ford streams 50 cm (19.7 in.) deep. On military versions, ground clearance bumps up to 43.9 cm (17.2 in), and its fording capability is 60 cm (23.6 in.), according to the Department of National Defence. However, with its high-mounted snorkel air intake, it could probably go much deeper.

Magna-Steyr has an off-road test site outside Graz, atop a mountain with panoramic views looking toward Slovakia. It was here at the Schöckl test site that the off-road prowess of the original Gelaendenwagen was perfected and where Mercedes-Benz and Magna-Steyr still test the durability and capability of the G-Class.

Schöckl is a network of rocky trails and near-impossible boulder-strewn slopes. Stopped on an incline with a 40- or 50-degree angle, our G 500 (5.0-litre gas engine) tester climbed effortlessly away and straight up. The descent was moderated by the low-range gear and copious engine braking, as we crawled over the rocks without the aid of the wheel brakes.

G Class assembly in Graz
G Class assembly at Magna-Steyr factory in Graz. Click image to enlarge
It is easy to understand this vehicle's attraction for the military. But as capable as it is off-road, the civilian G-Class has all the comforts one would expect in an ultra-luxury vehicle -- integrated navigation system, heated leather seats, walnut wood trim, automatic climate control and electrically adjustable steering column, to name a few.

In Europe it's available in a short-wheelbase two-door wagon, short-wheelbase cabrio and long-wheelbase four door wagon with a choice of three gasoline engines and two diesels.

Canada gets only the long-wheelbase four-door, offered with two gas V-8s: a 296-horsepower 5.0-litre (G 500), and the new 2005 AMG supercharged 5.5-litre (G 55 AMG) that produces 476 h.p. and 516 pound-feet of torque.

Compared to the original Gelaendenwagen that debuted in 1979 with four engines and a maximum 150 h.p., the G-Class has come a long way. In that time, Mercedes-Benz has never felt the need to change the G's form-follows-function exterior appearance. The square, angular shape provides a good field of vision for the driver and makes excellent use of interior space.

First Drive: 2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG Kompressor

Graz, Austria - As if it wasn't enough that the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is one of the most rugged and capable off-road vehicles on the planet, it is now also one of the fastest, if not the most powerful SUV money can buy.

2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG
2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG.

2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG
2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG

2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG
2005 Mercedes-Benz G 55 AMG nears end of assembly line at Magna-Steyr. Click images to enlarge

Mercedes-AMG is the hot rod division of Mercedes-Benz, designing high performance variants for most of the vehicles the company builds. First offered in 1999, the G 55 AMG came with a 5.5-litre V8 producing 349 horsepower and 387 foot-pounds of torque. To mark its 25th anniversary, Mercedes-Benz has a new G 55, the 2005 G 55 AMG Kompressor.

Kompressor is Mercedes-speak for supercharger. With the help of an intercooler and two low-temperature coolers to lower air temperatures at the intake, the supercharged engine produces 476 hp at 6,100 r.p.m. and 516 lb.-ft. of torque from 2,650 r.p.m. to 4,500 r.p.m., putting the 2,550 kilogram (5,621 lb.) G 55 into the same league as some world class super cars.

Zero to 100 kilometres per hour is achieved in 5.6 seconds. We stop watch checked 80 to 120 km/h at three seconds flat. Passing, needless to say, is quick and effortless. Top speed is an electronically governed 210 km/h.

The off-road capability of the G 55 remains the same as all other G-Class variants. And on-road performance has been improved with higher rate front springs and re-tuned shock absorbers. But in reality, the G 55's strong suit is straight ahead performance. While it handles extremely well for a big, heavy SUV, it is still an SUV, with a high centre of gravity and a preference for cautious cornering. Large and effective disc brakes bring the G 55 back from too fast to just right whenever the need arises.

A new exhaust system provides greater flow and reduced back pressure, while more efficient catalytic converters reduce exhaust emissions. Twin oval tail pipes protrude diagonally in front of each rear wheel and are the only clue, other than its distinctive and robust sound, that this G Wagon is the ultimate performance Gelaendenwagen.

The naturally-aspirated 2004 G 55 retails in Canada for $138,950. Prices for the 2005 G 55 AMG Kompressor, expected in showrooms early this Fall, have not been announced.

Preview: the military G Wagon

Graz, Austria - At the Magna-Steyr factory in Graz, Austria, G Wagons painted Canadian Army Green move slowly along the assembly line alongside more luxurious versions of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

Mercedes-Benz G Wagon (Canadian Military)
Mercedes-Benz G Wagon (Canadian Military)

Mercedes-Benz G Wagon (Canadian Military)
Canadian military G Wagon on the assembly line at Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria

Mercedes-Benz G Wagon (Canadian Military)
Canadian G Wagons await inspection following assembly at Magna Steyr. Click images to enlarge

At one station, workers install a 5.5-litre Kompressor engine and drive train onto a frame that will become a $140,000 G-55 AMG. On the next vehicle, the same workers bolt in the 2.7-litre 5-cylinder diesel drivetrain that will power the G Wagon through the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan.

In early March, Army units stationed in Afghanistan took delivery of the first 60 Mercedes-Benz G Wagons, while another 40 were delivered to Canada. They are the first of 802 military G Wagons to be built on the Magna-Steyr assembly line for Canada as part of a $130.4 million contract to replace the aging and often-criticised Iltis.

The contract also includes 160 modular armour protection systems (APS) designed specifically for the Canadian vehicles. The APS, which stores in three boxes and can be installed in the field by three soldiers in as little as eight hours, gives the G Wagon protection against small arms fire, hand grenades and anti-personnel mines. The modules add nearly a ton of weight to the 3.9 ton (8,598 lb.) vehicles, but the benefits include reduced manufacturing costs, much improved fuel economy and better performance for non-armoured vehicles.

Like the APS, the G Wagons are custom built to Canadian Army specifications, with several hundred parts being designed and installed specifically for the Canadian production run. The Canadian G Wagons are equipped with the standard G-Class all-wheel-drive system, front disc and rear drum brakes, dual 12- and 24-volt electrical systems, 24-volt starter, solar trickle charger, two piece wheels with run flat tires, automatic transmissions, special radio communications equipment, roof racks and frame attachments to allow air-lifting the vehicles. Air conditioning is a necessity, as armoured windows don't roll down.

While we didn't get a chance to drive the new military G Wagon, we did go for a short ride outside the factory in Graz. With just 156 horsepower, the turbocharged and intercooled 5-cylinder 2.7-litre diesel engine appears anaemic on paper, but the small powerplant produces big torque numbers at low r.p.m. - 295 foot-pounds of torque at just 1,800 r.p.m.- and moved the non-armoured vehicle surprisingly well.

Although the G Wagon is built in Austria, terms of the contract require
Canadian G Wagons await delivery to Canada
Canadian G Wagons await delivery to Canada. Click image to enlarge
Mercedes-Benz to purchase 100 percent of its value - currently $130.4 million - in goods and services from all provinces and territories of Canada. As well, the G Wagons can be serviced and maintained through Mercedes-Benz' worldwide network of dealers and service depots - a parts supply infrastructure as good as any army's.

Hmm... a Mercedes-Benz franchise in Kabul might be a good investment.

G Wagon technical specifications

  • Variants: 3 (basic, command and reconnaissance, military police)
  • Type: 4 Passenger Station Wagon
  • Engine: 2.7-litre, 5-cylinder diesel, turbocharged and intercooled
  • Drivetrain: 4X4 permanent all-wheel drive, 5-speed automatic
  • Tires: Michelin XZL 8.25R16 with optional run-flat inserts.
  • Fording ability: 600 mm
  • Ground clearance: 43.9 cm
  • Side slope angle: 30 degrees
  • Approach angle: 40 degrees
  • Grade: 60 percent
  • Payload: 1500 kg max. (incl APS)

Grant Yoxon is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist and managing editor of CanadianDriver

More First Drives....

Find this vehicle in CanadianDriver’s Classified Ads


© 1999-2005, CanadianDriver Communications Inc., all rights reserved
Disclaimer | Privacy

Click here to advertise
CanadianDriver is a member
of the AOL Canada Media Network.