The German word 'wagen' has two meanings. When it starts with a big 'W' it's a noun which means car, van or, as you might expect, wagon. Bung a 'Gelände' on the front of it and you've got land wagon.
When 'wagen' starts with a small 'w', however, it's a verb meaning to venture, or rove. So you could say that one possible translation of Mercedes' Geländewagen, or G-Wagen as it was abbreviated, is land rover. Hmm.
2019 is, or was if you're reading this in January, the 40th anniversary of the launch of the G-Wagen. That makes it a mere youngster compared to the original Land Rover, but you suspect that even Saul out of Breaking Bad wouldn't bother taking on a copyright suit against Mercedes at this late stage. He'd struggle to win because Mercedes could claim Land Rover-style provenance based on its 1950 purchase of Unimog, which had been going since 1948 - which is when the first Landie was launched. Mercedes called it the G-Class from the mid-1990s anyway, so case closed, ish.
Instead, let's just celebrate the fact that there are two genuine titans in this go-anywhere niche. M-B's creation first appeared in 1973 as a mock-up that, given its blocky style, could probably have been chipped out of a lump of hardwood by a year 11 student wielding a mallet and a blunt chisel.
The frontline designer of the G-Wagen was Erich Ledwinka, whose dad Hans worked for both Steyr and Tatra and who was credited with coming up with the backbone chassis. Before the G-Wagen, Erich designed the brilliant Haflinger and Pinzgauer go-anywhere vehicles, which explains why the original project name for the G-Wagen was H2 - 'Haflinger 2'.
Steyr-Daimler-Puch and Mercedes-Benz shared the manufacture of the G-Wagen, Daimler-Benz supplying most of the big stuff - engines, transmissions, axles, steering bits and some of the larger metal panels. SDP looking after the smaller panels, the transfer case, and final assembly.
Six years after that wooden mock-up, in 1979, the first hand-built Gs - model designation W460 - began to lumber out of the Graz works in three body formats: one four-door long-wheelbase wagon and two short-wheelbasers, a three-door wagon and a two-door convertible. You could also get either of the wagons as a van.
The initial engine range consisted of two petrols - the 230G four with either 90hp or 125hp, joined in 1980 by a 150hp 280GE inline-six - and three diesels: a 71hp 2.4 four-pot in the 240GD, an 83hp 2.5 inline-five in the 250GD, and an 87hp 3.0 inline-five in the 300GD.
The Shah of Iran had opened up M-B's corporate eyes to the G's military potential, having talked about them as a Benz shareholder in the early 1970s and then ordered 20,000 of them in 1975 when he was feeling a bit insecure about his political position. Quite rightly as it turned out, because the Islamic revolution arrived before his shipment of G-Wagens.
By 1982 the G had transitioned from carburettors to fuel injection. In 1983, Jacky Ickx proved the strength and ruggedness of the W460 by winning the Paris-Dakar in a tweaked-to-220hp 230GE. Mercedes was soon offering plenty of posh options including an automatic transmission, aircon, cruise and ABS. When ABS became standard, so did full-time 4WD.
The revised-chassis W463 of 1990 brought three electronically-locking differentials and a major interior upgrade that moved the G some distance away from its utilitarian roots, the previous Range Rover-like interior of plastic and cloth giving way to wood and leather. A 'semi-pro' W461 version was launched at the same time as the W463 and ran to 2001. Aimed at service users it came with the choice of a 125hp 230GE petrol or 95hp 290GD diesel (replaced in 1998 by a 123hp 290GD TD turbodiesel), and had plenty of cool options designed to make life easy in difficult terrains, such as a fuel filler that would allow easy canister refuelling, a separate base-plate for the jack, and grass-fire protection to stop hot exhausts igniting the landscape in bone-dry climates.
In 1993 the first eight-cylinder G arrived in the shape of the 241hp 500GE, of which 500 were made. At around this time the new M-B designation protocol came into force, so the 300GE became the G300, the 350GD Turbo Diesel became the G300 Turbo Diesel, and the 500GE became the G500.
In 1999 the G55 came along: that was the first AMG model. Two years after that exports to the USA began, cementing the shift towards V8 power, not just in petrols but also diesel in the 4.0-litre G400 .
In 2007 the GL-Class was released. It was supposed to be a luxury SUV replacement for the G-Wagen/G-Class, but in another weird parallel with Land Rover, and specifically the Defender, the old G refused to die. It just got madder, with offshoots such as the six-wheeled G63 AMG 6x6 in 2013, the £172,000 621hp V12 G65 of 2016 and the £613,000 Maybach G65 'laundelet'.
What vintage of G-Wagen (or G-Class) should we be looking at then, given its long lifespan? You can still buy new off-the-peg Gs in the UK in 2019, in either G350d AMG or 585hp AMG G63 forms, but this latest W464 (or second-gen W463 as it's also called) that was launched at the 2018 Detroit show is now very much a luxury product, the diesel starting at £96k and the 63 being another £50k on top of that.
So we're going to disqualify these most recent cars on the grounds that their drift away from the G's original purpose has cranked up prices to the sort of levels that only drug dealers, boxing champions and sink-estate Lottery winners can afford. Similarly, earlier W460s and W461s (there was no W462) are either going to be bonkers money to buy or rotboxes that will cost you bonkers money to repair, so we'll skip over them too.
Which all means we're going to concentrate on the older examples of the 1990-on W463 G-Wagen/G-Class, all of which had full-time 4WD, three electronic locking diffs, and a gobsmackingly strong choice of petrol and diesel motors, including some stone-cold M-B classics. In the W463 petrols we're talking 126hp 230GE four, 170hp 300GE six, 240hp 500GE V8, 331hp 500GE 6.0 AMG V8, 210hp G320 inline-six, 215hp G320 V6, 297-422hp G500 V8, and a bunch of hand-built AMG versions from the G36 six to the G65 V12.
In diesels, your W463 choice is from the 94hp 250GD inline-five, the 113hp 300GD inline-six, the 136hp 350GD T, the (awesome) 177hp G300TD 3.0 six OM606, the 156hp G270CDI 2.7 five, 184hp G280 (or 300) CDI 3.0 V6, 224hp G320/350CDI 3.0 V6, 211hp G350 BlueTec 3.0 V6, 245hp G350d 3.0 V6, and 250hp G400CDI 4.0 V8. Like we say, quite a line-up.
The guide we did on the Defender in October recommended a minefield-traversing level of buying care. Is the same amount of trepidation called for when eyeing up its German rival? Let's put on our steel-rimmed specs and investigate.
Bodywork & Interior
The Gs we're looking at are traditional off-roaders with a pressed steel body bolted to a strong ladder-frame chassis with enclosed side- and crossmembers. Any 30-year old car, even a Mercedes from the pre-rusty era, is going to be susceptible to corrosion, so before you even go to look at a W463 from the 1990s have a look at its online MOT history first. You'll often find 'vehicle structure is corroded' comments, but with luck they'll be qualified by the phrase 'but structural integrity is not significantly reduced'. Rust was a much bigger problem on the pre-1991 models.
Having checked the underside for rock damage and satisfied yourself that the car you're interested in is basically sound, you'll want to check out other rust-vulnerable spots like the tailgate and the areas around the back lights.
Sunroofs can be a problem with both with poor operation and poor sealing, leading in the worst case to water dripping into the cabin though the front of the headliner. A clicking or cracking noise from the sunroof is usually down to the hose containing the open/close cable detaching from the motor. A new clamp and a splodge of grease should sort that.
Inside, the fixings for the console cupholders on later cars routinely break, as do the head units. Window regulators go too but that's hardly exclusive to the G. The electrically adjustable seats in later cars are very comfortable.
Engine & Transmission
The great thing about Mercedes-Benzes of this era is that there's pretty much an engine for every taste. Many believe that the best all-round 463 is the 300 diesel, as it suits the G's slow but steady character. Others rate the grunt and noise of the 500 petrol V8. Some say that the 320 petrol is the best all-rounder. AMGs apart, none of the standard engines will hurl your bricklike G up the road at a rate of knots or deliver EV-like fuel consumption figures, but with the right maintenance they'll give you a very pleasant sensation of 'this will see me out' durability.
One mechanical problem associated with Gs is propshaft failure. You'll know you've got that if the car starts to develop a heavy shudder. Later petrol engines can leak oil from the oil cooler or filter gaskets, and the thermostat gasket and PCV valve can both leak coolant. On later diesels, fuel filter hoses can leak oil and so can the turbo, which is an expensive repair. Earlier 300 and 350GD OM603 diesels like a drop of oil and they will sometimes crack their cylinder heads. Later common-rail units like the G400 4.0 V8 are more refined but they also have more expensive maintenance needs.
It's worth changing G-Wagen/Class oil on a regular basis, as often as 6,000 miles if you want to be extra-careful. Timing on these old-school Benzes is by chain, but even these don't go on forever and remember that Gs do tend to accumulate high mileages.
Pre-2004 cars can suffer from minor electrical problems. Battery drain is a known issue. Spark plugs, sensors and coils go and the transfer case control module has a bit of a reputation. Properly sorted, a G is a formidable off-road vehicle, but if you buy a later 463, make sure it's up to date on its software. Check that the diffs are working too. If they haven't been used much by the previous owner they can get stuck. Keep the oil in the diffs fresh with regular changes, every 40,000km if you're doing a fair bit of rough terrain work, or every 60,000km if you're mainly sticking to the road.
Four- and five-speed manual gearboxes in older cars will wear out, so listen closely for odd noises when changing gear. The 722.3 automatic gearbox found in many petrol and diesel 463s is a strong unit but it doesn't have an overdriven top gear, unlike the highly regarded 5G-TRONIC 722.6 box that arrived in 1996-on Gs. This is generally considered to be the strongest G auto 'box. Broken integrated speed sensors in the seven-speed 7G-TRONIC gearbox that took over from it in 2003 will cause random shifting, or no shifting.
Suspension & Steering
These are old ladder-frame, solid-axle cars and many will have been bought on their reputation for strength. As such they may have been put to quite heavy off road use, and springs (especially the rear ones) do break. That can be a blessing as the standard ride is very firm. A switch to good replacement shocks like Bilsteins will ease your spine.
Even with adaptive damping on the later cars they feel heavy on the road, and are not really on a par with the Range Rover. Steering boxes will often be damp.
Wheels, Tyres & Brakes
Wheel bearings do wear out and incorrect wheel alignment will cause uneven tyre wear. Two truisms for any car, and Gs are not exempt.
The vacuum pump for the braking system can begin to leak once the six-figure mileage mark has been passed.
Not counting the Unimog, which isn't really a passenger car, the G-Wagen/G-Class has had by far the longest production run of any Mercedes. It didn't go through anywhere near as many facelifts or major revisions as other 40-year-run cars would have done, but it did enjoy a thorough programme of annual updates, the biggest ones being in 2007, 2008 and 2012. These updates gave owners the feeling that the company cared about the car - not something you could say quite as easily about the Defender.
The main problem for UK motorists looking to buy into the G experience is that the vehicle was withdrawn from the UK market in the late 1990s and didn't come back until 2010, so finding right-hand drive W463s for our fans, however, LHD isn't a deal-breaker. After all, it's not as if you have to worry about overtaking anybody.
That general indifference about which side the wheel is on, allied to the superior drive of the W463, is reflected in the prices. You'll pay quite a bit more for an early 1990s LHD W463 than you will for a shabby late RHD W460, but you might well think it's worth it for the difference in the driving experience. Mind you, if you take a gander at some of Dieselpump UK's YT videos showing what can be done with an OM606 3.0 multivalve turbodiesel conversion, you might want to reconsider the idea of taking on a W460 as a stealth wagon.
Even with that LHD caveat, W463 sellers aren't scared to ask silly money for rarer versions. We saw a 64,000-mile 2001 G300 convertible with the wheel on the wrong side at £55,000. Regular Gs are available at considerably less, obviously, but you're still talking £13,000 minimum for a 1990 GE230 petrol with a healthy six-figure mileage. Similarly used petrol 280s or 300s will start at £14,000, while entry-level 300 diesels at that same point of wear will be £1,000-£2,000 more again. All prices go up as the mileages go down, but the G's legendary status means that both trade and private sellers will still ask big money even for 200,000-milers.
If you're cool with the LHD thing and you're on a tight budget you could think about going over to Germany to buy one, as the cheapest examples over there start from under €4,000.
By any objective measure, the Defender is a fairly terrible thing, and if we're being honest the same must be said for the G-Wagen/Class. But, just like the Landie, the G is the sort of car you and your family will fall in love with in spite of its obvious flaws. The wind noise is shocking, but you'll rarely drive fast enough to generate it. The flat glass design is prehistoric, but the visibility is brilliant. The ride on tarmac is poor, but cover that road with snow and the G will cut through it like nothing else.
If the G-Wagen is good enough for Schwarzenegger, who doesn't only drive them in his movies but also owns them - and was born just down the road from the Graz factory - then we reckon it's good enough for the rest of us mere mortals.