The G-Wagen's origin story is a familiar one. Conceived in the early seventies, the first model approved by the Daimler board in '73 was so brazenly perpendicular that the designers had reputedly cut it from a single block of wood. The medium was appropriate: the 'Gelandewagen' was intended to be rudimentary and hard-wearing, essential commodities in a military vehicle, which was precisely how the last Shah of Iran (an influential Mercedes shareholder) imagined the car when he recommended the idea. Following extensive testing, it fulfilled its battlefield runaround role admirably and by '79 it was being offered as a robust way for civilians to thwart mother nature, too.
Its journey from there though, particularly since 1990, has mirrored the implacable, upmarket rise of the 4x4. Mercedes - with no little help from AMG along the way - found the presumed tiny niche for powerful and increasingly luxurious SUVs about as shallow as the Mariana Trench. Well-heeled customers, prominent celebrities among them, bought into the model's peculiar cachet; it being one-part genuine, anachronistic off-road prowess and two-parts badge kudos. Mercedes planned the G-Wagen's replacement and retirement more than once, only to prolong it on the basis of escalating sales and outright buyer rebellion.
Consequently, in 2018, it is new again. The overhaul is comprehensive, although obviously you wouldn't know it to look at the car. The latest G63, a mean machine in green and powered by the omnipresent 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8, is more like a Hollywood blockbuster remake; shinier and a lot more sophisticated, but 'new' only insofar as it doesn't risk seeming unfamiliar. New in the most crowd-pleasing way possible, in other words.
Has it made for an objectively better G-Class? Yes. Categorically, yes. Dafydd nailed the PH colours to the mast six months ago, and there's no quibbling with them now; compared to the old G63 - a car with at least two decades of modern history on the clock, the latest version is out of sight. Does that make it a genuine rival for the likes of the Porsche Cayenne Turbo or Range Rover Sport SVR? Not quite. Anything with a monocoque platform and an equally accelerative V8 is still going to romp away from two-and-a-half-tonnes of ladder frame on the road when all is said and done - but the G-Wagen has always succeeded in making that seem beyond the point.
The point, if we're to fully down the Mercedes' Kool-Aid, is continuation. 'Stronger than time' was the slogan at launch, as if the car were the follow-up to the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. 'Mostly immune to time' would have been nearer the mark, given the manufacturer's initial reluctance to seriously overhaul the ageing off-roader in the last twenty years. Nevertheless, just as the new model looks like an approximation of the wood-block original, so Mercedes would prefer you think of it that way: less a resurrection - as the next generation Land Rover Defender will have to be - and more like the legitimate, albeit rejuvenated heir to a proud and unbroken bloodline.
If that all sounds a bit House Stark, then it's entirely as intended. It's impossible to simply acquire the winter-is-coming, craggy-faced heritage of a car like the G-Wagen, and it has survived as a low volume prospect precisely because people have shown themselves willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money for one on that basis. It is this idea of the G-Class which has helped it become self sustaining - and, with the departure of the Defender, its acute throwback status has become a defining feature.
Better to forget about direct comparisons then, and instead seek out the proper yin to the G63's £143,305 yang; the counterpoint to 585hp and 21.4mpg. Two cars came to mind: the Suzuki Jimny, which has gleefully appropriated the Gelandewagen's styling, and is about to go off like an affordable sales rocket. And the Toyota Land Cruiser.
The Land Cruiser pre-dates the G-Class by at least two decades, and, alongside the Willys Jeep that directly inspired it and the very slightly older Series I Land Rover which beat it to market, is a much more quintessential cog in the 4x4 genesis story than the Mercedes can ever claim to be. It too was a utility vehicle born of war that slowly filtered into prolonged civilian use: less than ten years after the "Jeep" BJ appeared, the J20 version was the first Toyota model being produced outside of Japan; by 1960, there was the J40 and global acclaim.
The 'Cruiser' - that name being specifically chosen to distinguish it from the Land 'Rover' and to distance it from a trademark dispute with Willys, was built on the same basic premise as both: go-anywhere like a boss, don't break doing it. Unlike the G-Wagen, it has changed shape over the years (in the mid eighties, Toyota launched the 'light duty' J70 version that would evolve into the slightly smaller Prado lineup) before finally becoming the puffy, planet-sized J200 which you most often see in NATO or UN or soccer mom colours.
More so than the Mercedes, it has creaked along begrudgingly with the times. True, the Land Cruiser's life cycles come around about as often as Halley's Comet, but with the current iteration in range-topping Invincible form it's a trotting SUV in something like the modern vogue. Unlike the G-Class though, there is room enough in its lineup for genuine diversity, which brings us to the crisply titled 'Utility' version.
We reported on the new entry-level, £34,690 model at the start of the year, when it was launched as part of a modest 2018 facelift. Fittingly, though, like the Amazon, it has taken this long for an example to actually flow into the PH drift net. And what a welcome sight she is. Who needs the G-Wagen's timeless proportions when you've got 17-inch steel wheels and arch gaps big enough to accommodate a watermelon? The Land Cruiser's keeper suggests that it might be a wee bit 'nosey' on the 4.4m short 'n' sweet three-door body, but we're having none of it: the Utility is plainly as honest as the day is long and therefore as inherently likeable as, well, a Gelandewagen probably seemed in the late seventies.
The interior hammers nails into that first impression. In a 2018 G-Class you get the whole nine yards: soft leather, brushed metal, plastic made to look like brushed metal, wood made from wood and a wraparound infotainment display almost large enough to fill out the space at the end of a double bed. In the Utility-spec Land Cruiser you get an FM radio and the essentials - there's manual air-con and cruise control and enough Bluetooth to connect your phone to - but it's as bare as brass knuckles all the same; save perhaps for the velour (or what feels very much like velour) seats, which grip you like fear.
Naturally you sit high in both models, although, as you might expect, it's the G63 which delivers the real 'king of the castle' perspective, the lower portion of its windscreen being framed by those squared-off front wings. The Utility is far less conspicuous with its bodywork, and seems, by several degrees, far less spacious despite retaining near two metres of width. Nevertheless, its raw functionality and JDM-style ruggedness is all but indisputable; Toyota's own promotional material labels it a 'workhorse' and the ethos is palpable enough for us to feel guilty there were no fence posts or tools or hi-vis vests required on the photo shoot.
In the G63, of course, guilt comes at you from the opposite end. Woe betide your mental state if an errant trainer leaves a streak of mud across the carpet. Mercedes' idea of functionality is mounting an IWC clock below the front, centre and rear driveline differentials. Only the thigh-working clamber up into the cabin and the enormous clang-thump of the door closing on its exposed hinges really speaks to the G-Wagen's blue-collar backstory; the rest has been mercilessly expunged, like a regional accent in a private member's club.
Still, there's undeniably a proper off-roader under it all - and in that narrow respect, the G-Class and Land Cruiser align nicely. Both are obviously still built on a separate chassis (all the better for life-long robustness); the G63 retains a rigid rear axle (complemented by four trailing arms), the Utility keeps its live rear axle; both eschew ride-height raising suspension for conventional long-travel steel springs; and both offer the selective prospect of get-out-of-jail low-range gearing. Both have rear tailgates which open sideways too, which are useless for supermarket car parks but very good for affixing spare wheels to (which Mercedes has done and Toyota, shamefully, hasn't). Both will tow three tonnes or more.
The difference, rather inevitably and among many on the road, is that the G63 feels like it could pull a three tonne weight free were it buried six feet under the earth. Previous iterations of AMG's G-Class would do this, too, but only with the underlying impression that you might not survive the next corner. That tendency is long gone: the car still leans congenially under duress but the roll rate is tuned now to befit the comparative quickness and precision of a new electromechanical rack and pinion setup (the patience-trying recirculating ball steering having been tossed out) and there's now sufficient tenacity in the handling mix for the G63 to generally take the nine-ratio spread of 627lb ft of torque well in its stride. Keep the adaptively damped suspension in its 'Comfort' setting and you get plenty of composure underfoot; don't expect otherworldly things from a direction change, and you'll cross the countryside at a preposterous lick.
And the Land Cruiser? Well, it's about as concerned with going fast as a passing cumulus cloud. You get a 177hp 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel engine - standard across the range - and a six-speed manual gearbox with a predictably old-timey throw. There's fully 310lb ft of torque available from 1,400rpm, but there's rarely the impetus to test the 12.8 second 0-62mph time. Better to wind the Utility up gradually until it finds its ideal glide speed. Turbulence? Forget about that: the car has sufficient spring length/tyre profile to soak up a medium-sized bomb crater. Impose on the national limit too much and there'll be some serious head toss to show for your efforts - but there's also the consistency of some lovely, low resistance control weights and the old school tie sensation of a body and chassis wedded together for convenience rather than being conjoined at birth.
To a lesser degree, the same inimitable, roving sensations are present in the G63's structure, too - which, when combined with the V8's preference for hustling you hyperactively forward, makes for pleasingly grouchy sort of straightline performance; one continually soundtracked by the enormous hubbub issuing from the side-exit exhausts. Factor in the livelier response of a chassis not underpinned by air springs, and you get a car still bristling with surly physicality. The kicker is that there's just enough dynamic smarts plumbed in around the commotion to make it all seem nicely incidental to your express-grade progress in what is still assuredly a 2.5-tonne, two-metre tall, two-metre wide 4x4.
At the same time, of course, it's precisely by this latter standard - the ability to ride mostly roughshod over the laws of physics governing huge, high and heavy things - that finally and comprehensively ushers the G63 into the modern Sports Utility Vehicle fraternity. Prior to this year, it was too hopelessly primitive to be mentioned in the same paragraph as the Porsche Cayenne Turbo or Range Rover Sport SVR; now the G-Class stands apart - but not nearly far enough anymore to still be considered a different species.
Its ascent to high-bandwith ability has certainly not robbed the G63 of its nonconformist charm (far from it), but the Land Cruiser's close proximity does highlight the extent to which any wafer-thin pretence of utilitarianism has now been disregarded. Sure, in theory you could fill the most expensive G-Class with fence posts and tools and high vis vests, and you'd find it quite unstoppable against virtually any backdrop - but, much like the Range Rover before it, the car's long-term transition from skeletal off-roader to crazy-money plaything is now so obviously and exhaustively complete that no-one of sound mind and body is ever likely to try it.
All of which makes the contemporary Land Cruiser that bit more remarkable, when you think about it. Its glacially slow development notwithstanding, Toyota has never sought to keep its headline 4x4 in a sentimental timewarp. It has cautiously evolved to absorb modern technology when appropriate, and changed shape to better suit buyers' tastes when required. But it has only attempted either insofar as it benefits its unflinching attitude to withstanding a lifetime of harsh treatment in what are often some of the most unforgiving places on earth. In Utility format, the extent to which it has not strayed from the straightforward path it once shared with the Defender and Gelandewagen is astonishing. And while that long-term strategy has made the cheapest Land Cruiser a Casio watch in comparison to Mercedes' extraordinary IWC timepiece, you know for darn sure which one you'd rather be wearing when the chips are down and you're about to get grubby.
SPECIFICATION - MERCEDES-AMG G63
Engine: 3,982cc V8, twin turbocharged
Transmission: 9-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 585@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 627@2,500rpm
0-62mph: 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 136mph
SPECIFICATION - TOYOTA LAND CRUISER UTILITY
Engine: 2,755cc, four-cyl diesel
Transmission: 6-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 177@3,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): firstname.lastname@example.org
0-62mph: 12.8 seconds
Top speed: 109mph