Mercedes G-Class versus Land Rover Defender

Is someone at Land Rover watching the fun Mercedes is having with the G-Wagen and wondering what might have been? The Gelandewagen was nearly killed off in the early 2000s but rebirth as the G-Class and appearance on the American market with a 5.0-litre V8 and side exhausts suddenly elevated it to fashion must-have.

From AMG Gs to the G500 Squared and its monstrous six-wheeled offshoot there seem no limits to how far Mercedes can push the G-Wagen into over-blinged parody. Witness the Maybach-branded G650 Landaulet launching at Geneva.

All very well but you can still buy 'proper' G-Wagens, like the G350d you see here. They still cost a bomb - just over £100,000 in the case of our test car - but as Mercedes proved recently they can still do the proper 4x4 thing.

What of the Defender though? With the brand's push upscale, the custom SVO division to build special cars for big-spending luxury market and that huge heritage to fall back on it beggars belief a way couldn't be found to milk the classic Landie's image to the same ends, even on a limited scale. Bar the desirable Celebration models like the Heritage Edition Land Rover never seemed to seize the opportunity, leaving it instead to aftermarket players like Thirsk-based Twisted. And after years of ploughing markedly different furrows it's doubly ironic that in its life after death the Defender is a closer direct rival to the G-Wagen than it's ever been.

Suitable inspiration then for a bit of a head to head, conducted on some suitably traditional terrain far away from the streets of Knightsbridge...

Mercedes-Benz G350d 4Matic
For all those who mutter 'they don't build cars like they used to' the G350d serves to prove otherwise. It might have a modern 3.0-litre V6 diesel and seven-speed 7G-Tronic gearbox, sat-nav, rear entertainment screens and leather and wood around the cabin. But from the first click of the latch to the weight of the door it unlocks the roots of the Gelandewagen are obvious.

The juxtaposition of 70s Mercedes vinyl on door cards and pillars against 21st century infotainment systems is as comedic as it is occasionally clumsy. The interaction with the major systems will be familiar to any driver of a modern Merc. But the harsh, functional and unashamedly boxy machine to which they're attached feels like a relic. Because it is.

On the road it feels properly tank-like, only the occasional thuds and shudders through the body-on-frame structure filtering through. Compared with modern SUVs the upright windscreen, skinny pillars, low belt line and relative narrowness make it surprisingly stress free to drive, those sidelights atop the front wings making it very easy to place. The steering is light, the automatic gearbox slurs through the ratios smoothly and the V6 engine is smooth and torquey enough to make (relatively) light work of the 2,612kg kerbweight.

The off-road tyres fitted for its cross-Scotland adventure buzz on the tarmac, the steering is a bit vague on the motorway and you can't pile it into corners on B-roads like you can a GLE. But for all its old-fashioned looks the G350 demands relatively little acclimatisation. Making the retro surroundings something to enjoy rather than endure. A theme we shall return to shortly...

And it's the same off-road. There's a Terminator-like attitude to the way it crushes all that comes before it. Which is kind of appropriate, given Arnie shares his Austrian birthplace with the G-Wagen and was an early torch bearer for Beverly Hills acceptability. The tyres may look a little small but it's only when things get properly gnarly you even begin to consider low range, which is accessed from neutral with a rocker switch. When the ruts articulate the wheels skywards you might - might - need to press one of the diff lock buttons on the dash. But, to be honest, it's more for something to do than actually necessary to keep going. So how's it going back there in the Defender?

Twisted Defender 110 T40
Before we head out in the rather smart looking Aintree Green 110 T40 chosen to (hopefully) show the more metropolitan G-Wagen how it's done Twisted boss Charlie Fawcett runs us up Sutton Bank in a 90-based T40S. While the 110 has had a subtle - and effective - Twisted makeover the 90 benefits from the more extensive package of upgrades he and his team have been perfecting. These turn a £30K Defender XS base vehicle into a c. £90K machine able to keep it real in the mud but also - hopefully - rival a G-Wagen for urban fashionista posing power. And usability.

The mods run to five pages of parts but what you don't get from that is the 30-odd hours of work that goes into installing the sound deadening or the development work perfecting the 'Progressive Suspension' package of custom tuned Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs. From stubbornly understeering commercial vehicle into something with real willingness to be chucked along a twisty B-road and gently steered on the throttle is some transformation. Twisted's P10 engine upgrades remap the 2.2-litre diesel, add a more effective intercooler and improve breathing with a cotton air filter and stainless exhaust. It's still a gruff old thing but it's got a chunky, exploitable mid-range that gives real in-gear flexibility.

A bit of tinsel on the controls doesn't hide the fact they're connected to some fairly crude bits underneath and the Twisted Defender still can't match the G's ability to feel like a 'normal' car in traffic. But there are no rattles, squeaks or draughts, you can carry a conversation (or listen to the proper sound system) and it feels like the kind of car you could live with while accepting more outdated features as characterful. Rather than just annoying.

There's a bit less fancy trim on the 110 but it goes just as well. And once in the rough stuff feels properly in its element. You're more involved than you are in the G-Wagen, which can be steered with one finger even when traversing some really nasty terrain. The Defender needs to be driven though, the gears clanking through, the diff lock engaging with a bang and the whole thing getting a bit more visceral. The off-road equivalent of a Caterham perhaps.

It makes a little bit more of a performance of the challenging drop to Scar House Reservoir than the G but you get the impression the Defender would happily do this day after day where the G's more urbane trimmings would begin to suffer with intensive use. Driving one as your town runabout would require some commitment to the cause still. But there's arguably more of the off-road cred you're buying into as the benefit. 

We said at the start that these two cars were never really direct rivals in their working lifetimes. Too 4x4-like to compete with the Range Rover and too expensive to rival Defenders for commercial work the G-Wagen was kind of out on its own in the wilderness before late-life fashionability saved it from extinction.

That same fashion for bringing country cred to city roads has, with varying degrees of success, inspired the late - too late arguably - flourishing of the Defender's image. It's incredible to think Twisted and their equivalents face huge demand for the dwindling supplies of stockpiled base vehicles and, finally, can sell at a price equivalent to the glitzier G-Wagen.

Out in the wilds the G-Wagen is a way more impressive off-roader than most of its owners will ever probably realise. It feels properly unstoppable and casually dismissive of terrain the Defender has to roll its shirt sleeves up for. That's almost its biggest weakness in fact - it's so accomplished the credibility seems little more than novelty, like the styling and 70s construction. The celeb/gangster chic that has underpinned its late flourish may yet come to bite it on the backside though, guilt by association perhaps the G's biggest threat.

There's no doubting the Defender's credentials though. It remains a crude beast but a lovable one. Kudos to Twisted for making it into something you'd actually spend time in out of choice rather than just a dedication to image. Mercedes deserves credit for sticking by the G too and is now, finally, reaping some reward for doing so. There's a poignancy that the Defender has stepped up to the challenge, just as the plug was finally pulled.

The G-Wagen might be cool and combine sophistication with macho off-road cred. But the Defender remains the real deal, the Twisted additions icing on the cake. Get one while you can.

The full video review will be released on Thursday but here is a little teaser.


Engine: 2,987cc V6 diesel
Transmission: 7-speed automatic, low-range transfer case, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 245@3,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 442@1,600-2,400rpm
0-62mph: 8.9 seconds
Top speed: 119mph
Weight: 2,612kg
MPG: 28.5 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 261g/km
Price: £88,800 (£102,233 as tested, comprising Sports Styling Package of 19-inch AMG wheels, chrome interior trim, chrome sill protector and grille, stainless steel spare wheel cover £2,995; Entertainment Package with rear seat entertainment system and TV tuner £2,995; Designo Black piano lacquer trim £2,510 - additional off-road equipment fitted including Warn Zeon Platinum winch £2,990; G-Class Discrete Winch Mount £1,647.72; rubber floor mats £335 and Atturo Trail Blade off-road tyres)

: 2,198cc 4-cyl turbodiesel
Transmission: 6-speed manual with low range transfer case, 4WD
Power (hp): 122@3,500rpm (170hp with P4 performance upgrade; Twisted figure)
Torque (lb ft): 265@2,000rpm (standard)
0-62mph: 15.8sec
Top speed: 90mph
Weight: c. 1,902kg (with fluids and driver)
CO2: 266g/km (110 295g/km)
Price: £63,474 as testedn (inc. VAT)

All stats for standard car before modification unless otherwise stated





















[Photos: Sim Mainey]

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Comments (51) Join the discussion on the forum

  • jason61c 26 Feb 2017

    Shows just how much more accomplished the g wagon is than the defender.

  • LaurasOtherHalf 26 Feb 2017

    Land Rover have started rebuilding classic Range Rovers (at a price-circa £130k!) so surely it's simply only a matter of time before they start doing the defenders?

  • rog007 26 Feb 2017

    Interesting article. Proof readers clearly had a Sunday lie in! wink

  • milesr3 26 Feb 2017

    Anyone who spends £90k on a Defender needs their bumps felt. Quite happy spending time in my completely standard MY16 90XS for about a third of that. The value has appreciated too!

  • RosscoPCole 26 Feb 2017

    Did I read that right? £335 for rubber floor mats in the G-Wagen!

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