MOTORING lore has it that in the 1970s, Iran’s leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had an idea. A big idea. A Mercedes shareholder, and a car nut to boot, the Shah apparently told the firm it should start building 4x4s, which it had never really done before on a commercial scale.
If you or I tried to tell a car company to start production on a completely new line of vehicles, we would be politely ignored. But when you’re the Shah of Iran, it’s different. And so the Geländewagen (cross-country vehicle) was born. Iran duly ordered 20,000 of them and promptly cancelled that order after the revolution of 1979.
But the G Wagon caught the attention of armies around the world, and today this imposing, all-terrain block of metal is used by more than 60 different forces, including Nato. Mercedes wasn’t slow in seeing the commercial opportunities either, and just as the Shah was making a sharp exit from Iran, a civilian version hit the streets.
The Shah – who was said to have enjoyed racing his sister around Tehran at night in his Lamborghini Miura, and whose car collection numbered in the thousands and included a one-off 1956 Chrysler 300 complete with fridge and record player – would have loved today’s G Wagon, and especially this one: the G350 Bluetec LWB.
Prices start at just shy of £83,000, but the fit-for-a-Shah, option-laden version Mercedes sent up to Scotsman Motors weighs in at £98,150. You can keep your 1950s fridge and record player – this one comes with seat heaters and coolers, a digital TV in the front and two seven-inch screens and DVD player in the back.
In a military context, the G looks commanding. Thundering along British high streets it appears positively apocalyptic, especially with the matt black paint job (£1,465) our test model came with. Its monstrous size affords marvellous views once you’ve climbed up into the cabin, and it’s surprisingly comfortable for such a brutal-looking vehicle.
Under the five-a-side football pitch-sized bonnet, there’s a 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine connected to a seven-speed automatic gearbox. It can hurl you and your 2.5 tonnes of Germanic muscle along the road with alarming acceleration. The G350’s 0-62mph sprint takes just 9.1 seconds up to a top speed of 108mph, an exhilarating journey in something that looks like the side of a house. Any slight bend in the road can turn that exhilaration into mild panic, because it’s a bouncy ride and there is a bit of body roll and a general feeling of unwieldiness about the G Wagon, which is unsurprising given its size and height.
Driving this around town is tricky. It’s about 1.8 metres wide, and it takes a while to get used to where the car ends and the real world begins, with all its other cars, lampposts, elderly people, children and stray dogs.
The turning circle is better than a cruise ship’s, but not much, and despite reversing cameras and sensors, parking is fraught as the stainless steel wheel cover on the back not only obscures some of the view out the back but also adds about a foot to the length of the car. On top of that, you have pretty much every pedestrian and other driver you encounter actively willing you to make a fool of yourself because, in austerity Britain, driving a G Wagon is akin to riding an elephant to work.
If you’re spending almost £100,000 on a vehicle, you probably don’t care about fuel economy, but as you might expect, it’s not pretty. Mercedes claims it can manage an average of 25.2mpg, but I was nowhere near that. On the bright side, the fuel tank is a whopping 96 litres, so if you were to hit the official figures, you’d only need to fill her up every 500 miles or so – albeit at a cost of around £135.
Off-road, the G350 is suddenly in its natural habitat. The Australian Defence Force has a couple of thousand G Wagons, so I took ours to the closest thing Central Scotland has to the outback – the bing-studded plains of West Lothian. The G350 handled the rutted, circuitous, approach to Winchburgh bing with no fuss, and, ploughing through the undergrowth, it genuinely felt like a go-anywhere vehicle, unlike some of the more mainstream SUVs on the road today.
With all its comforts and gadgets, the G350 is a strange fusion of luxury and rugged practicality. Hand-built in Austria, the chassis is the same chassis the Shah of Iran craved back in the 1970s. The doors slam shut with a utilitarian thunk seldom heard on civvy street, and there is a definite sense that, in a few decades, long after the digital TV and cooled leather seats have packed in, the engine and bodywork of this machine will still be in one robust piece and – assuming the likes of Iran can provide the oil – ploughing on relentlessly.
CAR Merc G350 BlueTec LWB
PRICE (as tested) £98,150
PERFORMANCE Max speed 108mph; 0-62mph 9.1s
MPG (combined) 25.2mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 295g/km