The Clarkson review: Mercedes-Benz G 350 Bluetec (2011)

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It emerged recently that the least reliable car you can buy is a Range Rover. An extensive study found that on 02-registered cars, there was a 56% chance of a fault developing within a year. My own findings suggest that brand-new models have a battery issue that could put you on the bus in weeks.

To make matters worse, the company’s designers seem to be hellbent on ruining the quiet, restrained, tasteful looks with more and more chintz. The front end now looks like a branch of Ratners, and soon, you get the impression, they will fit fake Roman pillars on either side of the driver’s door. I suspect they won’t be fully happy, though, until the whole car is made from onyx. I don’t doubt for a moment that it is all very lovely if you live in Alderley Edge, but in the rest of the country, where showing-off is considered poor form, it’s all just too vulgar and horrid for words.

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Small wonder, then, that we are starting to see a re-emergence on the streets of the Mercedes G-wagen. It’s been on sale in Britain before but now it’s back in two versions. Both are long wheelbase but one is from AMG and therefore has a supercharged V8 and the other is the one I’ve been driving for the past week, the G 350 Bluetec diesel.

It is extremely handsome. Restrained. Dignified. And cool in a menacing sort of way. If it were a gun, it would be an AK-47. It is, then, the complete opposite of the modern-day Range Rover, which is like a gangsta’s diamond-encrusted Colt. Small wonder that in Notting Hill many media types even stopped pedalling for a moment to give the big beast an appreciative nod. People like looking at this car. It feels, therefore, worth the £81,700 asking price.

Driving it, however, is a rather different story. You may remember that recently on Top Gear I brought news of a half-million-pound E-type Jaguar. Built by a company in East Sussex called Eagle, it was the most beautiful man-made thing I’d ever seen. Better than the Humber Bridge. Better than the Riva Aquarama, even. However, it was nothing like a modern car to drive. Yes, many of the components were brand new but you couldn’t get away from the fact that the basic architecture came from a time when people would travel miles to gawp at a top-loading washing machine.

Then there was the Jensen Interceptor that I reviewed on these pages. The idea was brilliant. You had the beautiful Italian styling from the days of the loon pant and the tie-dye T-shirt but you got a modern engine, modern brakes and modern suspension. Sadly, you did not get antilock braking or airbags or a sat nav system. Or wipers that could wipe the windscreen.

I can see why you would be interested in buying an updated Jensen or an Eagle E-type. They are approximately 18,000 times more interesting than the modern-day equivalents from Jaguar or Aston or Mercedes-Benz. But for every point you score on the kudosometer, you will lose one when you run over a manhole cover. Or into a tree.

The G-wagen is much the same. It was originally designed for the German army in the 1970s, which means that, underneath, it is made from 1970s technology. This means that on roads you know to be perfectly smooth it will pitch and writhe about like one of those bucking broncos you can now rent for children’s parties. It’s amazing. I remember driving a G-wagen in the early Eighties and I thought back then that it was extremely refined and that it rode very well. By today’s standards, though, it is absolutely woeful.

And the steering is worse. You need a block and tackle to turn the wheel, and even if, by some miracle, you do manage it, the car will stubbornly refuse to actually go round the corner.

In an attempt to make the interior feel modern, the car is sold as standard with things such as cupholders and climate control and a rear-view mirror that dims automatically when it’s being blinded by the car behind. But all of these things have been shoehorned into a cockpit that was designed before electricity was invented. This is particularly noticeable when you try to operate the command and sat nav centre. It is very difficult, because the only place it could be fitted was right down at the bottom of the dash, next to your left ankle. And even if you could read what the buttons do, there is absolutely no chance of pressing the one you want because as you extend your left arm into the footwell, you will run over another piece of grit and the whole car will leap about as if it’s been hit by an RPG.

Then there’s the driving position. Because people in the army like to be extremely uncomfortable at all times — this is why all British military equipment comes with as many sharp edges as possible — Mercedes decided that the seat should be mounted only 2in away from the steering wheel. You drive this car like how you sit at a kitchen table.

And yet you pray the journey will never be over because you know that when it is, you will have to get out and close the door. This is not actually possible unless you have just won a competition to find Britain’s strongest man. And even if you have, you will still need the silver and bronze medallists to give you a hand. The tailgate is even worse. To open this, you need a JCB. And there’s no point because the boot is nowhere near as big as you might have been expecting.

Yes, the engine is modern, and as a result it produces very little by way of oxides of nitrogen — wow! However, it also produces very little power, and certainly not enough for a car that weighs more than Scotland. The result is a top speed of 108mph. Which is what most automotive experts call “strolling”.

It’s hard, really, to think of any good points at all. I like the fact it is a proper off-roader with proper off-roading features. I also liked the television sets in the back, but they were a £1,940 option. I liked the reversing camera, too, but that was an extra £460. In fact, my test car was fitted with so many options, the actual price was £94,200.

I will admit that even though this car is made by hand, it appears to be very well screwed together and, yes, the looks are appealing. But do not imagine for a moment that just because it has many modern features and it’s still being made today that it is a modern car. Really. It’s an Austin Seven in a fat suit. I would, therefore, still choose a Range Rover instead.

Yes, it is more likely to drain its battery of juice when you’ve left it for two minutes outside the newsagent’s. And, yes, the new front end appeals only to jackdaws. But at least it can run over a pothole without breaking your back, you can open and close the doors without using heavy lifting gear, there’s space for a human being behind the wheel and it’s capable of getting from 0 to 60 before you do.


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