By the time you read this you may either have received the exclusive invite for an intimate gathering of friends from Messrs. Rene Nunez of CATS Motors and Felix Ang of [ANG] Auto Nation Group or right across your house, your neighbor already has the fanciest bi-turbo V-8 AMG version with platinum monster wheels, wool from some Himalayan goat and wood extracted from some petrified forest in sub tundra Siberia, discreetly launched ala salon prive.
The Shah did it
Born from an idea of the Shah of Iran, who was once one of Daimler-Benz's bigger shareholders, the G-class or Geländewagen [all terrain vehicle], counting close to 300,000 strong and serving in 63 armies, gets its first serious generational change in 40 years. As the W460 from 1979 to 1990 and the seriously upgraded W461 chassis from 1991 to 2001, the 2019 model W493 G-class is only its second generation. Take a good look at the 2019 and the 1979 version and you'd think you're seeing double.
Looking old, looking the same
Boasting of Daimler AG's latest ladder frame chassis with a mix of new age alloy and special steels for the body, G-wagen 2019 manages to even lose 120kgs. considering the first 1979 model already tilted the scales against a garden variety 2.5 ton Ford Expedition. Not only does the “G” look the same, but it is also dimensionally almost the same apart from the slightly longer wheelbase, an increase in width – a diktat of ever stringent crash safety regs and enhanced pedestrian crash safety [not a problem with the G's upright face]. Retaining much of its face, the G joins the CJ Jeep , the Land Rover Defender  and UNIMOG, Mercedes Benz own goat-like all-terrain pick-up , all conspiring to look as if it hardly changed from inception.
Improvements, well hidden
In keeping with its generational improvement, the latest G's can climb with more severe attack angles, ford deeper floods and rise over craggier boulders. Instead of live-axles in front, a fully independent double wishbone takes its place. This makes the ride more supple and absorbent and enhances steering accuracy which remains unaffected despite its adoption of fully electronic power steering. The back retains the live axles on trailing arms, beloved to Off-Roaders, who value the articulation of solid axles. All these sophisticated hardware is under the control of even more driving aid software for controlled off-roading and safe bad weather driving.
The MB look
Built mostly in Graz, Austria by Magna-Steyr, once Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the G-wagen besides wearing the three-pointed star, also dons the Peugeot lion [as the P4 with a Peugeot diesel] and the Steyr-Daimler-Puch badge. Inside shows adoption of Daimler's widescreen LCD TFT instrument cluster seen across MB's model family. As the W460 borrowed dashboard bits and pieces from the W123 and VDO's generic parts bin and the succeeding W461 borrowed from the W124, the 2019 G-wagen also gets the latest air-con vent “turbo-vane” look plus the COMMAND system, Mercedes' version of BMW's iDrive. Conversely, the passenger's grab handle looks like a throwback from the day the G was launched. More praiseworthy for me is the way the designers incorporated the important details and yet resisted the temptation of distorting the look. Thus, headlights, despite being bi-level LED, look like headlights. The grille and bumpers, look like proper grille and bumpers. Door apertures, taillights, rocker panels, wheel arches, all look like what they should be and not some LSD fueled psychedelic vision. The G-wagen still looks like a no-nonsense utility vehicle.
Bespoke for celebrities
Though the more agricultural and military versions of the “G” are more numerous, it is the opposite end of the spectrum – the blingy, bespoke hyper-luxury end i.e. AMG bi-turbo versions – that attracts the most custom here. No doubt, even more exotic materials will be made available for special customers demand. Appealing to both rugged and refined lifestyles, G's continues to track the adventures the target market takes and abilities it takes for granted. Though far lesser in number the G, like most off-road vehicles, attract quite a cult following just as the Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol and Mitsubishi Pajero have their loyal band of followers.
The ownership spectrum
Our rather small G-class population, are mostly personal imports and a small bunch of government to government environmental research projects that included the G's as part of the package. One of our country's prime promoters of off-road driving, Mr. Beeboy Bargas, prefers G-wagen's for his own mud plugging leisure, despite his closeness to Atty. Robby Consunji, leader of the Land Rover Club of the Philippines, faithful believers in the mystical powers of old Land Rovers. At the celebrity end of the spectrum, another G-wagen owner is the late Joey “Pepe” Smith, the rock concert singer made famous by his song “Ang Himig Natin” of the Martial Law era of 1972-1978.
I never owned a G-wagen but was engagingly exposed to them like a well-remembered summer fling. That first encounter was in 1981. At that time I became friends with Minister of Natural Resources, Jun Leido. Weekend evenings were spent in our favorite Mercedes Benz repair shop, Alcayde Motors in Meycauayan Bulacan. Jun Leido was not only an epicure but also a Germanophile and a Mercedes Benz fanatic. His fellow Merc fans had contacts in Frankfurt who scour for good condition high mileage used cars, buy them and ship them out of Hamburg, the destination port of Manila.
That stream of cars that arrived here came with their standard German registration plates [not the oval Zoll customs plates and not yet the current red tag rectangular format] and with a side cargo of new batteries [Hoppecke, Varta, Dekra, Bosch], tires [Uniroyal, Vredestein, Conti, Semperit], Blaupunkt, Becker or Grundig radios with the right Mercedes Benz knobs and BEHR air con assemblies - since the German market cars didn't have air cons as standard then. Alcayde Motors' role post-port-release was full vetting and sprucing-up, with original Dr. Herberts or Glasurit paint according to the hood tag DB factory code.
What power-to-weight ratio?
Jun's first G-wagen was a W460 3 door, with that long rear window. It came in DB [Daimler Benz original color] Agave green – which I think was inspired by the Agave cactus, the source of tequila. It was a 72PS diesel 240GD with 4 on the floor. I do not remember if it had power steering. Post Baby Boomer car freaks, take note of the power-to-weight ratio: 72PS vs. 2,500kgs GVW- numbers that guarantee leaden performance, but I was no stranger to sheer lack of performance, since, at that time, my Bulacan service car was a 45hp 21-year old Mercedes Benz 180D.
The sleepless Mr. Alcayde
Jun was going thru some domestic problems and looked forward to being with his imported “Babies” in the shop. We'd spend long evenings hanging out at the repair shop, keeping Mr. Gil Alcayde up. Jun traveled with unobtrusive security; no visible holster bulge nor clutch bag so we were free to roam the dark and empty streets of Bulacan. As always, Jun let me try his cars. Since we always skip dinner, we end up being hungry by midnight. I would bring Jun to “street food”, 2 towns away, in Bocaue, barrio Lolomboy.
Now Bocaue is known for highway side rip-off night clubs, honkie-tonks, and cabarets. The working girls or GRO's [guest relation officers] keep a nocturnal schedule much like today's BPO millennials. For their safety and convenience, the girls and other bar employees hire regular tricycle drivers as their commute Übers– going to work mid-evening and coming home as the sun peeps over the horizon. Like the BPO's today, this micro-economy had its own eating habits.
In Lolomboy, there is a back street full of street food kitchens for the “Über” tricycle drivers. Open only at night, they are known for their hearty food; stewed, fried or sautéed pork and beef chops, cuts and entrails fresh from the abattoir butchery. Their piece the resistance is rice, garlic fried in beef or pork fat, soy and sea salt. Portions were unlimited, long before “unli-rice” became a fad.
Burp it all out
Municipal water in those days was not to be trusted, while bottled water was only known as Perrier or Volvic at Cafe Adriatico in Malate. Plates and utensils were single use only, piled for transport elsewhere at the end of the night for washing ready for use the next day. For hygiene's sake, the main drink was 12-ounce bottles of soft-drinks – Coke, Sprite, and Sarsi. Tricycle drivers here wash their hands with soda. Apres dejeuner, no one can suppress a burp or two.
The German idiom in 400-year-old towns
With roots in Mindoro and Malate, Jun would let me, the local Bulakeño, drive. We flitted between the MacArthur highway, which would have the occasional slow-mo overloaded truck convoy and 24-hour Jeepney cruisers or meander through the Camino Real's narrow roads of the old Spanish era road network of Marilao and Bocaue. With an open window, Jun loved hearing the racing engine exhaust. With the 240GD's power to weight ratio, caning to ultimate revs was the only way to decent performance. The rest of the open air “concert” was the pattering of tires on the old broken concrete as the rhythm bounced against the high walls of the sleeping residents' houses. We had the roads to ourselves and we'd regale in juvenile guilty pleasure speeds. A good ride at high speed over broken roads, to us, will always be the German car idiom.
Limited SUV experience
Disclosure: At this stage, my driving experience with 4x4 or SUV's was limited to a 1969 2-door Toyota Land cruiser [bouncy, thirsty, stiff neck inducing driving position], 1965 Ford Custom F350 stake truck [wickedly fast unladen], a really crude Land Rover [it wasn't called Defender then] and a floaty Chevrolet C30 truck.
The Pajero prophecy
With Jeep like expectations, I was impressed that the 240GD could be enjoyed like a car. The perch is high; par for the course for today's SUVs. The visibility out was perfect thanks to upright windows and the signal lights on top of the fenders worked like fender guides. At three up, it didn't bang into humps nor jar/jiggle over potholes. The steering was quite tactile and it wasn't unbearably heavy. Compared to my 180D, the 240GD engine was like cheese to chalk. Looking back at that experience, the 240GD drove with the qualities that many Filipino drivers got impressed by the Pajero when it was introduced to the Philippine market in 1989. Just think if Mercedes marketed the G the way Mitsubishi marketed the Pajero, the local SUV scene would have been quite different.
Encounter Number 2 was in 2003; I was Business World's motoring columnist then [16 years up to last year]. I was a guest of DaimlerChrysler for the Frankfurt IAA Motor show. DC at that time was headed by Jurgen Schremp, whose vision was to make DaimlerChrysler the number one mobility company in rail, cars, and aviation [Daimler-Benz, ADTranz and Airbus]. DC also had its new HQ in a new city at Stuttgart-Mohringen.
Fully booked in Germany
The plan was to have me get to know DC at its Stuttgart home, before and after the Motor show. Prior to the show, I was to meet the Mercedes Benz Truck design team at Vaihingen, a place better known for apple juice. I was also to get familiar [drive] with a natural gas-powered Mercedes Vito van, made in the Basque country. I was to tour the old Sindelfingen plant where they just installed a state of the art robot assembly line for the then current S-class.
At that time, Mercedes Benz in the Philippines was in limbo as its long-standing franchise with Commercial Motors was set to expire to be replaced by upstart importer CATS Motors. Typical of most multinationals in ASEAN, DC was based in Singapore and had, Mr. Richard Venn, a South African keep tabs on marketing efforts to the Philippines and Filipino journalists.
A van and a jeep but no B-class
For some reason, DC Singapore's South African decided that for my shuttle to Frankfurt and Stuttgart, I was not to get the latest E280 W211 – their fierce rival to the just launched Bangle styled BMW 5-series – nor the graceful W220 S-class. Not even a C-class, much less an SLK. Whether it was a joke or not, I was assigned a W461 G 270 CDI – the five-cylinder of the G-class now that the G 300 CDI got another cylinder. Thank God it wasn't the B-class, Mercedes's entry for the septuagenarian and the Marbella-retired market segment. Or so I thought.
Well, it wasn't the wisest of weapons when going up and down the ultra fast Autobahnen 5, 8 and 9 criss crossing Swabia, bits of Bavaria and Hesse. Its brick-likee aerodynamic properties was a proverbial millstone on my neck going up steep inclines and the windy plains dotted with monster wind rotor energy farms. There were times that I had to follow the truck convoys as our 156bhp G 270CDi couldn't muster enough torque to overtake the 22 wheeler behemoths in speed and safety going uphill. Being an automatic, the G-wagen was lucky to push the needle past 156.0km/h on a steep downhill.
Welcome to the 21st Century
Still, the G270 CDi was a treat compared to Jun Leido's agave green G-class [must've been a '79]. Instead of W123 hand me downs in the interior, the dark gray G270 D of the 21st century had vents and steering wheel and a few surfaces from the late but lamented W124. It was quieter in both the wind department and the NVH department and had nice 5-spoke alloy wheels. As the weeks wore on covering much that DC wanted me to cover, it was a toss-up between the G and the Vito Natural gas. Well, the Vito was ideal for hauling Hugo Boss outlet shopping at Metzingen. Though the Vito could dice up to 198km/h, it didn't have air conditioning. And it was record summer heat in Germany that year.
Reality with a vengeance
At the end of our trip, my hosts gave me some leisure time and I was happy for them to take both the G and the V off my hands. To make up for Autobahn frustration i.e the inability to exceed 200km/h legally, I was promised a T 200 CDi for my private touring pleasure. But some glitch turned up and all our host could get me was a rental Opel Vectra. Ho-hum, but at least that car can get up to 205km/h...