Car ReviewsFirst Drive

ADF Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon drive

The Australian Defence Force has replaced its decrepit fleet of Land Rover Defender 110s with the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon. Isaac Bober joined the army to put it through its paces

ADF MERCEDES-BENZ G-WAGON

ENGINE 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel POWER 135kW @ 3800rpm TORQUE 400Nm @ 1600-2600rpm TRANSMISSION five-speed automatic 4WD SYSTEM Permanent 4WD, High/Low range FUEL CONSUMPTION 11.7L/100km FUEL CAPACITY 96L STEERING Recirculating ball design BRAKES Ventilated discs (F); solid discs (R) TYRES 225/75 R16 SPARE full-size KERB WEIGHT 2700kg -3300kg TOWING (BRAKED) 1500kg GROUND CLEARANCE 213mm ANGLES 36-degrees (approach) 24-degrees (ramp) 33-degrees (departure)

THE MERCEDES-BENZ G-WAGON has just slipped, gripped and scrabbled its way to the top of a rutted, slippery (from last night’s drizzle) and near vertical 10-metre high wall of dirt. A Land Rover Defender wouldn’t have done that…

…And that’s why the bloke I’m sat next to, Tim Conquest, a driving instructor with the Land 121 Training Team, is beaming. “In one of our old Defenders, which don’t have diff-locks, we’d have been sat at the bottom of that hill going nowhere,” he says.

Then, reaching forward, Conquest switches off the rear and then front diff locks, before turning up the air-conditioning. “Couldn’t do that in a 110, either,” he adds cheekily. That’s not surprising given even the newest of the Australian Defence Force Defenders are well over 15 years old (indeed the bulk of the fleet dates back to the 1980s).

With nothing new to offer its military customers, Land Rover didn’t even bother tendering for the ADF commission…Mercedes-Benz did. And won (the 15-year life-cycle contract will see M-B vehicle support right the way through until at least 2023).

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First released in 1979, and in constant production for more than 32 years, the G-Wagon (the ADF asked for the name to be anglicised for Australia) is the longest-produced Mercedes-Benz in Daimler’s history. A favourite with armies around the world, around 2146 G-Wagons will eventually call Australia home (the first vehicles arrived back in July 2012 and continued arriving Down Under until June 2015.

All up, Mercedes-Benz will provide three 4×4 variants and five 6×6 versions, comprising: 4×4 single-cab carry-all; 4×4 single-cab panel van; 4×4 dual-cab station wagon; 6×6 single-cab carry-all; 6×6 single-cab ambulance, 6×6 dual-cab command post; 6×6 dual-cab canine; 6×6 dual-cab surveillance and reconnaissance vehicle.

Once here in Australia, the vehicles, which, all but the panel van and station wagon, obviously, arrive in cab-chassis configuration are outfitted with their specialist modules (1347 of them), which are designed and manufactured by Australian family-owned business, GH Varley. The G-Wagons will also be mated to around 1800 matching trailers (in 700kg and 1500kg specification), built by Haulmark Trailers.

Aside from the 6×6 G-Wagon, the models supplied to the ADF are essentially off-the-shelf units (even the camouflage paint is applied on the production line at Graz in Austria via an ADF-supplied stencil) with a few options added along the way. These include strengthening of the G-Wagon’s spine to handle being air-dropped, and the addition of a fording switch for saltwater crossings – it kills all the non-essential electrics to keep them from being eaten by the saltwater.

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The military-spec G-Wagon runs the same 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel as the civilian variant (G300), but it’s tuned a little differently, making 135kW and 400Nm (down from 150kW/540Nm). Bolted onto the back of the engine is a five-speed transmission, and constant four-wheel drive (fuel consumption is claimed to be 11.7L/100km).

In addition, the military-spec G-Wagon gets a front, centre and rear diff lock, which can all be engaged and disengaged on the fly (at walking pace). And it’s those diff locks, plus a tractable diesel engine that help the G-Wagon slowly clamber up and over obstacles that would have had the Defender working much harder.

G-Wagon vehicles

“There really is no comparison between the two,” says Tim Conquest, a driving instructor with the Land 121 Training Team, as we come to a halt after a sighting/demonstration lap of the Janowen Hills 4WD Park. It’s here the Land 121 Training Team, who are based at their newly established HQ at RAAF Air Base Amberley, train-up Army and Air Force personnel to drive, and tow with, the G-Wagon.

And now it’s my turn. As we swap seats, Conquest describes the move from the Defender to the G-Wagon as like, “going from the stone age to the iron age”. But, surely there are those who object?

“Absolutely, but that lasts until that dirt hill we drove up this morning, or if it’s a hot day and we’ve got the air-con blasting. “No, the Defender was great in its day, but we held on to them for way too long, and found we were increasingly having to drive around its short comings [like no diff locks, manual-only transmission, weedy engine, no ABS – the list goes on].

 

That isn’t the case with this G-Wagon.” Rolling the key halfway allows the G-Wagon’s computer brain to run its on-board diagnostics check, and only once the accessories lights have gone out does Conquest allow me to turn-over the engine. It coughs into life before settling to a grumble of an idle. And with the windows closed (they’re all, ahem, electric, by the way) you almost can’t hear a thing and that’s with stuff-all insulation.

G-Wagon vehicles

We crank the air-conditioning up a notch or two, lock in the centre diff and head bush. There’s decent weight to the throttle which needs a good prod to get us up and going, but Conquest reckons that stiffness helps to keep an even speed when negotiating obstacles.

“We (the ADF) and Merc reckon that 2000rpm is the sweet spot for everything when you’re off-road with the G-Wagon, and the heavy throttle makes it easier to manage.”

 

We’re still in low-range, which is good for more than 60km/h, and we’ve dropped the tyre pressures to improve the already prodigious grip offered by the aggressive BF Goodrich run-flat rubber. Careering along the well-graded tracks, in-between the gnarly stuff, the G-Wagon actually feels, despite the reduced tyre pressure, quite civilised.

G-Wagon vehicles

We pull up at the bottom of a steep hill climb with a nasty right-hand kink in it. The track’s rutted and torn and looks, well, it looks like a bomb went off. All three diffs are locked, and I’ve manually selected first gear. Holding 2000rpm we hit the first obstacle and you can immediately hear the G-Wagon picking up a wheel at the front before crashing back down and cocking the rear wheel.

It slips sideways, grips momentarily, and then slips sideways again on some gravel but, just before I park a near $200,000 piece of military hardware against a bank, the tyres grip and we lurch forwards (I turn the air-conditioning up yet another notch). On and on the Merc goes, gripping, slipping, grunting and heaving itself up and over rocks and through holes that would have had even a modified Jeep Wrangler Rubicon pausing for thought.

 

In buying the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen/Wagon, the ADF has taken its ability to go cross country to a new level. Like comparing chalk with cheese, both the 4×4 and 6×6 variants are light years ahead of the Land Rover Defender in terms of technology and capability. That it also offers some creature comforts, like air-conditioning, makes it a much nicer place to be for our defence force personnel.

G-Wagon vehicles

  • No “unbreakable” Toyotas here …

    • AUSDAVIDZ

      NOT, when Benz AUS took some jurnos down a used desert track in these Benzs, they broke the shockers and other issues, NO such drama with Toyota

      • Well, there are two options here …
        a) Toyota has just an inferior or uncompetitive product so they didn’t even file an offer
        b) Toyota failed during the evaluation

        I sort of doubt that Toyota lost the deal because of pricing …

      • DAVO

        Yes that trip was a PR disaster. Due to poor preparation and travelling way too fast. They did not factor in enough time to complete the track at the right pace. Hence broken shockies. I imagine the same fate would have happened to virtually any new 4wd at the pace they set. Very stupid of the organisers. But a G-Pro (W461) which was also on the trip did not have any issues – the same chassis variant which the ADF uses.

  • trackdaze

    I dont know. In this day and age the enemy just drop into the local toyota/nissan dealer and pay 50-70k…(or not) and bolt in an m60. All this mucking about with procurement costs and must have this or that that probably mean each 1 of these things cost more like 500k landed.
    Who’s dime was this review on? Please tell me it was Mercedes?

    Surely the ADF havent had to spruik leccy windows and a badge to get the next generation of recruits interested when all it needs is phone connectivity.

    • AUSDAVIDZ

      Our taxes @ work, waste of money purchase, waste of money “PR” exercise

  • AUSDAVIDZ

    Those Land Rover where hardly used and not abused, WASTE of tax payers money replacing this fleet of old but still good Landies

    • That or just maybe there’s a reason why 63 armies on this planet are not listening to you.

  • Ziggy

    They’re running BFG ATs?

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.