Whistler, B.C. – The cold autumn rain is falling in abundance on this September day in the center of Whistler village, an area highly frequented by tourists in search of fresh mountain air. But I’m about to discover that in this region known above all for its outdoors activities ranging from mountain biking to alpine skiing, it is in fact possible to enjoy recreation of a quite different type.
The weather today might not be conducive to a bike expedition or a hike in the mountains, but with a little imagination and the helping hand of both the Canadian Wilderness Adventures outfit and the Silver Star manufacturer, exploring this beautiful area will never have been easier!
Mercedes-Benz has invited the local automotive press to participate in a day of off-road driving, with the weapon of choice being the oldest model in it lineup: the G Class. This so-called “fridge on wheels” is more often spotted on high-tone boulevards than in rough, inaccessible terrain, and yet this legendary 4x4 is built to climb and more-than-capable of storming through some of the hairiest conditions imaginable.
Like a number of other carmakers in recent years, Mercedes-Benz organizes this type of event to demonstrate to current or potential owners the chops of its all-terrain vehicle when it actually does venture into all-terrain country.
Trying out a genuine 4x4 on a remote trail is a rare opportunity to begin with, but when it involves climbing a mountain on a rain-soaked day in a tux – I remind you of the $127,000 CAD price tag that comes with the G Class – the occasion is pretty much of the once-in-a-lifetime variety. You can appreciate my excitement in the moments before heading out on this off-road trek.
Six Hours in the Forest
I’m glad to leave the asphalt portion of the itinerary behind before too long. After 15 minutes on a paved road, it’s off on a gravel trail. The first kilometres, taken at a good clip, are a reminder of the joys of Canadian potholes. Finally, we head on to Callaghan Road!
Our guides aboard the lead G 550 signal us via radio that we are about to turn off onto a narrower trail. It’s time to hit the “Low Range” button located right by the automatic transmission lever, after having stopped the vehicle and placed it in neutral. That’s not all, however, because the central differential (the one with the Number 1) also needs to be locked. This ensures increased motricity on a trail that would likely be the end of any of those pseudo-4x4s designed for mainly urban use. Speaking of motricity, the manufacturer equipped its 4x4 with Scorpion winter tires from Pirelli, a sponsor of the day’s adventure trek.
For any intrepid hiker who might be in the area, the scene must surely be a surreal one: eight G 550 4MATIC SUVs deep in the forest is something out of the ordinary, to say the least. Meanwhile the trail gets ever narrower, adherence is tricky due to the rain, the terrain accentuates bumps and jumps even in this luxury-SUV interior. In fact, this 4x4, first launched in 1979, is not really a comfort-minded vehicle even on paved roads. Its ladder frame and robust suspension set-up make daily driving a more jarring experience than in the Mercedes-Benz GLS, for example.
No matter, though. What counts in this ascent is how the 2016 G 550 4MATIC behaves, and in this respect it laughs off the holes and other obstacles it encounters en route. Some inclines appear more arduous than others, but the Geländewagen never hesitates. What’s more, the only thing disturbing the calmness of the forest around me is the distinctive sounds emanating from the 4.0L V8 twin-turbo, thanks in part to the lateral exhaust system.
Even with clearance that does not strike me as out of the ordinary, our vehicle doesn’t seem to be bothered to even rub the rocks we encounter on the trail. When a more extreme situation presents itself, just clicking on the number 2 button, which locks the rear differential, is sufficient to successfully scale the vast majority of holes and crevasses encountered on this trek.
And when the vehicle advances no more, turning to button number 3 to lock the front differential is strongly recommended. We have to resort to this only once on our trek, the vehicle in front of us having gouged a small canyon in the trail in order to climb the last portion of the trip. These last few metres are also the most stress-inducing, as the G 550 has to redouble its efforts to continue its ascent. The stress evaporates on arrival at destination, however, and is replaced by a need to replenish our strength that is perfectly satisfied at the small rustic chalet awaiting us. Nothing like off-road driving to fuel the appetite!
Of course, when we get back behind the wheel, a descent via the same trail awaits us. The G 550 4MATIC doesn’t even need a descent-speed control system; it suffices to place the automatic transmission in manual mode and keep it first gear. When staying in this gear, and with the driver keeping their right foot at the ready by the brake pedal, the German 4x4 acquits itself well in the task of returning everyone safe and sound back to the starting point.
The manufacturer added some fuel to the fire with its IRON- Schöckl activation demonstration, which served to showcase in impressive fashion what the G Class is capable of. With the three differentials locked, the vehicle climbed a 45-degree incline before arriving on a platform, from which it then descended at the same angle. Frankly I do not know of many vehicles that could accomplish this trick.
A Winning Formula
In response to my questioning, the people at Mercedes-Benz Canada admitted that the number of consumers who left the demonstration with a purchase contract in hand was marginal. Of the 20 or so Canadian clients invited, two showed strong interest in acquiring one of the most renowned vehicles in the world. Whether they really intend on driving them through forests is another matter.
This new encounter with the G Class confirms two things for me: First, this vehicle is not the most comfortable one on the road, nor is it the most ergonomic – its interior space is rather badly conceived on a number of levels. Fortunately, my second observation is that the G 550 4MATIC is an incredible war machine when the pavement gives way to rougher terrain. Aside from some sharp turns of the steering wheel and judicious use of the right pedal, the vehicle on this expedition practically drove itself!