If it ain't broke, don't fix it: That could very well have been the mantra for designers confronted with the somewhat daunting task of updating one of Mercedes-Benz's most distinctive vehicles. The utilitarian Gelanderwagen first appeared in 1979 as a military machine that went on to grow a civilian fan base. Tradition typically dictates cars struggle to appeal as the wrinkles start to surface, but what is now known as the G-Class managed to surge in popularity as it snuck up on its 40th birthday. Each year welcomes a new sales record – and the queues continue to grow.
On first blush G 2.0 looks and smells the same as the original, right down to its push button door handles and boxy demeanour. Its doors call for a solid swing to get them latched, returning serve with a clang that sounds like it could have come from a circa 1970s army truck. Drive off and the locks thunder closed with a clink like a dozen rifles being cocked. But that simplicity is underplaying the efforts of the design division, which started with a clean sheet to create what is a larger vehicle than the original – but one that remains faithful to the purposeful look. Its body is 101mm longer and 121mm wider, something that makes for a far more welcoming interior, with nothing like the knee-capping compromises of the original.
Only trainspotters will pick the new exterior, dripping in retro style but with a toothy panamerica grille and circular LED daytime running lights. But anyone will pick the modern interior, dominated by two 12.3-inch screens that look after the instruments and infotainment. While tradition reigns outside, technology has infiltrated the cabin, right down to a suite of active safety kit that George Lucas couldn't have imagined back in 1979.
Underneath, too, things have taken a turn for the better. Literally. Gone is the hopelessly vague recirculating ball steering and in is a variable ratio rack and pinion. There's also independent front suspension for the first time. Those two things alone transform the G-Class from a can-do off-roader to something more akin to a modern SUV. The new car not just refines things but teleports them to a new dimension, while cleverly exhibiting some of the tendencies of the old.
It helps we're driving the top of the range, the $247,329 G63 AMG with its unique suspension tune, designed with pace in mind. Pop the bonnet and it's all 2018, with AMG's fiery 4.0-litre V8 that's also used in the GT supercar. But it's the sound that defines the G63. Sizeable oval-shaped exhausts poke from underneath each back door, the side exit positioning bringing the bassy boom that little closer to the cabin. It's a sound you never tire of, although the equally bassy Burmester sound system is a terrific alternative.
Yet the real party trick is what the G can do off-road. Ground clearance has increased by 3mm to 241mm and approach and departure angles are steeper, reducing the likelihood of damaging the bumpers. Just like a Ferrari can easily top 300km/h, it's reassuring to know that the utilitarian look pays off in the rough stuff. That you'll be a reasonable match for a Ferrari when blasting off the line is a bonus.
It's all part of the near-irrational – but comprehensible – attraction of the G. It's so loveable you learn to forgive its foibles; rushes of wind noise as the speedo tickles triple figures, or the tailgate that swings the wrong way for right-hand-drive Australia. What began as a military vehicle almost 40 years ago has morphed into the latest must-have garage accessory for the well-heeled. Now with lashings of added liveability.
Engine: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 9-speed auto
0-100km/h: 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 240km/h (with optional driver's package)