Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, sells tens of thousands of trucks in the U.S. annually — Freightliners, Western Stars, Sprinter cargo vans. But of all those trucks, there’s only one the German automaker markets only to consumers — the boxy G-Class.
Designed primarily as an off-roader, the current version is cramped and provides an often-rough ride, even over pavement.
But now Mercedes is launching a completely redesigned 2019 G-Class, or G-Wagen. It keeps the same iconic design, but it's bigger, lighter, has more off-road capability and brings a big dose of luxury. Trucks.com sat down with Ian James, head of marketing for Mercedes-Benz G-Class, to hear the automaker’s strategy for marketing the new model, the first full redesign of the rugged SUV in 39 years. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
The U.S. has quietly become the world’s largest market for the G-Class. Why?
The U.S. has always been a big market for off-road vehicles, and the G-Class in itself has always set the benchmark among off-road vehicles. We've made sure to do that again with this latest incarnation of the vehicle. The U.S. will continue to be one of our, if not the, most important market going forward.
Southern California is the largest market for G-Wagens in the U.S., but are buyers really getting them to drive off-road?
I think that it doesn't matter what off-road vehicle you have, there's always going to be a relatively small percentage of them that do any real hard-core, off-road driving. I think the key thing is knowing that it can do that hard-core, off-road driving. That’s the DNA of what we call the Gelandewagen. It is at its heart, is its DNA, and we're going to continue going forward on that. So, priority number one, this needs to be the ultimate off-road vehicle, regardless of whether our customers in Southern California are going to use it for that particular purpose or not.
G-Wagen sales rose 6 percent in the U.S. to about 5,000 last year when the rest of Mercedes was down. Where are sales of the new vehicle headed?
Since 2009 we have seen the figures going up and up. Last year we sold just over 22,000 vehicles worldwide. We don’t see any change in that success going forward with this new vehicle. How it develops, in terms of whether the volumes increase or not, we'll wait and see, but I'm pretty relaxed about it at the moment.
What’s the most important thing you want people to know about the 2019 G-Class?
I want to make sure that everybody knows that this is still a benchmark in terms of off-road vehicles. But what you'll see from here, in terms of the steps that we've taken — adding more in interior space, improving the on-road performance — is that suddenly there is going to be a lot of interest in the vehicle from people who maybe saw the current one as a little bit too hard core.
It wouldn't surprise me if some of the people that had not considered it in the past, now will consider the new G Class.
Besides being able to spend six figures plus on a car, who are the buyers?
I break it down to three categories. We have our true off-roaders. We have the people that buy it because they love the iconic design of the vehicle. Then there are the people that love the power and typically buy the AMG variant.
What’s the competitive set for this vehicle?
Traditionally, they've been vehicles people wouldn't necessarily put it in competition with — a Range Rover, for example, or a Porsche 911. Then there are those small, traditional, off-road vehicles.
Why make it look so boxy, so industrial?
That’s a huge consideration for us. At the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that the DNA is kept. The design team has done an awesome job — especially on the exterior — of making sure that the Gelandewagen is still instantly recognizable as a G-Class.
Having said that, there have also been all sorts of new regulations that we've had to take into consideration. I'll use the example of the blinkers on the wings of the front there. So, in 2019, new pedestrian protection regulations come into effect; those blinkers now need to disappear into the bodywork in the event of an impact. Things like that have caused our engineers a few headaches along the development process.
The design language is so different from the rest of Mercedes. Are there any communications challenges to that?
No. No, not at all. The G-Class has always been a standalone product. It would have been a mistake to take it away from that. At the end of the day, it's been there for 39 years largely unchanged. I'm looking forward to the next 39 of this one. I think the design is so iconic. You don’t change it just to make it fit into a particular range.
Lightweighting, how did you do that?
It's 170 kilos lighter than the previous vehicle and yet the torsional stiffness has increased by 55 percent. Every single component, but three, have changed in this vehicle. So, it's been optimized. And obviously, if you're taking a look at the development of a vehicle over the last 39 years, there's been a huge step forward over that time in terms of material technology, in terms of engineering know-how as well. Those three parts which have remained the same, have remained the same for good reason, and everything else has been changed and optimized and re-tooled for this new vehicle. There's aluminum that's been used in the body as well.
Will we see an electric, or electrified as in hybrid drive, G-Class?
There's a commitment from Mercedes that every vehicle line will be electrified, and that goes for the G-Class as well. It's something that we'll be taking a look at. But there's no time frame at the moment.