COMPETENT off-road wagons are becoming harder to find these days due to the dominance of one-tonne utes in the new car market.
The Nissan Patrol changed focus with the demise of the GU, Land Rover’s Defender is no more, and there’s a big grey cloud over the future of the Land Cruiser 76 and 78 Series. Few companies are prepared to spend millions of dollars developing and engineering new 4x4s to meet ever-stricter emissions and safety regulations, which are dictating the style of vehicle we can drive now and into the future.
Three classic 4x4 nameplates that have seen recent development are the Suzuki Jimny, Jeep Wrangler and Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, all of which debuted new models in 2018. The new Jimny arrived Down Under early in 2019, the G-Wagen is here only in AMG G63 form, while the JL Wrangler only hit our shores back in June.
Our friends over in Europe got them earlier with a few more variants than we do, and they gathered this trio for a bit of fun in a sand pit. We take a look at the same models here.
It’s funky, modern and fun off-road, but there are limits to the Jimny's credentials when it comes to serious 4x4 touring.
EVERYONE seems to love the diminutive Suzuki 4x4 and have a story about bumping along a beach in an old one, so it’s no surprise the new Jimny has been a hit with buyers. When it went on sale here early in 2019 the orders books were out to October/November, if you hadn’t ordered one last year.
The new Jimny stays true to the compact two-door body, ladder chassis and live axles the brand is known for, but there’s no longer a soft-top version or a long-wheelbase cab-chassis/ute offering. The leaf springs of the early LJ series are long gone and coil springs now support the body on the newer Jimny and Sierra, improving ride quality and wheel travel.
4x4 review: Jimny off-road review
The new Jimny even features comfort, convenience and safety features that were unheard of in the past. Satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay, electronic stability and traction control all bring a look and feel of modernity to a car that traces its roots back to 1970.
In 2019, power comes from a new 1500cc fuel-injected petrol engine with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmissions. The engine might be modern but the two transmissions could each do with an extra ratio or two, as the low-geared Jimny gets pretty buzzy at highway speeds.
A six-speed manual would be perfect in it. Of course, the Jimny comes with a dual-range, part-time 4x4 transfer case, which, with the aforementioned low gearing, is enough to give the pocket rocket plenty of climbing ability in steep, rough terrain.
Due to its popularity the Jimny will be well-supported by the 4x4 aftermarket, which is just as well as there are a few areas that could be improved for off-road work. We’d start with a small suspension lift to provide more ground clearance, as we found it scrapes and bumps more than we hoped. We’d also step up the tyre size from the factory fitted 196/80 R15s, as these little tyres fall into every hole and bounce over rocks that a bigger tyre will ride over with relative ease.
Removing the rear seat and fitting a cargo barrier will allow solo travellers or a couple to maximise the limited load space available in the short-arsed Suzi. The back seat doesn’t offer much room anyway and it would never make a good family car, so you’d be better off without it. There’s also a range of bullbars, roof racks and protection equipment available from a range of quality 4x4 kit suppliers.
At just $23,990 (+ORC) for the manual, the Jimny may leave you with a bit of a budget to equip it for your needs. Interestingly, many pundits have compared the boxy look of the new Jimny to the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. For the price of the latest G63 AMG you could own a fleet of 10 Jimny 4x4s and have enough change to kit them all up.
More on the Jimny: Will the 2019 Jimny spawn a Stockman?
Jeep JL Wrangler
The Jeep JL Wrangler offers plenty of choice with seven models, but scored only a one-star safety rating.
WHILE THE Jimny and the G-Class are only available in a small model range, the new Jeep JL Wrangler comes to Australia with a seven model line-up priced from $48,950 to $68,950.
The range comprises both two- and four-door body styles and a choice of petrol or diesel engines; although, the two-door only comes as the entry-level Sport S specification and the diesel engine is only available in top-priced four-door Rubicon guise.
All JL Wranglers come with a new eight-speed auto – there’s no manual gearbox offered in Australia – and a removable roof, be it soft- or hard-top, to give you that wind-in-the-hair motoring experience. Go back through the history of each of these three vehicles and you’ll find they were all offered with removable soft-tops at some stage, but only the Jeep retains this feature.
The petrol engine used in all bar one of the Australian JL models is the 3.6-litre Pentastar, which has always performed pretty well in terms of V6 engines. It’s made smoother and more fuel efficient with the new eight-speed auto.
Only the Rubicon gets the choice of the V6 or the new 2.2-litre turbo-diesel. For driveability and economy the diesel is the choice, but it comes at a $5000 premium over the V6 and is more expensive to maintain using Jeep’s fixed-price servicing.
4x4 review: JL Wrangler Australian drive
The Rubicon is also the most off-road-capable in the range and, when it comes to showroom-stock vehicles, it’s the most capable new 4x4 money can buy. Front and rear locking diffs, a disconnecting front swaybar for increased wheel articulation, low gears for crawling, extra underbody protection, and the standard BFGoodrich KM3 Mud Terrain tyres make the Jeep Rubicon near unstoppable. And that’s before you dip into the seemingly bottomless pit of aftermarket goodies that are available.
With their live axles and long-travel coil-spring suspension all Wranglers make good off-roaders, but the Rubicon is a step above anything else. However, it’s those same things that make them great off-road that compromise on-road manners, performance, safety and efficiency. Like the Jimny and G-Class the new JL Wrangler has gone some way to improving these characteristics, but it’s a case of ‘you can’t have everything in one car’.
The JL uses aluminium for its body panels, which reduces weight and in turn reduces fuel consumption and improves performance. Couple this with the gain from the eight-speed transmission and the fuel savings are significant.
The JL also debuts new safety tech like autonomous emergency braking, rear cross traffic monitoring and blind spot warnings, on top of ESC, ABS and a complement of airbags; however, it only scored a one-star ANCAP safety rating.
4x4 opinion: Can an off-road vehicle achieve five-star safety?
You could argue that continuing to build an old-school traditional off-road vehicle in a ladder chassis prevents it attaining an acceptable safety rating, but the 2019 Jimny scores three stars and the G-Wagen the full five stars – the latter at a much higher price.
The JL Wrangler represents the middle ground in this off-road trio and, with its wider range of models, should have the most appeal to buyers.
The 2019 G-Class sheds its 40-year design heritage.
OF THIS TRIO the G-Class – or Gelandewagen, as it was known – is the one vehicle to stray away from the design of its previous generation, adapting independent front suspension (IFS) to its new ladder-frame chassis.
That previous generation was the original and has been with us for 40 years, and this is the most major change to the G in that time. It also comes with a new, bigger and more rounded body shell, as well as improved on-road manners.
So far we only get the twin-turbo V8 AMG G63 in Australia, while in Europe they also get the non-AMG-tweaked G350d, as seen in these images. We will be getting a more practical G in the future, but whether that is the G350d or the just revealed G400d is yet to be announced.
Official word from MB Australia is that the $250K+ G63 is selling so well they’re in no hurry to bring in the more affordable version. We expect something to appear in 2020.
For off-roaders after ability over celebrity status, there is still the utilitarian G300CDI Professional in both wagon and cab-chassis available here, priced from $110,000. This is built on the older W461 platform, with live axles and a squarer, smaller cabin.
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The changes to the W463 G for 2019 focus on improving on-road driveability and user friendliness. Face it, the old 461 was built as a military vehicle and designed four decades ago … how many other 40-year-old cars do you know are still sold today? Both Suzuki and Jeep have strong histories, but have been totally re-engineered and updated in that time, just as the 463 has been.
Despite the concessions to dynamics and comfort in the 463, including the integration of IFS, Mercedes-Benz assures us it hasn’t come at the expense of off-road ability. It still has a live rear axle and MB says there is more wheel travel at both front and rear ends, not that the older G had a lot of travel anyway. The G-Wagen has always relied on its triple set of diff locks to get through the toughest going, and the new Gs are no exception.
4x4 opinion: LC79 and G300 are old-school tough
We’ve spent more time in the G300CDI Professionals, both wagon and cab-chassis, and they are basic 4x4s and not the luxury cars you expect. That said, there’s something special about driving them – they feel solid, the old-school dash layout and the awesome ability – that makes the experience unique.
The Professionals ride on practical 16-inch alloys with all-terrain tyres, have hose-out interiors with rubber mats and no carpets, and still have the triple diff locks and four-wheel coil suspension for rugged durability. The low-output 3.0L V6 and old five-speed auto let the overall package down in a big way, but the engine responds well to aftermarket tuning.
It might be the most expensive vehicle in this group and one of the priciest 4x4s you can buy, but the G-Wagen is a 4x4 like no other.
Jimny, Wrangler or the G-Class?
THESE three old-school 4x4s have more than a century of heritage combined, yet their target audiences are vastly different. Suzuki 4x4s have always been about cheap, affordable fun, and the new Jimny carries on that tradition; although, it costs a bit more than it used to and you can no longer drop the top off for beach drives.
It’s a small two-door wagon that would never work well as a family vehicle, and you would really want to be a fan of the little Zook to kit one up and embark on a lap of Australia. However, we have no doubt the budget alternative to the bigger wagons would be up to the task.
The Jeep Wrangler is the vehicle here with a model range to appeal to more buyers, the size and versatility to suit different applications, and an off-road ability that is unrivalled among new cars – all that in a vehicle that is moderately priced and with bucket loads of aftermarket accessories available. If you don’t want to kit your Wrangler up yourself, the Rubicon is off-road-ready straight off the showroom floor.
At $250K+ the list of people looking for an AMG G63 as an affordable off-roader is a short one, but it is a vehicle that is still selling well around the world. Even the G350 or G400, whichever one we get, will be priced on the heavy side of $150K; so, again, it’s unlikely to be bought as an off-roader.
The G300CDI Professional is still expensive but is the far more practical of the G-Class range, provided you can justify paying more than $100,000 for such a basic vehicle. Whichever G-Class you may be lucky enough to choose, you can be sure it will be more exclusive than either the Wrangler or the Jimny on both the street and off-road.
|Mercedes-Benz G350d||Suzuki Jimny||Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon|
|Engine||3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel||1.5-litre inline-4 petrol||2.2-litre inline-4 turbo diesel|
|Max Power||135kW @ 3800rpm||75kW @ 6000rpm||147kW @ 3500rpm|
|Max Torque||400Nm @ 1600-2600rpm||130Nm @ 4000rpm||450Nm @ 2000rpm|
|Gearbox||5-speed automatic||4-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|4x4 System||Dual-range full-time||Dual-range part-time||Dual-range full-time (+2WD)|
|Front suspension||Live axle/coil springs|
|Rear suspension||Live axle/coil springs|
|Fuel tank capacity||97 litres||40 litres||81 litres|
|ADR fuel claim||N/A||6.9L/100km||7.5L/100km|