WHAT’S on your bucket list of 4x4 and off-road vehicles to drive? A classic LandCruiser maybe? An AMG-G63 6x6 perhaps? What about a Bushmaster? Any takers for a Rolls-Royce Cullinan or Lamborghini LM002?
Classics, exotics or just downright unstoppable, these are the vehicles off-road that dreams are made of, and most of us will never have the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of them.
The venerable Mercedes-Benz Unimog fits in to all of those categories: classic, exotic and damn near unstoppable; so you can imagine my smile when offered a drive of the latest Mog.
THE Unimog has been in production for more than 70 years. It was conceived as a vehicle that could do the job of a tractor, a truck and farm equipment. It was the Swiss Army knife of vehicles; one vehicle that could do the work of many machines.
The term Unimog is an abbreviation of the full name UNIversal-MOtor-Gerät which loosely means a single piece of equipment. The Mog, as the name is often abbreviated too, is a do-it-all piece of kit.
Over the course of seven decades the Mog was refined end developed in to many configurations, employed by military forces around the world for multiple tasks, converted in to recreational off-road campers and even competed in the Dakar rally.
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The Australian Defence Force has used Unimogs as troop transporters for more than 30 years and other organisations such as Victoria’s DELWP have utilised them for anywhere a heavy-duty off-road vehicle was needed.
WHILE you can purchase ex-ADF Unimogs for reasonable money, the cost to upgrade and maintain them for recreational off-road use makes LandCruiser ownership look affordable. With the price of a new U5023 starting at $225,000, they fall directly in to the realm of exotic vehicles.
The U5023 we drove here has a handful of factory accessories on it plus a basic tray from Unidan Engineering, and it hits the $300K mark. Start equipping your new Unimog for global off-road adventures with a camper back on it and you will be looking at something on the other side of half-a-million dollars!
THE MODERN MOG
NEW Mogs are available in Australia in two main varieties. The relatively compact (if ever a Unimog could be compact) U218 - U530 and the U4023 - U5023 like we dove here. This double-cab version is known as the Doka and seats five.
While the modern Mog is a far more complex and bigger vehicle than the original, it retains some of the design features that have been part of the model for decades and ensure the off-road capability and functionality.
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Central to that design are its gear reduction, portal axles on coil spring suspension, torque tube drivetrain, a centrally-mounted transmission and transfer case, and a high riding cab-over passenger compartment.
Power comes from a modern Mercedes-Benz Euro 6 compliant, 4-cylinder turbo-diesel engine that makes 170kW of power and 900Nm of torque. It sends drive back through a shaft to the centrally-mounted transmission which is an 8-speed automated manual, and the all-wheel drive transfer case.
In standard form the U5023 has a single-range transfer case, but it can be optioned with what MB Trucks calls ‘Working gears’ which employs low range to give 16 forward ratios and six reverse. This vehicle was thus equipped as well as having front and rear locking differentials and central tyre inflation (CTI) that allows the operator to inflate and deflate tyre pressures on the run as required.
Significantly, the Mog can be driven as a fully automated, two-pedal transmission; manually shifted two-pedal operation; or, by flicking a switch that releases a clutch pedal down from the left side of the steering column, a full three-pedal manual transmission.
I’M no truck driver so climbing up in the cabin of the massive Unimog was a bit intimidating. Thankfully, I had MB Trucks’ Mog guru Jimmy Dalgleish sitting alongside me to explain what all the buttons and levers do.
Like any cab-over vehicle, vision from the driver’s seat of the Mog is excellent over the stubby bonnet and the side mirrors show you where the rear wheels are at to make placing the Unimog on the track relatively easy. Once you start to become acquainted with the size of the vehicle you soon realize that it’s not much wider than most large 4x4 wagons and it will drive over most tracks you would expect to take a family 4x4 on.
With a 1950mm wheel track its only around 400mm wider than a Ford Ranger when you’re placing it on the tracks. Wheelbase is 3850mm so again comparing it to a double-cab Ranger, the Mog is around 630mm longer.
After a couple of laps of the Melbourne 4x4 Proving Ground to get a feel for it, I pointed the Mog though some tighter tracks and again it was easier to get through than I expected. The regular water crossing was a doddle with the Mog’s 1200m wading depth.
The gearing is super low and when I pointed it up a fairly steep climb and selected the ‘Working gears’, Jimmy suggested I take off in third gear and that was all I needed to amble up the slope.
On descent, it was again left in third gear and the exhaust brake employed to control the speed. Even in third it required a bit of throttle to maintain a downward pace.
With my confidence growing, Jimmy suggested I take it over one of the steeper jump-ups in the proving ground. It had been wet in the area, the tracks were muddy and just a few hours before, the ‘more traditional’ 4x4 ute I was driving scrabbled for traction to climb over this mound. The track had dried a bit but Jimmy said this was a great place to demonstrate the CTI system.
Using CTI you can deflate and inflate the four tyres at the same time at any time using the onboard air-compressor. The system has preset pressures for certain terrain including Highway, Cross country, Sand/Mud/Snow and an emergency setting. We chose the emergency setting where the massive Michelin XZL 395/85 T 20 tyres drop down to 10psi.
The tyres use internal bead locks to secure them to the rims at low pressure. Jumping out of the cab, you could see the tall tyres bagging out to increase the contact patch and hence traction. Back in the seat and Jimmy turned the dial locking both front and rear differentials and it was ready to go.
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Initial thoughts that the Mog was too wide to follow the narrow track over the mound passed as we approached it. Sitting high in a cab-over vehicle like this you are literally looking head-on at the hill. After a quick glance at the side mirrors to see where the tyres were in relation to the track it was again third gear, low range and the big Mog crawled over it slowly without a hint of wheelspin.
The high, forward seating position also gives an excellent view when cresting a blind hill so you can see the line beyond the crest and the Mog followed the track to crawl down the other side. Flick the button on the CTI back to the road setting and the tyres inflated up to pressure as we drove back to the shed.
It was only a brief drive of the Unimog but it gave the understanding that the Mog is not as big as you first think and easier to manoeuvre on bush tracks than anticipated. I had a pretty good idea that the Mog would be massively capable off road and this just reinforced that belief as we didn’t push its capabilities at all on this quick spin.
I didn’t drive it on the road at all but Jimmy tells me they are comfortable cruising at 90 to 100km/h on the highway and that they are in fact speed restricted to 100km/h due to the GVM exceeding 11,990kg.
The Unimog didn’t disappoint and driving it ticked off a spot on my bucket list. A kitted U5023 could be the ultimate off-road adventure touring vehicle but unfortunately, owning such a rig is still a lottery win away.
Unidan Engineering’s Daniel Mavin has owned 46 Unimogs of his own since 2007 and says hundreds of the vehicles have passed through his Gold Coast business since he established it back in 2011. As well as being a Mercedes-Benz Special Vehicles (specifically Unimog) dealer, Unidan has become Australia’s go-to workshop for the big Benzs.
Dan tells us that most of the work these days is for recreational users wanting expedition-style vehicles, but he also does vehicles for industry including mining, agriculture and people moving.
As well as selling and working on the vehicles themselves, Unidan has developed its own bodies and camper conversions to suit the different Unimog models including the incredible Odyssey X camper. The tray on the back of the U5023 tested here is also from Unidan.
Take a look at the Unidan website and you’ll see the wide variety of Unimogs they have done for customers, be they for industry or recreational use; there are even some rock-crawling Mogs there too. There’s also a page of vehicles for sale to whet your appetite for adventure.
2019 MERCEDES-BENZ UNIMOG U5023 SPECS
ENGINE: 5.2L 4-cyl diesel
MAX POWER: 170kW at 2200rpm
MAX TORQUE: 900Nm at 1200 to 1600rpm
TRANSMISSION: Automated manual; 8 forwards gears/6 reverse
4X4 SYSTEM: Dual-range full-time
SUSPENSION: Multi-link with coil springs
KERB WEIGHT: 2080kg
TYRES: 395/85 T 20
FUEL TANK CAPACITY: 160L
BASE PRICE: $225,000
AS TESTED: $300,000+
2019 MERCEDES-BENZ UNIMOG U5023 OFF-ROAD SPECS
DEPARTURE ANGLE: 41⁰
RAMPOVER ANGLE: 45⁰
APPROACH ANGLE: 43⁰
WADING DEPTH: 1200mm
GROUND CLEARANCE: 460mm