x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Revered in the Middle East, rarely seen in Europe

Although badged a Mercedes, the G-Wagen is actually built by Austrian company Stehr, who in 1979 designed the vehicle to serve the German army.

Originally designed as a military vehicle, the G-Wagen had to be retro-fitted for civilian use after it was overlooked by the German army.
Originally designed as a military vehicle, the G-Wagen had to be retro-fitted for civilian use after it was overlooked by the German army.

Sitting at a boulevard cafe of a Dubai weekend, you will be serenaded not by a quartet of strings but by the rasping exhausts of the latest supercars as they parade their owners' stature and status along the beach front. Burgeoning bank accounts and a penchant for style statements has seen the UAE become such an important market for luxury cars that buoyant sales here could make the difference between global boom or bust.

This fact is not lost on manufacturers who saturate the press with glossy photos and lure potential customers with lists of exclusive features and ultra-modern gizmos. But for all the glamour, sophistication and epic performance of those supercars, no vehicle has ever come close to the enduring appeal of the UAE's most cherished car: a 30-year-old Austrian military vehicle. The local appeal of the Gelandewagen, or G-Wagen to most non-German speakers, is something of a conundrum. They are dated, angular utility vehicles designed for military graft rather than metropolitan grace.

Highly inefficient, with the aerodynamic virtues of breeze block, they buck almost every trend in modern motoring. In Europe they are very rarely seen on the roads; recognisable but certainly not revered. But in the UAE, they are the ultimate status symbol: gleaming, steel-shimmering emblems of wealth and social standing. Its transformation from workhorse to show pony has mirrored the mutation of that other enduring, iconic Seventies off-roader, the Range Rover. Both have become leading marques whose off-road pedigree is secondary to their on-road prowess and presence.

Although badged a Mercedes, the G-Wagen is actually built by Austrian company Stehr, who in 1979 designed the vehicle to serve the German army. However, it was overlooked in favour of a Volkswagen rival, forcing the company into a civilian retro-fit. The first model was rough and rugged with few creature comforts. Its 4.0L engine was reliable but hardly set pulses racing. There was more of a focus on if it would reach 100kph rather than when. It achieved solid sales in Europe but struggled to find a market in the USA or Asia. However, a converted cabriolet version built exclusively for the Pope, that featured a raised throne to allow the pontiff to wave at his followers, gave the car publicity and something of a cult status.

But it was not until the introduction of a powerful V8 powerplant in 1998 that it moved from being an ordinary car to a coveted classic. This performance was complimented with a refit of the interior which saw the spartan cabin decked in wood and sumptuous leather to cosset an altogether more prominent posterior. As with Mercedes saloons, the most sought after versions are the highly tuned AMG models. The AMG55 boasts 500bhp propelling it from 0-100kph in an improbable five seconds, making Ferrari drivers a little less smug when they attempt a drag race away from the traffic lights.

Its popularity in the Middle East was a key reason why the model was continued in 2006 and production is now secured until at least 2015. The region accounts for around 25 per cent of total sales for the vehicle. And with dual zone climate control, rain sensing wipers and computer aided parking its owners need not feel bashful about the features. And to appease those who feel the G-Wagen should have remained a service vehicle, it is currently being used by 28 armies across the world. tbrooks@thenational.ae