The Emperor of SUVs: Mercedes-Benz Unimog Review

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The Mercedes-Benz Unimog is among the most versatile road-going vehicles on sale.

Its Tonka Truck looks are a mere hint at the capabilities this beast has. It can be a snow plough, a hay baler, a lawn mower, a fire engine, a pothole repair vehicle and even work on railways if you install the right optional extras.

Many add-ons are modular, which makes the Unimog truly multipurpose. One minute it’s a hedge-trimmer, the next a grit-spreader. It’s a proper year-round workhorse sold under the Mercedes-Benz Trucks banner.

What on earth is a lorry doing in CAR?

Fair question. The thing is - admittedly for a tiny portion of the general public - the Unimog could be a genuine lifestyle proposition. It’ll do up to 56mph but more importantly will cover ground no other road car could hope to scale and ford rivers that would wash away lesser 4x4s.

Mercedes Unimog track

That’s thanks to portal axles, which have a tube connecting the two wheels that sits a fair way above the centreline of the wheel. Each one has a locking off-set diff for the best possible ground clearance, making for a wading depth of up to 1.2 metres in some configurations.

There’s even a Unimog fan club in the UK.

With that in mind it’s our duty to have a go and let you know just what it’s like to get behind the wheel – from the perspective of a modern car driver.

And what a wheel it is. It’s roughly the diameter of the moon and requires so many turns from lock to lock we needed a rest after negotiating a hairpin. It’s also an incredibly long way up – three large vertical steps are required before plonking ourselves into the overly sprung truck seat.

Immediately we’re struck by the visibility the driver is afforded here – you have a fully panoramic view of the terrain you’re about to monster, and moveable cameras mean you can keep an eye on any attachments you may be using at the time. You’ll be able to see them while you’re working, too, which is an advantage over many agricultural vehicles.

Turn on, tune in, tackle tough terrain

Switching on the ignition is via conventional key, but that’s where the similarities between the Unimog and off-road-capable cars ends.

Your first job is to select D on the gear selector paddle just underneath the righthand side of the ‘wheel, which you do by turning a rotary knob from N (Neutral) to D (drive). With us so far?

Then choose between manual or auto settings for the automated manual gearbox. You’ll want the former for off-road work (pull for up, push for down) and the latter for normal driving, but either way be prepared for quite a wait between ratios. It felt as though we could have eaten lunch between second and third.

When the shove finally does come, it’s absolutely enthralling. It might ‘only’ have 295bhp coming from the six-pot diesel motor, but that’s accompanied by a monstrous 885lb ft of torque. This thing could tow the Isle of Wight, and will drive in fourth gear at around 10-15mph.

More than one type of brake…

Dragging heavy loads is one obvious benefit of a Unimog, but how on earth do you make something of this mass slow down again? There are conventional brakes for all four wheels, but there’s an engine brake too, which is also controlled from the gear selector paddle. One click downwards activates the first level of retardation, and one more elicits the whole hog.

Mercedes Unimog Gareth driving

What this means is you rarely use the footbrake at all. It’s only really for pulling to a dead stop and for trickier off-road use where accuracy of braking is crucial. The point, as well as for safety, is to save cash on maintenance. You’ll go through brake discs and pads quicker than Usain Bolt does chicken nuggets if you don’t use it.

The engine brake has been configured to work with the cruise control too, so you’re able to safety travel on the motorway at 56mph worrying just about steering. We simply tested it on some steep gradients, and can confirm that it does indeed slow the Unimog down.

Both-hand drive

It doesn’t even matter which side of the cab you want to sit. Our test vehicle (affectionately called Unimog Jack for obvious reasons) had an option called Vario Pilot, which allows you to switch the steering wheel to the other side of the vehicle in around 30 seconds. Simply remove a panel, tug some levers and the whole assembly slides over, coupling with a secondary steering box.

The advantage to that is obvious: it has a dramatic effect on the Unimog’s residual value because if fitted, it can be exported and used in lefthand drive markets with the minimum of hassle.

During our short drive we were faced with an off-road course that a G-wagen could have tackled without much fuss, but even so the stable and composed nature of the Unimog was obvious for all to see.

Mercedes Unimog rear uphil

Your high seating position does mean body movement is amplified, which can feel uncomfortable if you hit a bump a little too quickly (oops), but actually it’s surprising how involved you feel considering your altitude.

It’s possible to adjust the tyre pressures on all four corners automatically from the cab, which gives you the best of all worlds – extreme traction on fields and decent comfort and fuel economy on the motorway.

Where can I buy a Mercedes-Benz Unimog in the UK?

There are seven dealerships with specially trained staff to help you configure the Unimog for you. As it’s sold as part of Mercedes-Benz Trucks, you can also take advantage of that organisation’s 35 service centres, which are all open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. They’ll even book yours in for a night service to minimise daylight downtime.

A clear obstacle to buying one is its six-figure list price, but as with cars, finance makes the Unimog a far more accessible proposition. In fact, thanks to rock-solid resale values, this Merc weighs in quite a bit cheaper to run than a rival tractor-type vehicle such as a JCB Fastrac, which incidentally is a far cruder, more utilitarian machine.

Spot the 7.4mpg sticker in the images? According to Merc that’s good for a vehicle like this.

Verdict

There isn’t another vehicle quite like a Unimog. It fits the bill for a vast variety of situations, but is at its best worked hard day and night, 365 days a year. While we’re massively keen on the concept of using one day to day, only a hardcore few will consider it over a more obvious pickup or 4x4. That’s a shame, because we reckon it’s unremittingly cool.

The thing is, you may soon be seeing a lot more Unimogs, because Mercedes-Benz is in a great position to capitalise on more stringent emissions regulations coming into play for such vehicles over the next few years. You can take an EU6 one into a Low Emission Zone for free, for example...

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