Mercedes-Benz Unimog U430 truck review
The Mercedes-Benz Unimog has been a mud-slinging all-rounder for more than 60 years. No time like the present to get behind the wheel of the first U430 Unimog in the country
It really is kind of hard to find a box that the Mercedes-Benz Unimog fits into.
Part truck, part tractor, all off-roader — ‘the Mog’, as it’s often affectionately called, does its best to defy definition.
The best clue to the true definition of the Unimog really lies in its name, which is an abbreviation of the charmingly Teutonic ‘Universal-Motor-Gerät’ or Universal Motorised Working Machine.
However, Daimler mostly just refer to the ‘Mog as an ‘Implement Carrier’, which really just means that there aren’t a lot of jobs, vocational or otherwise that it can’t do.
From street sweeping to freeway verge mowing to snow ploughing to load lugging in hard-to-get-to-places, the Unimog seems to have a spec for all occasions.
It can even be found shunting rail wagons.
The Unimog range starts with the baby U400 and U500 series, which covers the more mundane vocational roles that may be covered by a true implement carrier.
The U400 has been designed to enable all manner of auxiliary equipment to be mounted on its torsionally stiff yet laterally flexible frame.
The big beasty U4000 and U5000 Unimog is a heavier duty truck variant anyone with military experience may have fond memories of a similar truck.
The Mog’s history in Australia has for the most part been a military one.
But Daimler Australia is trying to take advantage of the extensive global toy box that the company has access to, and target niche areas where vehicles such as the Unimog are a walk-up start.
The first right-hand drive U430 Unimog landed on Australian shores recently and we got to climb behind the wheel and take the new implement carrier for a jaunt, both on and off road.
Werribee South-based Noel Squires (above) owns and operates The Spreaders, a business started by his father Colin over 50 years ago.
As the name may suggest this business specialises in spreading sand, lime, fertiliser, gypsum and other products for the agricultural sector.
The spreaders also handles work for turf clubs and sporting grounds.
Squires also happens to be the longest running commercial Unimog operator in Australia having purchased his first back in the early 1980s.
And the business has seen 10 ’Mogs in service over that period of time.
The fleet now numbers three vehicles, an older 2450 Unimog, a U400 which acts as a spare and a brand new U430.
Noel still pilots the oldest 2450 Unimog on a daily basis.
You have to be nice when speaking to a man who has tonnes of burnt lime at his disposal, so I made sure I used my manners when I caught up with Squires and his driver, Gianni Caon, at their shed recently.
The spreaders handle territory that encompasses roughly a 100km radius around Melbourne and the two Unimogs spend a lot of time on the road mixing it with traffic as well as churning around various, paddocks, race tracks and parks.
Reviewing in Werribee
The fertile red dirt of Werribee South has long been an ideal location for growing vegetables and to date this productive patch of soil has done its best to stare down the march of urban expansion in Melbourne’s outer west.
It’s probably the only place I’ve been where the air contains a heady mix of both dynamic lifter and drying seaweed at low tide.
The Mercedes-Benz Unimog is famous for its portal axles which provide excellent ground clearance. This means that the diffs and axles are actually higher than the wheel centre and drive the wheels via a hub reduction drive.
"Some of the raised horticulture beds we work on can be 50cm high," Squires says.
The Mog can straddle these quite easily without decapitating valuable vegie crops.
Engine and Transmission
The U430 is powered by Benz’s Euro 6, 7.7-litre OM 936 engine which creates 299hp (219kW) and 1,200Nm of twisty force.
And behind the Bluetech donk lies a dual range 8-speed preselect semi-auto tranny which then gets power to the dirt via the ’Mogs aforementioned portal axles.
Cab and Controls
The Unimog ladder chassis has been built to maintain rigidity but also to twist laterally allowing the ’Mog to keep all of its feet on the ground in challenging off-road situations.
The 400 and 500 series ’Mogs also feature factory mounting points for implements which should keep aftermarket equipment installers away from the gas axe.
There are mounting points on the front of the truck and on each side of the chassis in between the wheels.
Plus there’s room on the rear for all manner of tow hitches if needed.
This 430 has also been optioned with central tyre inflation (CTI) to help keep the little truck afloat in the muck.
But another interesting feature is the Work Mode of the UG 100 transmission.
Work Mode turns the semi-auto into a hydrostatic transmission for off-road work which means no changing gears, or braking or using the clutch. Just use the go-pedal.
Noel did say that one of the challenges of using such a capable off-road vehicle is that if you do happen to get stuck, you really are stuck.
As in "Bring in an excavator stuck."
But with CTI fitted the guys regularly drop tyre pressure down to 55psi in the field and sometimes down to 35psi is needed.
The little Benz is constant all-wheel drive with a two speed transfer case and, as you’d expect, fitted with diff locks front and rear.
Climbing aboard the Unimog for a drive is reasonably easy, and once my butt was parked in the air-suspended seat I was impressed by the visibility offered from my vantage point.
One common complaint of truck based spreaders in comparison to tractor based machines has been visibility out in the field.
With seating to one side of the vehicle compared to the central position of a tractor you’d be forgiven for thinking that the truck-based design is inherently compromised in terms of visibility.
However, the view from the cockpit was excellent off road and there was little trouble locating the vehicle in the paddock and making sure that product was being applied accordingly.
With its deep window cut-aways and deep windscreen, it’s clear from the driver’s seat that the 430 Unimog has been designed to see out of while operating auxiliary machinery.
The Telligent preselect tranny did give me some unkind thoughts of driving old model Actroses, using the clutch to engage a preselected gear and waiting for the click.
It brought back memories of rolling through intersections with a neutralised transmission and a flurry of clicking noises emanating from the stereo speakers.
Thankfully those days are long gone and the Telligent ’box does seem a good fit in a vehicle like the ’Mog.
With a couple of tonnes of lime in the back we headed to a local equestrian centre so I could have a play in the grass.
This wasn’t exactly going to be challenging off-road circumstances but it certainly was going to be a good look at the work day characteristics of the sophisticated little vocational chariot.
The U430 will take a 4.5-tonne payload with the spreader body on the back.
But even with half a load the U430 can feel the high centre of gravity as the ’Mog rocks on its coil springs when cornering.
The 7.7-litre engine certainly seems to have enough huff to haul the little truck along, but with a vehicle like this it really is all about the gearing.
This truck is fitted with a Barlett ball hitch meaning that it will often be called upon to haul a small float trailer and telehandler to site when required.
Driveline noise is surprisingly good and on the open road near the little Benz’s 90km/h road limit the dominating sound is the roar of the tractor-like 445/70 R24 off-road tyres.
Out in the grass it was time to select work mode, which requires a fiddly combination of button pushing while patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time.
But once in hydrostatic mode driving the ’Mog becomes pretty much like operating a very large and heavy ride-on mower.
It really is that simple. Work mode gives you 8 speeds forward and 8 speeds backwards and a top speed of 50km/h.
But really, the hydrostatic mode makes tight headland turns in confined areas a cinch, especially where the driver may be operating auxiliary equipment and driving at the same time.
Forward and reverse is selected using the cruise control stalk mounted at the top of the steering column, and the U430 really is very nimble while using this feature.
For roles where the ’Mog may be using more complex moving equipment, such as verge movers, there’s also the option of a console mounted multi-function joy stick which can be operated from the driver’s seat.
The Westgate spreader unit runs off a hydraulic pump fitted to the front of the engine in place of the factory fitted power take-off (PTO) unit.
This is engaged by the flick of a switch in the cabin. The U430 has the makings of a hydraulic powerhouse with hydraulic flow options of up to 125l/m depending on spec.
A dual circuit system can provide 32l/m through one circuit and up to 87l/m through the second circuit making it possible to run a hydraulic motor and powered implements at the same time.
An optional front-mounted PTO also provides a substantial 160kW of power. Or there’s the option of and engine and transmission mounted PTO if required. There’s plenty of potential to plug in and play.
I was initially a bit taken aback by the right hand drive conversion of this truck.
The steering box remains on the left and is joined to the steering wheel by a shaft that runs up into the left-hand side of the dashboard and then across the right-hand side of the cab.
However, the U430 is available with a feature called Vario Steer that means that the steering wheel and instrument cluster can be unclipped and slid across the cab for dual-control applications.
This machine wasn’t equipped with Vario Steer but the shaft configuration remains which explains the layout.
The steering box itself also looks a little exposed as it peeks out from under the body work at the front of the truck, however anyone tackling severe off-road obstacles will most likely be whacking a bar or two across the front end anyway.
And the little ’Mog steered just fine both on- and off-road, in fact it was downright nimble out in the paddock with the trans in work mode.
While we didn’t scale any mountains or tackle any desert crossings, the U430 proved to be an easy to operate and smooth performing vocational truck thingy.
Visibility on and off road was great and the ride was surprisingly good.
It’s a great little platform for sweeping, spreading, mowing, digging, ploughing, climbing, swimming, trimming, vacuuming … and did I happen to mention rail shunting?
But maybe Noel Squires sums the ’Mog up perfectly when he says: "They’re tough and they’re robust and they’ve done what we need them to do."
Make/model: Mercedes-Benz Unimog U430
Engine: Euro 6 7.7-litre OM 936 turbo-diesel
Power: 299hp (220kW)/1,200Nm
Transmission: 12-speed Telligent preselect semi-automatic with hydrostatic work mode (8-speed forward and reverse)
Drive: Constant All-Wheel Drive with transmission integrated two-speed transfer case