The Unimog as an Expedition Vehicle
Unimogs make excellent expedition vehicles because of their rugged design, off-road capability, and Mercedes-Benz quality. Compared to Land Rovers or Land Cruisers, Unimogs provide much more room and cargo capacity. Expedition vehicles based on American pickups don’t even come close to a Unimog in terms of capability and reliability.
When the going gets really tough, the Unimog is in a league of its own. Its extraordinary off-road ability and heavy-duty components, allow it to reliably access areas other vehicles cannot even approach. The extra capacity allows for a level of freedom, comfort and independence unattainable in other vehicles. Extra fuel, water and storage capacity means the Unimog has incredible range and can carry supplies for extended periods away from civilization.
Of course different types of Unimogs have different pros and cons, and some types are more suited to expeditions than others. Here is a brief overview of the three most popular Unimogs for expeditions:
The 404 Unimog has been used as an expedition vehicle ever since it’s introduction. To this day they are used to cross the deserts of the Sahara, climb the peaks of the Himalayas and to penetrate the jungles of South and Central America. There is good reason for this. They are rugged, simple and reliable, and extremely capable. Furthermore, they are relatively inexpensive and need little modification for arduous expedition work. A 404 Radio Wagon is basically a “turn-key” expedition vehicle, ready to provide transport and shelter under the harshest conditions. Unimog 404s are generally much more capable than older Land Rovers, Land Cruisers, etc, and just about as comfortable. The Unimog however have much more room and cargo capacity.
However, 404s do have some drawbacks as expedition vehicles. They are underpowered and under-geared for expeditions that depend on extended on-road travel. The lack of power and gearing also means they do not get good gas mileage, especially when they are being worked hard. They can also be quite loud and drafty and they have a tendency to get very hot or cold in extreme temperatures. This is comparable to older soft-top Land Rovers. A lot people don’t mind this but it is worth taking into consideration. Finally, parts can sometimes be hard to find for 404s in remote areas although they can usually be sourced in more metropolitan areas.
Overall, 404 Unimogs are best suited to short term, leisurely back country recreation and exploration, where top speed and creature comforts are not as high a priority as the freedom to explore. Having said that, the 404 is quite capable tackling the harshest environments for extended periods of time if the driver is up to it and top speed is not a priority. Unimog 404s are still a popular Trans-Africa expedition vehicle and many owners are quite happy with them, especially ones converted to diesel.
The 406 and 416 Unimogs make excellent expedition vehicles, especially with a bit of preparation. Of the two, the 416 makes a better expedition vehicle due to its greater capacity, more stable wheelbase, higher top speed and more powerful engine. Of course a 406 can also be made suitable but here the emphasis is on the 416.
The 416 has the same wheelbase and is approximately the same size as the 404. However, the 416 is an improvement in almost every way over the 404. It is even more capable and rugged than the 404. The 416 also has several fundamental differences that make it much more suitable as an expedition vehicle. First and foremost is the OM 352 diesel engine, which is one of the most trusted engines in the world. This engine is a heavy-duty unit that is great for expedition work because of its ruggedness, dependability and relative simplicity. Plus, since it is the engine of choice in most 3rd world countries, from Africa to South America, parts and knowledgeable mechanics are available in even the most remote corners of the world. The 416 also has a heavier duty gearbox and axles. Furthermore, the axles have optional high-speed gears that improve top speed. With fast axles and a tuned engine, the 416 is a capable of cruising speeds fast enough for virtually all expedition requirements.
The cabs in the 416 still somewhat spartan, loud and drafty. However, they are a vast improvement over the 404 and about the same a Land Rover. Fortunately there is a lot of room for improvement and the cab can be made to be relatively quiet and secure, especially the hard tops. As a result, the 416 can be made into acceptably comfortable expedition vehicle without too much effort.
For many, the 435 series Unimog is the ultimate expedition vehicle. They are the most comfortable and fastest Unimogs. They have excellent cargo capacity and despite the larger size, they are incredibly nimble. Of course when it comes to off-road capability nothing comes close.
The 435 was engineered by Mercedes to not only endure, but also excel, in the harshest conditions. It is the epitome of the Unimog design concept, and as a result, its extraordinary capabilities allow it to effectively operate in conditions where other vehicles would struggle or fail completely. Furthermore the 435 is able to tackle the most extreme terrain and environments with a level of safety, comfort and control that few if any vehicles can match. As a result, the 435 is considered as one of the all time greatest expedition vehicle platforms.
With its locking differentials, extraordinary ground clearance, approach and departure angles, and articulation, the 435 has no problem transversing terrain that would stop a Land Rover or Humvee in its tracks. When it comes to muddy, rutted trails or washed out roads the Unimog can keep on going well after other vehicles are high centered or bogged. The 435 comes standard with many features such as raised a air intake, air compressor, wading breathers, heavy duty components, etc that have to be retrofitted to most other vehicles.
The weight capacity of the 435 allows for large quantities of food, water and fuel to be carried providing for extraordinary range and self-sufficiency. It is possible to outfit 435 with 1500+ mile range and water and supply capacity to support two people in the desert for weeks at a time without overloading or compromising the capability of the truck. Obviously this provides for a level of freedom and self-sufficiency that few vehicles can match. The 435 Unimog can be outfitted with all the comforts of a well-equipped RV and can provide a comfortable living area in even the most extreme conditions. Although those who choose more basic configurations often scoff at this level of comfort, it is only possible in a vehicle such as the 435.
Although extremely capable, Unimogs are not infallible, and like any vehicle they can get stuck. They are bigger and heavier than most other expedition vehicles. This is often an advantage but occasionally makes tight trails with low overhangs a challenge. This more of a problem for recreational off-roading than it is for expeditions. Often people drive Unimogs as if they were smaller and lighter which can lead to getting stuck. If seriously stuck, a Unimog is much more difficult to extricate than a vehicle such as a Land Rover, not only due to its size and weight, but to the fact that the portal axles allow the Unimog do bog down deeper than conventional axle vehicles. Winches are recommended for multi-vehicle expeditions and necessary for solo expeditions, because attempting to push or pull a stuck Unimog manually, especially the 435, is usually futile.
Because the Unimog is so capable, many drivers don’t get a chance to learn how to properly drive a Unimog. Even worse, bad drivers often have a false sense of ability because they mistake the Unimogs capability with their driving skill. Often this is not a serious problem because the limits of the Unimog are not reached, even in many extreme situations. However, like any vehicle, the Unimog does have limits and it at this stage when driving skills are most important and when many drivers get hopelessly stuck in a situation that was probably avoidable. A well-driven Unimog is capable or truly awesome feats but a poorly driven Unimog can lead to disaster. It is essential to have a good understanding of the Unimog principle and what the capabilities of a Unimog are before setting off on an extended expedition. Driving around on a few trails is not enough and some sort of tuition is highly recommended.
Finally, it has to be stressed that Unimogs are true off-road vehicles. They are designed to be simple, rugged and extremely capable in order to tackle the harshest and most inhospitable terrain. As a result they do not have the sort of characteristics of modern SUV or full size trucks that are really only on-road vehicles with some off-road capabilities. Most Unimogs can be made to easily keep up with highway traffic, and the cabs can be very comfortable. However, a Unimog will never be a modern SUV or full sized pick up in terms of speed and creature comforts. If cruising down the highway at 75+ miles an hour is important or you can’t live without air-con, power windows, and a smooth and quiet highway ride, then a Unimog is probably not for you. However, if you are looking for the ultimate expedition vehicle then there is only the Unimog.
To see more Unimog Expedition vehicles as well as our Cape Town - Nairobi - Cape Town Expedition, go to our Images page.