Mercedes-Benz G-class: Bad boy SUV drives like it was designed in 1979

John LeBlanc
By John LeBlanc
Posted on May 25th, 2012
6 Comments

GENEVA—What is it about the guilty appeal of a stereotypical bad boy or bad girl? The kind of partner your parents and friends would never approve of. The type of relationship you secretly, deep down inside, lust after.

That’s the problem I have with the updated 2013 Mercedes-Benz G-Class: it’s the bad boy of luxury sports-utility vehicles. But I want one.

Developed for the military, the Gelandewagen (German for cross-country vehicle) started life in 1979. Somewhere along its 33-year adventure, the G-Wagen also became the equivalent of an American Hummer; the type of non-conformist ride that delivers a one-finger salute to the rest of us driving normal vehicles.

By any objective or practical car-buying criteria, this gussied-up relic from the late 1970s shouldn’t even be on sale today. The much more up-to-date Mercedes GL-Class, introduced in 2006, was to have buried the G-Class once and for all.

But, amazingly, the G-Wagen has become more popular than ever. Mercedes sold more than 6,000 copies of its uber-SUV worldwide last year — the model’s best sales in seven years, mainly due to the growing Russian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese markets.

For 2013, Mercedes is updating the entire G-Class lineup for seemingly the umpteenth time. Which is how I ended up here, in the southeast corner of France, not far from both the Swiss and Italian borders, in Alpine ski country.

While other markets get G-Class models such as the Jeep-like G500 Cabriolet and the almost-laughable G65 AMG twin-turbocharged V12 range-topper, Canadians will continue to get a pair of gas-burning, all-wheel-drive, V8 iterations: the G550 4MATIC, and the more flamboyant G63 AMG.

The outgoing 2012 G550 started at $115,000. The last AMG version was the $155,900 G55, in 2011. Mercedes-Benz Canada hasn’t confirmed 2013 pricing yet. But with global demand growing, don’t expect any reductions.

Mercedes is proud that the majority of the G-Class’s exterior body panels haven’t changed since day one.

Its rock-solid, body-on-frame chassis and easy-to-bang-out, garden-shed body styling were never intended to be used for schlepping the kids to violin lessons or getting to charity luncheons in downtown traffic.

But, in another attempt to civilize the G, the 2013 update offers minor changes to the bumpers, grille, lighting, and trim. The most obvious are four AMG sport exhausts that exit in pairs just ahead of the rear tires — just like a Dodge Viper.

In sharp contrast to its retro exterior, Mercedes has tried to modernize the cabin as much as possible. You still sit tall in the saddle, with lots of flat glass for refreshingly excellent visibility. But a new centre console and dash design, with a top-mounted colour screen that mimics an iPad, looks out of place. It’s like catching your baby-boomer father in skinny jeans.

Mechanically, the G550 is the least changed. It gets the same 5.5-litre V8 from last year, making 382 horsepower and 391 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission.

The G63 AMG easily tops the last high-performance G-Wagen. It uses a new twin-turbo 5.5 L eight, rated at 536 hp and 560 lb.-ft. Mercedes calls it “the world’s most powerful standard-fit V8 biturbo.”

It also gets the AMG Speedshift Plus 7G-Tronic gearbox, which has seven gears, three drive modes, and a pair of clutches for quicker gear changes.

Amazingly, with its stop/start technology, the AMG scores better on the European combined city/highway cycle than the more pedestrian G550 — 13.8 L/100 km versus 14.9 for the 550. But those numbers can easily fall to the wayside when using all that’s available under the hood — I averaged more than 20 L/100 km during my time driving the AMG.

There’s not much to say about how the G63 drives. In a straight line, its V8 roars and bellows, hurtling the upright box-on-wheels to 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds — 0.7 seconds quicker than the G550.

However, if you treat the G-Wagen like any other AMG on a twisty Alpine road, its driving characteristics can be summed up in one word: awful.

I can’t remember the last time a new vehicles’ steering, suspension, transmission, driving position, and engine were so diametrically opposed to what the driver is asking for. It’s as if each of these subsystems exist in their own parallel universes.

I actually started to giggle tying to anticipate the twitchy moves around hairpins, waiting for some ill-timed reaction from either corner of the car.

I guess that’s what you get for strapping what is effectively a Saturn V rocket powerplant to an oxcart solid rear axle chassis.

Lowering my expectations to the level of a potential G-class buyer, it’s like a luxury boutique item — making as much practical sense as a Gucci handbag or Rolex watch. But for those who can afford such things, the G-Class has become one of the most desirable vehicles on the planet, sharing garage space with exotic Ferraris and Bentleys.

Cadillac, Range Rover, Lexus, and Porsche offer similarly ridiculous high-performance workhorses. But none have the presence of the G-Wagen. And I suspect the typical buyer wants the Mercedes, and nothing else.

Which pretty much sums up the G-Class’ eternal appeal: it’s so bad, it’s good.

Transportation for freelance writer John LeBlanc was paid for by the manufacturer. editors@straight-six.com

2013 Mercedes-Benz G550; G63 AMG

PRICE: Estimated: $115,000; $165,000

ENGINE: 5.5 L V8; twin-turbo 5.5 L V8

POWER/TORQUE: 382/536 hp; 391/560 lb.-ft.

FUEL COSUMPTION L/100 km: city-highway combined, 14.9; 13.8

COMPETITION: BMW X5M, Cadillac Escalade, Land Rover, Range Rover, Infiniti QX56, Lexus LX 570, Porsche Cayenne Turbo&lt.

WHAT’S BEST: Cult-like status; rock-solid chassis.

WHAT’S WORST: Drives like it was designed in 1979 —oh yeah, it was.

WHAT’S INTERESTING: Since its introduction in 1979, G-class production has been farmed out to Steyr-Puch of Austria.

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