- What’s Good: “King of the road” driving experience, can climb mountains, beautifully finished inside and out.
- What’s Bad: Cramped rear seating area, poor fuel economy.
To live for 40 or more years, nearly unchanged, is something that only a handful of production vehicles have managed to do. The original Mini and the Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle were two that did. Both well ahead of their time when new, they went on to become international cultural icons transcending their proletarian people-mover status. They brought cheap, reliable transportation to millions but were genuine fun to drive and not an embarrassment to own.
And then you have the Mercedes G-Class (known as the Geländewagen, G-Wagen for short, until 1998). An automotive unicorn that was never cheap, or cheerful. A survivor removed from the passage of time. It is one of the very few vehicles of its kind still for sale today. An off-roading savant, if you will. Although, one that seldom, if ever, sees any real off-road duty. G-Class sightings today usually take place close to trendy shopping centres, the financial districts of major cities, and the Hamptons. Loved by Hollywood, major league athletes, musicians, and even the Pope, the G has gained star-status today but it wasn’t always in the limelight.
The idea was born in the early 1970s from what was probably a rather interesting conversation between the Shah of Iran and Mercedes-Benz. The Shah—at the time a major stakeholder in the company—wanted a fleet of light trucks for his army. So Mercedes contacted Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria and together they built the first G-Wagen. Mercedes also produced a civilian version, which was largely the same thing, minus the mounted machine guns.
The Shah was overthrown before he received that order and the surplus of expensive new G-Wagens that Mercedes just made had little appeal to the well-heeled customer of the era. But it did see favour with militaries around the world. In total 63 armies have or still use the Geländewagen (cross-country vehicle) in active duty including the Canadian Army and NATO.
Over the years, various bolt-ons, refinements, and creature comforts like leather seats and modern electronics have been retrofitted to the old skeleton. Mercedes did its best to make the G-Class more liveable and easier to drive on the road, especially as popularity grew. But that tough ladder frame, the live axles, and three locking differentials that allow it go absolutely anywhere on the planet would never truly offer a car-like ride on paved roads.
Being military grade became a big part of the cachet of owning one of these. A roster of celebrity owners also helped. This was a vehicle that Mercedes didn’t expect to be so popular. Even on the used market the G-Class enjoys some of the best resale values in the industry.
So, for the first time in nearly four decades, the G-Wagen was taken back to the drawing board. It was reborn for the 2019 model year, a little wider (131 mm), a little longer (53 mm) and a little taller (15 mm). If you’re having a hard time telling the new one apart, just Google an image of the old one, put them side by side and play spot the differences.
When you see one with your own eyes, it’s easier to tell that this one is new, but only just.
It’s all in the details. The lego-brick two-box design has been smoothed over like someone’s gone over it with a belt sander and taken away all the sharp edges. There are new LED headlights with distinctive ring DRLs, and the externally mounted indicator lights remain. As they should, so you can watch your blinker blink whenever you change lanes.
The centre brake light now lives above the rear window; the rear wiper is hidden behind the spare tire, and just underneath that there’s a secret door covering the rear-view camera. The taillights, no longer afterthoughts, are now elegantly moulded into the bodywork.
But really, it’s not about what’s changed, it’s about what they’ve kept, because this is the type of vehicle that’s timeless, like an expensive Swiss watch. Change too much and it’s no longer a G-Wagen but just another new SUV. And everybody makes those.
Signature details like the protective side strips, exposed door hinges, and the robust feeling push-button door handles carry over. Closing the heavy doors and tailgate on a G-Class produces one of the most satisfying door closing sounds you’ll ever hear. When the power locks engage it could be mistaken for someone pumping a shotgun. And while the styling is largely (exactly) the same, much tighter panel gaps create a more refined, cohesive looking G. The Magno (matte) black paint you see here was a nice addition and looked absolutely stellar, but the $6150 price it commands along with a much stricter maintenance regimen would have me sticking with one of the standard colours.
Also carried over is the tough-as-nails ladder frame and the rear live-axle. There’s more ground clearance than before, a greater breakover angle, and water fording depth has increased by 10 cm. The permanent AWD has a constant torque split of 40:60 and it is the only SUV I can think of that has three locking differentials to claw itself out of just about any situation. There’s also a dedicated low-range button that puts you into an off-road mode aptly named G-Mode. The G-Class was always one of the most capable off-roaders in the world and this new one hasn’t forgotten that.
But the biggest news is a brand new independent front suspension. For the first time ever the G-Class packs double-wishbone suspenders that replace the old live-axle. Tied together with a strut tower brace for additional rigidity and a new electric power steering rack, the G-Class has newfound road manners vastly better than the old one.
The steering is heavy but it’s smooth and accurate. Point the G where you want to go, and it responds quickly. I was expecting to get jostled around in the cabin on rough roads, but the ride was uncannily smooth and serene. Like you’d expect from any Mercedes.
More surprising was the absolute lack of wind noise at highway speeds. Cruising at 120 km/h, in a moving barn, should not be this quiet and effortless, but in this new G-Class, it is.
Mercedes makes some of the most aerodynamic cars in the world. They are known for slippery wind-cheating designs. And then there’s the G-Class, which boasts the aerodynamic properties of a 3-bedroom house. Drive 120km/h in a Jeep Wrangler—a vehicle that shares the same basic shape as a G-Class—and the wind noise is obvious. So the lack of it here is quite astonishing.
Where you do notice the drag, is at the gas pumps. Being as careful as I could with the throttle, an average of 17.8 L/100 km made this one of the thirstiest vehicles I’ve tested in a long time. Only the AMG GT C Roadster was worse and I drove that like a bat out of hell. There is no shortage of power in this G550 though, as the 4.0L twin turbo V8—a lovable brute of an engine—that powers many a Merc pumps out 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. Mash the go pedal and this two and a half ton truck leaps off the line flying to 100 km/h in under 6 seconds, with nearly imperceptible shifts from the new 9-speed automatic.
If that’s not fast enough AMG will be happy to fiddle around with it and change the badge on back to G 63 in exchange for more money. In this form you get a monumental 577 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque, enough for a 4.5 second run to Ontario’s highway speed limit.
If the exterior design changes seemed subtle, the inside is the exact opposite. Mercedes has lifted the large flat panel screens out of the S-Class and plunked them here. The differential lock switches reside front and centre leaving no doubt as to the true nature of the beast. Leather covers virtually every surface and Mercedes’ excellent ambient lighting bathes the entire cabin in whatever colour you desire. The “Oh Crap” bar is still there for the passenger should they ever feel the need to grab on to something. It is also leather covered and finished with expensive looking metal weave trim, ‘cause it’s a G.
Perfect front seats fit like a glove, move in a million different ways, and have a full suite of massage programs like wave, and hot relaxing shoulder. The headlight switch was a bit oddly placed by my knee and was difficult to see, and I had a hard time finding the door handles, believe it or not, as they blend in with the door panel. Otherwise the ergonomics were good, and the large greenhouse-like windows provide excellent outward visibility.
It’s not the most practical vehicle you can buy. Getting in an out can be a tad difficult due to the ride height and narrow running boards. Cargo room is good, but the back seats are a bit cramped for a vehicle of this size. They were tight in the old one and it’s the same thing here. If you’re under 6 feet tall, then it’s fine, but anyone taller riding in the back might not be comfortable for a longer haul.
I had never driven a G-Class prior to this one and I heard from many that the old one was a bit of a lumbering beast, a little clunky, but it felt like it put you in command. Like you could lead the charge towards enemy lines and come out the other end unscathed.
I didn’t find this G550 clunky. Thanks to that new front suspension I found it genuinely easy to drive. And that feeling of being in command? That was there, and then some. The term bank-vault solidity was coined to describe the way a G-Class drives. If you compressed a Panzer tank, threw in massage seats, and large infotainment screens and drove that down the road, it begins to describe what a G feels like.
As far as updates go, Mercedes has done a near perfect job. Everything that was good about the old G-Class is still here but they’ve refined it just enough and added all the tech, safety, and creature comforts you’d expect from a vehicle with this large a price tag.
So many manufacturers have ruined good cars in the name of progress, but that’s not the case here. The thought and attention to detail in every aspect of the G-Class’ design process is clearly evident. After all, this is the longest-running nameplate in the Mercedes lineup and treating it with kid gloves was of the utmost importance.
I have little doubt that it will be kicking around Mercedes showrooms for another 40 years.