The verdict: Bigger, more spacious and more luxurious than ever, the new G-Wagen is an excellent update to a global icon.
Versus the competition: When talking about super-expensive luxury SUVs that can bound over just about anything, there aren’t many contenders. Land Rover’s Range Rover lineup is the main target, featuring larger, more spacious SUVs that work better than the G-Class but lack its iconic styling. Both Porsche and Maserati make more athletic, on-road-performance SUVs that are comparably priced.
Imagine the most expensive Jeep Wrangler you can fathom: compromised interior space, boxy styling, comfortable but not too comfortable, bouncy and loud inside. Now update the interior with the nicest leather, wood and metal you can imagine, downgrade the tires to on-road high-speed meats and tack $100,000 onto the price tag. That’s what the Mercedes-Benz G-Class used to be.
But for 2019, Mercedes-Benz has updated its icon with a host of improvements designed to make buyers feel less remorse about shelling out a huge sum of money for an off-road truckster. And guess what? It worked. The G-Wagen — short for Gelandewagen (or “cross-country vehicle”), the name the G-Class had for decades and one that’s still preferred by enthusiasts worldwide — has been stretched, softened, silenced and slicked up to new levels of luxury and capability. No longer a Wrangler that’s gone to a fancy European finishing school, it’s finally a legit Range Rover competitor.
A Familiar Face
Despite the 2019’s stretched wheelbase and larger overall dimensions, Mercedes kept all the design elements that make the G-Wagen the G-Wagen. The boxy shape, the chiseled fenders topped with huge turn-signal/marker lights, those round headlights (now LEDs), the minimalist taillights (also now LEDs) and the side-opening swing gate are all nearly identical to the old model. The looks haven’t changed much since its introduction in the mid-1970s.
That side-hinged hatch is heavy and annoying; a swing-up liftgate would be more convenient, but there are a few of these sorts of nods to tradition in the G-Wagen that are critical to maintaining its classic status. Most notable are the door handles and locks — total throwbacks to cars from the 1970s and 1980s, complete with a pushbutton action on the exterior handles and a crazy-loud “CLACK” when the truck is locked or unlocked. It sounds like the actuation of a rifle bolt — because that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.
The doors close with a mechanical precision sound that you just don’t hear on modern vehicles, but which is so aurally satisfying. Mercedes-Benz made very sure to keep that iconic noise and action for the new G-Wagen; the door handles are one of just a handful of bits carried over directly from the old model.
The Beating Heart of a Monster
The G550 looks the part of a monster off-roader, with tall slab sides and an upright greenhouse, but it also sounds like one thanks to the G550’s standard twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 engine. It’s the same power plant you’ll find under the shapely hood of a Mercedes-AMG GT coupe or E63 AMG super sedan. Here, it makes a more-than-adequate 416 horsepower and 450 pounds-feet of torque, passing that power through a nine-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels thanks to permanent all-wheel drive.
The AWD system features three switches on the dash that 99 percent of owners will never touch, except maybe out of curiosity. They control the sequentially locking differentials that help the G-Wagen traverse just about any terrain its tires can conquer. I say this because simply flipping those switches in muddy terrain isn’t going to help the average G-Wagen owner very much, as the tires on most models are strictly on-road, high-speed luxury SUV tires not made for traversing anything more serious than a gravel road to the polo fields. You’ll need some more serious all-terrain tires to make good use of the G-Wagen’s off-road abilities.
When it is on-road, the G-Wagen is far more pleasant than it used to be. Acceleration is brutally quick thanks to the immediacy of the twin-turbo V-8’s torque delivery, and it comes in a seamless rush thanks to the smoothness of the transmission’s shifts. The G-Wagen doesn’t handle all that well thanks to its tall stature and hefty mass, but it won’t embarrass itself on faster sweepers or make you nervous about maintaining your lane on a highway — unless you get a stiff side wind, which can turn the truck into something of a sailboat. Such is the price one pays for big, boxy styling.
Braking performance is excellent, with firm, direct stops accompanied by less nosedive than previous models exhibited. The G550 doesn’t have quite the athletic provenance of the Range Rover, but it makes up for it with the nostalgia factor. You can now drive a G550 every day and not feel like you’re making any compromises.
You will, however, pay a price at the pump. Owners of the G-Wagen can’t care about fuel economy, because it’s dismal: 13/17/14 mpg city/highway/combined. It’s a horrifying rating these days, but when you throw a box on 20-inch wheels down the road at 70 mph, that’s the price you pay. My observed fuel economy after more than 500 miles of highway driving was 16.5 mpg. Ouch. The Range Rover Supercharged with its supercharged 5.0-liter V-8 engine is rated 16/21/18 mpg but is far more aerodynamic than the Benz, with a slippery shape that looks more modern than the G-Wagen. A Porsche Cayenne Turbo is rated 15/19/17 mpg (not much better than the G-Wagen), and a Maserati Levante GTS with its smaller, twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-8 gets a similarly awful 14/18/15 mpg. Compare them all here.
A Classy Cabin
Inside is where Mercedes-Benz made most of its more dramatic changes. The interior is completely new, taking a page out of the S-Class’ style book to create one of the most attractive, luxurious, sumptuous cabins I’ve ever seen in a luxury vehicle. It’s a hike up into the cabin, as it sits quite high off the ground, but once you’re there the view is commanding.
The boxy front end and fender-topping marker lights are extraordinary to behold, and they combine with the close, flat windshield to highlight the G-Wagen’s military roots. That’s exactly where the military tie-in ends, however; the dashboard has two 12.3-inch flat panel displays for the multimedia and gauge cluster, just like much of the rest of Mercedes’ lineup (see the interiors of the S-Class, E-Class, A-Class, etc.). A multicolor ambient lighting setup allows you to customize the look of your G-Wagen’s interior considerably, though some of the lighting options didn’t really work with my test vehicle’s bright-red designo Nappa leather interior.
The front seats are big and comfortable, and the cabin features more width than before: 2 inches more hip room, 1 inch more shoulder room, and 1.5 inches more legroom up front. It’s in back that you really notice the improvement, though: There’s a whopping 6 inches more legroom in the backseat versus the outgoing model, which was surprisingly cramped for such a big SUV. Previously, you had to slide the front seats forward a considerable distance if you wanted to fold the second row down, but that’s not required anymore, making it easier to carry cargo and maintain a comfortable driving position. If you have passengers, they’ll also be far happier in that backseat than before, as legroom and headroom are now adequate for human occupation. That change makes the G-Wagen a bit more competitive with larger vehicles like the Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne and Maserati Levante. There’s no extended-wheelbase version like the Range Rover has, but with a new GLS-Class coming for 2020, there doesn’t need to be.
Upgraded Tech, But Not the Latest Stuff
The twin 12.3-inch display screens definitely look slick in the G-Wagen, but we’re disappointed the SUV still has Mercedes’ old-style Comand multimedia system instead of the new MBUX interface we’ve enjoyed on the latest Benzes, like the GLE-Class and A-Class. MBUX apparently requires a different electrical architecture that the G-Wagen didn’t get in this latest redo.
The G550 does feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but it also has touch-sensitive controllers on the steering wheel that are maddeningly easy to activate accidentally. Those controllers are the only blemish on the control system for the G-Wagen. Otherwise, it’s a fully modern look that doesn’t use center console touch-sensitive controls, as do many competitors — like Audi, Jaguar and Land Rover — instead relying on conventional buttons and a large rotary controller to make everything work.
The G-Class has not been crash-tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as is common with super-expensive, limited-volume luxury vehicles. But it does have a considerable amount of safety equipment installed, including automatic emergency braking, Distronic automatic cruise control, lane keep assist, active park assist, blind spot warning and more.
It Didn’t Get Any Cheaper
Of course, with a redesign comes a new price: The G550 starts at $125,495, including delivery fee from its factory in Graz, Austria. My test vehicle included some optional items, like a carbon fiber package, active suspension, the widescreen multimedia cluster, an AMG styling package (including flared fenders, lettered brake calipers and sport exhaust), a “Night” styling package with blacked-out trim and the Exclusive Interior Package, which covers everything in Nappa leather and adds multicontour front seats. The total for my test vehicle was a hefty $149,015.
There’s a surprising number of vehicles operating in this price category. The most direct competitor is Land Rover’s Range Rover, which has a wider price range but offers other powertrains and a long-wheelbase version. They’re pretty comparable in their off-road abilities, as well; both rely pretty heavily on electronics to cross difficult terrain that the vast majority of their owners will never visit. The Porsche Cayenne doesn’t even pretend to be an off-roader, and that’s OK; the turbocharged model matches up well against the G-Wagen in terms of style and on-road cachet, but the Cayenne is far more sporty and civilized on the street. Finally, the Maserati Levante doesn’t get mentioned much, but the GTS version deserves consideration in this field given its luxurious cabin, outstanding driving dynamics and quasi-exotic brand pedigree. Compare all four here.
So the new G-Wagen maintains its iconic status, adds a very healthy dose of newfound civility, luxury and utility, and retains its lofty price in order to protect its exclusivity. It was the height of irresponsibility to love the old one as much as we did and it continues to be an irrational decision to love the new one, and yet we do. Jeep Wrangler owners love their rigs despite their flaws and quirks. Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen owners are exactly the same — they’re just more well-off.
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