The 2016 Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen Is the Most Beautiful Tractor Ever Made

A tough sumbitch SUV? A luxury Popemobile? It’s both!

Mercedes G Wagen Review
Mike Shaffer

Hard to believe, especially if you work for Cadillac or Lincoln, but Mercedes-Benz sold over 380,000 vehicles in the US last year. And quite a few were trucks. The most exclusive of those were G-Class Gelandewagens, all-terrain 4X4s better known as G-Wagens for short. Again hard to believe, but the G-Wagen is the oldest surviving Mercedes-Benz model that’s still in production, besides the Unimog, which isn’t available in this country and you probably haven’t heard of it anyway. The G-Wagen is virtually hand-built by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, and it dates back to 1979.

Reportedly, the idea for the G-Wagen first came from the late Shah of Iran in the 1970s (he was a big Mercedes shareholder), and it was first produced as a light armored military patrol vehicle, before being converted for civilian use. Talk about exclusivity: Pope Francis is frequently driven in a modified G-Wagen; the US Marines once bought 157 of them; and it’s a frequent “Off-Road Vehicle of the Year.”

What’s the real attraction? In today’s era, where swoopy, aerodynamic designs rule, the G-Wagen is as square-rigged and solid as a brick, and with an electronic traction control system, a transfer case, and three locking differentials, it’s as tough as any civilian vehicle you can buy.

M-B execs have threatened to drop the venerable G-Wagen a few times, because they don’t sell a lot of them here, and the latest Mercedes-Benz topline GLS, “now the S-Class of SUVs,” certainly upstages the old-timey “Geepster” in luscious accouterments. But the boxy old G has a loyal following of celebrities, jet-setters, and automotive insiders, who revel in its exclusivity and don’t mind its rough rider ways. Annual volume is over 3,600 in the States.

Never mind that the people buying this truck are honking their horn impatiently at Beverly Hills stoplights, while texting and talking on the phone simultaneously.

Mercedes-Benz values these high-zoot buyers, so to cosset them, they’ve kept the G-Wagen looking like it did in 1979, save for a few discreet external changes. They’ve updated the steering, drivetrain, electronics, and safety features. So you may still be partying like it’s 1979, but you can seriously haul ass in this thing, and if you do have an accident, you’re well-protected. Take one of these tractors off-road, and nothing will stop you. This is the original Mercedes SUV that the Range Rovers and Land Cruisers wish they were. Never mind that the people buying this truck probably aren’t tearing it up off road; they’re honking their horn impatiently at Beverly Hills stoplights, while texting and talking on the phone simultaneously. But anyway.

Mike Shaffer

The downside? New G-Wagens start at a $119,900 MSRP for a 416-hp G550 with a 4.0-liter bi-turbo V-8. You’ll jump to $139,900 for an AMG G63 with a 563-hp bi-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 and soar to $217,900 for the King of the Hill, an AMG G65, powered by a hand-built, 621-hp 6-liter bi-turbo V-12 that churns out a 738 lbs/ft of torque. (Add $925 for delivery and destination changes.)

We drove the new line of G-Wagens in Gateway, Colorado, and we hustled over to Moab, Utah, to check out the Arches National Park, with its incredible array of sculpted rock scenery. There are over 2,000 catalogued stone arches there, along with wind-formed pinnacles, and precariously balanced house-sized rocks. If one of those stone lumps fell on a G-Wagen, you probably wouldn’t even feel it.

We didn’t do much off-road driving this trip, but I know from past G-Wagen experience in dirt, mud, and sand that this puppy is flat unstoppable. On the road, the G-Wagen feels surprisingly contemporary, and its overall ride is balanced and nicely modulated. The G’s relatively short wheelbase contributes to some noticeable, but not annoying, chop on irregular surfaces, but the taut steering and excellent brakes, along with tons of power, no matter whether you choose eight or twelve cylinders, simply overwhelms anything.

Mike Shaffer

The base G550 makes do with a sixth generation 7G-Tronic automatic; the upper crust variants have an AMG Speed shift Plus 7G-Tronic. Fuel economy—if you can call it that—averages 13 to 14 mpg, but these buyers don’t care, especially with premium fuel hovering at $2.50 per gallon. The base G550 positively rockets to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, and has adjustable suspension (a first on a G-Wagen), and its faster companions manage that sprint in a tad over 5-seconds. Even in the Fatherland, Mercedes-Benz electronically caps these trucks at 155 mph, but you can probably get a chip in Germany that will allow you to nudge the 180s range before wind resistance kicks in.

Electronic bells and whistles include a state-of-the-art infotainment and safety detection system, beaucoup airbags, Parktronic parking assist (the machine can parallel park itself, which in a truck this big, can seriously come in handy), and Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control (cruise control that will slow the car down if the car in front of you slows down). You get Blind Spot Assist, a radar-based Brake Assist System (the car can brake itself if you’re headed for disaster), a rear-view camera and permanent all-wheel drive. The G63 AMG has ECO start/stop. The others are spared that nanny feature. (I hate the little jolt when it kicks in.) There’s a very decent NAV system with voice controls.

Mike Shaffer

Base G550s sport 19-inch wheels, then you step up progressively to 20s and 21s with red-painted brake calipers on the upper crust variants. You can tow your boat easily thanks to Trailer Stability Assist with a HOLD function. And if you want to customize the already very elegant interior, M-B offers a few options from its designo range, that will please the fussiest decorator.

In short, the G-wagen delivers every performance attribute, along with lots of character for your money. This is the ultimate on-and-off-roader, an all-pro linebacker in a bespoke tuxedo. It’s been that way for nearly 40 years—and it still is.

Mike Shaffer