Mercedes G550 Earns Our 21-Gun Salute
The military-grade German SUV was around when the Berlin Wall was still standing, but it still charms the Lederhosen off us, every time.
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I’m an easy mark for artifacts of the late Seventies and early Eighties: Music from The Clash to Depeche Mode; directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg at the top of their games; and of course the serially underrated Porsche 911 SC.
Maybe that’s why I can’t resist the Mercedes G550. This antediluvian 4x4 was the Seventies suggestion of the Shah of Iran, a big Mercedes shareholder who put in an order for 20,000 military-grade trucks. The Shah was overthrown and exiled by the Islamic revolution before he could take delivery, but the Geländewagen, or G-Wagen, lived on. Since 1979, the civilian version has been largely hand-built in Graz, Austria, and the G-Class (as it’s been renamed) has performed military duty for Austria and more than 60 other nations. Mercedes has pledged to produce the G-Class as a NATO support vehicle through 2025.
So while the G-Class is a proud perennial, it can also seem a washed-up joke, the Gallagher of SUV’s. Its recirculating-ball steering is a technology that dates to the Twenties, meaning the 1920’s. On normal pavement, the best approach to the G-Class is to pretend you’re driving an old John Deere, with a jar of moonshine in your lap that you don’t want to spill. This tippy-feeling beast weighs 5,700 pounds, and rear-seat legroom is surprisingly cramped. The back end shuffles over bumps, and the jittery steering demands constant oversight. Yet as former off-roaders like the Toyota 4Runner have gone soft or disappeared entirely, the G-Class has stuck to its guns, formed from solid steel, naturally.
Did I mention that I still love the G-Class? Or that, if I were wealthy, I would buy one as my go-to for skiing and outdoor adventure? Driving the G-Glass, rolling up to a Manhattan restaurant, imagining driving it through the restaurant—this Mercedes still puts a smile on my face like few new vehicles.
The irrepressible charm of its boxy utilitarian design, which turns any driver into the Rambo of his or her subdivision, helps explain why followers will happily shell out $123,325 to start for the new G550 -- or even $220,000 for the AMG G65 version with its twin-turbo V12. For Mercedes, that AMG G65 is the sucker play, a way to soak up profits and soak buyers who have more money than sense. More power to them, in this case, 621 utterly superfluous horsepower. A 563-horsepower AMG G63 starts from $140,000, a more-reasonable $17,000 upcharge from the G550. And for the ultimate in Dubai dick-in-a-box, there’s the upcoming 99 copies of the lunatic, perhaps-$500,000 Mercedes-Maybach G650 Landaulet, whose nearly two-foot wheelbase stretch makes room for S-Class-style rear seats under a motorized fabric top. Even the G550, the new starter model, brings an over-capable engine for a truck that’s designed more for crawling over obstacles in low-range 4WD: The biturbo 4.0-liter V8 from the AMG GT sports car supplies 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. Imagine sitting atop a brick, then blasting said brick from a cannon, and you’ll have an idea of what it feels like to careen from 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds in the G550.
The G-man’s body has barely changed over four decades, from its near-vertical windshield and side glass to the spare tire hung from a side-hinged tailgate; there’s only so much you can do with a box. (My tester’s brick-red Designo paint, which Mercedes calls Paprika Metallic, was a knockout, $6,500 change-of-pace from the usual classic silver or black). Doors operate with old-fashioned pushbutton handles and close with the reassuring thunk of a walk-in freezer, appropriate for an SUV that's shaped like a refrigerator box. Nineteen-inch, AMG black alloy wheels looked positively kickass. Those optional five-spoke beauties are also a surprising bargain at just $500, though they’re clearly designed more for urban flaunting than muddy four-wheeling.
The cabin is where the G-Class has steadily improved, from the original's metal-lined foot locker to today’s (reasonably) deluxe Benz. Even by the early Eighties, Mercedes was taking inspiration from the new Range Rover and reimagining the Geländewagen as a status symbol for luxury buyers. So the G-Class’ parts-bin cabin is like the rings of a hardy tree, allowing you to chart the evolution of the G-Class and Mercedes itself. Pleated, porcelain Nappa leather on seats and doors creates a posh tuxedo effect with contrasting black trim, and the four-spoke steering wheel and deep-set gauges look the luxury part. New Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility seems almost futuristic in this context. The COMAND infotainment system also ranks among newer elements, its modest display screen tacked onto the upper dash. Yet even that’s a relic compared with the lavish dual-screen COMAND displays on the S-Class, E-Class and other modern Benzes. Moving backwards in time, the seat switches must be three generations old in Mercedes’ terms, including awkward rotary dials along the inboard seat cushions that inflate various pneumatic bolsters. Ditto for the vertical center stack and its dated, numbered keypad for presets and phone calls. But some good things never change, including the watchtower-tall seating posture and a remarkably low beltline, which offers unimpeded views across any DMZ you could imagine.
And there’s no G-Class without its secret weapons, led by three silver buttons that control a trio of independent locking differentials for the center driveline and solid axles both front and rear. Designed only for low-speed, off-pavement operation, the locking diffs can be adjusted on-the-fly, allowing the G-Class to tackle terrain that only Hummers, Wranglers and a few other production vehicles would dare. That includes 10 inches of ground clearance below the differentials, and roughly 14 inches on either side of the diffs. The Mercedes can climb or descend a daunting 45-degree grade, negotiate impossible-seeming side slopes with up to 54 degrees of body tilt, or wade through water that’s two feet deep.
Since Mercedes realizes most owners will stick to pavement – feel free to roll your eyes at these posers – it’s done what it can to tame the G-Class’ primitive behavior in public. The new V8 is stronger and far torquier than the previous, naturally-aspirated 5.5-liter, and its turbo-boosted power delivery is smoother. The engine sounds great, ballsy and urgent, linked to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Just as importantly, a tweaked suspension and less-intrusive stability control system make the G-Class feel less like a fish out of water (or maybe a bear out of the woods) on pavement. Dial the adaptive dampers to their firmer sport setting, and the G-Class may at least keep up with a Toyota Corolla through turns without feeling like it’s about to off-road into the nearest ditch.
With the G-Class approaching its fortieth year in service -- an honorable career even by military standards, but as grizzled as a D-Day vet among showroom models --even Mercedes sees the fading writing on the wall. The company is developing an all-new, four-inch-wider G-Class that looks to preserve its off-road cred while making a needed leap into the 21st century.
Until then, let’s salute this G550, even if it’s the 21-gun variety, for staying true to its mission while other hardcore SUV’s have come and gone. Why does the G550, the most-affordable G-Class, cost as much as four Jeep Wranglers? No reason at all. And that’s the secret of the truck that fans will forever know as the G-Wagen. It’s an SUV that stopped making sense a long time ago. And that’s why we love it.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.