2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 is a cubic yard of opulence, but it hasn’t lost its capability
On road or off, the newest Mercedes G-Class is truly in a class of its own
The rules of automaker product cycles never quite applied to the G-Class from the very start — it was a military vehicle that over time became a Range Rover competitor. It didn’t happen overnight, but by the mid-1980s, the G-Class was already the toy of the leisure class, the kind that tended to keep a luxury 4×4 at a country house and another in the city.
By the 1990s the G-Class, with a few interior updates, had fully morphed into an urban luxury SUV in European cities, landing as such in the wealthy zip codes of the U.S. by the end of the decade. But that first G-Class model never quite escaped its military roots.
The new model closely tracks the design of the original — Mercedes was wise enough not to mess with the overall look, knowing that it’s a part of the G-wagen’s brand — so the new G550 is a technological and engineering update more than anything else, with almost 40 years of progress packed in. The biggest departure design-wise is the width of the new G-Class: it’s 4.8 inches wider, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s something your will register visually without seeing the old and new model side by side. It’s also 2.1 inches longer overall — a difference that’s harder to detect — while the wheelbase has been stretched by just 1.6 inches.
To avoid diluting “the brand,” Mercedes even kept the rectangular turn indicators that sit on top of the front fenders — without them the new G-Class would look very different. Other stylistic changes that will probably stick out are the corners of the window frames, which are rounder this time around, but the headlights with LED rings around their perimeter will be the easiest way to tell the new G-Class apart from the old one. (Except for — you know — the width).
If the exterior is mostly old, in terms of pure design, what’s in the skin and underneath the skin is mostly new. And that includes the skin, with the doors, fenders and hood now being made out of aluminum, to shave off as much weight where possible. The body, meanwhile, is a mix of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel. But lest you get scared that this is a unibody vehicle, amounting to a cleverly disguised GLE-Class wearing a “retro” body, let us reassure you that it is not: Mercedes has kept the ladder frame, while also managing to shave off weight compared to the old model. The biggest change when it comes to the suspension is that up front it’s a double wishbone setup instead of a live axle — that’s one system that needed an update a long time ago — and it’s here to improve the handling and ride characteristics.
The mostly new qualifier applies to the engine as well, because it’s a carryover, which makes it sound old even though it isn’t. Under the still-boxy hood of the G550 is a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 producing 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. But the transmission is new, as Mercedes ditched the somewhat aged seven-speed automatic in favor of a 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic. While in the old old G-Class models you had to flick one of several transmission tunnel-mounted levers for off-roading, in the new G-Class it’s simply a selectable G-Mode that automatically alters the suspension, steering, transmission and engine characteristics for off-road driving. About the only thing the G-Class doesn’t do automatically for you is drive you along a trail, but that’s only because there are no lane markings and because the trail is not mapped via GPS. So you still have to do the driving yourself, thankfully.
Speaking of trail driving, the new G-Class has not become an urban luxury toy in this redesign process even though it wears giant wheels as standard equipment: Mercedes has actually improved the departure and breakover angles of the new model while keeping the approach angle the same. So you could take it off-road if you want to by simply pressing G-Mode — that’s what being in the 21st century is for.
When it comes to the interior Mercedes fitted the G550 with all of its latest tech, from infotainment to safety, but it kept some of the look of the old model’s squared-off, militaristic interior. This makes for an interesting combination of right angles, diamond-quilted leather surfaces, more right angles, 64-color ambient lighting, a giant amusement park ride-style horizontal handle for the front passengers and a wide infotainment screen that flows into the completely digital gauge cluster. It’s a wonderful mix of old and new.
Mercedes’ most notable achievement in reengineering the G-Class for the first time in decades appears to have been capturing most of the dynamics of the outgoing model, and translating them into an all-new vehicle that looks a lot like the old one on the outside, but where everything is different. The G550 still has the handling of a heavy vehicle with all that that entails, so don’t expect the reflexes of a GLC-Class.
Everything in the G550 communicates a sense of weight, including the doors, but once inside you’re suddenly in a tub of expensive-smelling leather that seems to cover every square inch of the interior that isn’t glass. That’s not an exaggeration: even the interior of the trunk door of the G550 features the same diamond-quilted padding as the rest of the cabin. It’s almost too nice to put anything back there that isn’t an expensive leather bag, to the point that I stopped to think if my two-decade-old Rollaboard could scuff the interior of that door somehow.
Driving dynamics in the G550 are also on the heavy side. It has plenty of power in a straight line, producing a low and guttural soundtrack with liberal applications of the throttle that reminded me a bit of American muscle cars. But that power is best used in a straight line because the G550 is still tall, heavy and filled with tons of systems. It’s not an SUV that likes to be hustled or hurried — the G550 does not reward impatient driving, and you would simply become tired of making it impersonate something like the tiny GLA-Class. This is why you never see them zip around corners, or appear suddenly from somewhere — you hear them rumbling from a couple of hundred yards away, and then they slowly enter into view.
The G550 rewards deliberate and well-planned steering inputs and deliberate acceleration, because you will feel every single pound of this vehicle while driving it even through the now-softer steering and the more forgiving independent front suspension. It will go right and it will go left, but only if you think through those maneuvers a second or two ahead of time. Don’t expect nuanced feedback from the steering wheel in everyday driving, because you won’t get it. Lock to lock it’s a long trip, and the new electrically assisted steering does not make the G-Class a rally fighter.
If there is one thing (and it’s only one thing) that prevents the G550 from being held back by its own sheer mass, it’s the 4.0-liter biturbo V8. When pointed in the right direction, the V8 can ditch traffic behind while blasting it with its low exhaust note. It’s the kind of exhaust you feel in your chest rather than hear, even inside the SUV itself.
Having driven the outgoing model, if there is one thing about the interior of the new G-Class that was a very welcome change it’s the position of the pedals. In the old W463 G-Class the driver and passenger footwells were too shallow, and the pedals seemed suspended from the bottom of the instrument panel, so pressing them was a bit like tapping large piano keys on the floor.
The redesigned seating position has permitted a more “civilian-spec” posture, allowing one to recline a little and enjoy the multimedia. The infotainment experience, the engine, and the acres of leather are about the only thing that the G-Class has in common with other Mercedes SUVs. And that’s not a bad thing.
The G-Class is more advanced than ever, more on-road friendly than ever, and more off-road capable than ever. And it’s also more plush and more expensive than ever. But then again, this is not a practical choice for city or suburban driving, which is where the vast majority of these vehicles will be used.
It won’t be off-road enthusiasts buying the G550 to get them scratched up in the Australian outback. (For one thing, you need to be close to a gas station if you own a G550, and they can be far apart in the Australian outback). It’ll be on-road enthusiasts in Shanghai, Moscow, Dubai and New York who will be buying these to run errands and to park in front of fancy restaurants.
But you could go to the Australian outback in one of these, or to Mongolia, and be very comfortable indeed.