New & Used Mercedes-Benz G-Class: In Depth
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For nearly three decades, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, also known as the Geländewagen, has kept basically the same design combining luxury with military-grade off-road capability.
But the big G's level of amenities and engines has changed over the years, with the latest models providing the nicest trappings and silly amounts of power. Currently, two G-Class models are sold in the U.S., the G550 and the G63 AMG. The Geländewagen gets a few light refreshes for 2016 including new bumper covers and color options.
See our review of the 2015 Mercedes-Benz G-Class for pricing with options, specifications, and gas mileage ratings.
A boxy, tall, flat-sided SUV, the G-Class is unique in its design and its longevity, with only the Jeep Wrangler lending the same off-road-centric, retro feel. Those who want the same kind of old-school manners would have to otherwise consider a used Land Rover Defender or ancient Toyota Land Cruiser, now that the entire HUMMER brand has been consigned to history's junkyard and Toyota has discontinued the FJ Cruiser.
Originally developed for the Shah of Iran and German army use, but introduced for civilian buyers in 1979, the G-Class hasn’t changed much over the years. Instead, it has developed a loyal international following from off-road enthusiasts and military buffs. Hand-assembled in Austria, the G-Wagen fit the part of basic off-roader at first, with a modest lineup of gasoline and diesel engines and three body styles—two- or four-door hardtop, or two-door softtop. Although never officially sold in the U.S., a number of G-Wagens were imported as a gray-market product and sold to the wealthy as a status symbol in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, a V-8 version had been introduced, as well as a power-convertible version, and interior appointments became more luxurious.
Mercedes finally began importing the G-Class to the U.S. for the 2002 model year. It was initially offered here only as the V-8-powered, 292-hp G500; the AMG-tuned G55 followed a year later with 349 hp and later got a power upgrade to 476 hp thanks to a supercharged V-8. For 2012, Mercedes offered a 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 in the G550 and a 500-hp engine in the G55 AMG. Fuel economy has never been a strong point for the G-Wagen, dipping down as much as 11/13 mpg city/highway for the thirstier AMG model.
Driving the G-Wagen is unlike piloting any newer vehicle. The beltline is rather low, and passengers are surrounded by tall glass windows, with a good view ahead over the hood. There’s barely seating for five, and entry/exit is challenging, but the seats themselves are quite nicely formed. Although newer versions of the G-Wagen have plenty of power on tap, the big ute feels top-heavy and cumbersome and won’t respond kindly to quick changes of direction. There’s also considerably more road noise than anything else in the Mercedes-Benz stable, although upholstery and trim are top-notch, with heated-and-cooled seats, a heated-steering wheel, and a leather-padded dash.
The G-Class has been largely carried over in the time that it has been on sale here, but an updated version arrived to the U.S. market in the 2013 model year. The 388-horsepower G550 is joined by a revamped AMG model, the G63, outfitted with a new twin-turbo, 5.5-liter V-8 with 544 horsepower, a stop/start system, and a seven-speed automatic. Most other hardware was carried over, but American versions got new round dials in the instrument cluster, a fixed LCD screen mounted on top of the dash for display of the navigation system, and the latest version of Mercedes' COMAND infotainment controller, which now also operates its app and connectivity suite, called mbrace2.
Mercedes-Benz recently ended limited production of a special 6x6 (six-wheeled, six-wheel-drive) version of the G-Class outfitted with a small pickup bed in the back. About a hundred were built, with price tags exceeding half a million dollars. Mercedes is planning to offer a 4x4 version with the same enhanced off-roading equipment—including high-clearance portal axles and modified suspension with remote-reservoir shocks—but in the normal G-Class body. This shorter length will certainly make it more maneuverable off-road, not to mention friendlier to city streets and garages, assuming it isn't too tall to clear the entrance. A concept version of that model was unveiled in Geneva in 2015, called the G500 4x4^2. It was shown in an electric lime green hue, with the same high-clearance axles letting it roll over just about anything on its 18-inch beadlock wheels wrapped in aggressive off-road rubber. It also uses Mercedes's 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 instead of the 5.5-liter V-8 we're used to in the G550; the newer engine will be fitted on future versions of the G550 sold here.
Mercedes has announced a few updates to the G-Class for 2016. The exterior styling gets a mild update with new bumper covers and revised cladding, as well as a few high-impact colors which may or may not be offered in our market. Under the hood, the G550 gets an upgrade to the more modern twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 that is found in several other Mercedes products; the engine puts out a stout 416 hp here. The G63 gets a power boost, to 563 hp, while Mercedes will finally bring the V-12-powered G65 AMG to the U.S., making 621 hp and 737 lb-ft of torque. The monstrous SUV's suspension has also been retuned.
A few times in the past, the G-Class has been close to being axed, with Mercedes-Benz unsure whether it should continue to engineer and develop future models, given such niche appeal. The company has decided to keep production going through at least 2015--and it is negotiating to keep assembly running through 2019.