New & Used Mercedes-Benz G-Class: In Depth
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For more than 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.
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.
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. The engines change again for 2016. The base G550 swaps out its naturally aspirated 388-horsepower 5.5-liter V-8 for a 416-horsepower twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8. The G63 AMG's twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V-8 gets a bump in horsepower from 544 to 563, and Mercedes also brings back the V-12-powered G65 AMG, now with 621 horsepower and massive 738 pound-feet of torque. Other 2016 changes for the Geländewagen include new bumpers, adjustable shocks for the G550, a new gauge design, and an expanded color palette.
See our review of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz G-Class for pricing with options, specifications, and gas mileage ratings.
Originally developed for the Shah of Iran and German for 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 it wasn't 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 version in the G55 AMG. Fuel economy has never been a strong point for the G-Wagen, dipping down as low 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, entry/exit is challenging, and the seats are somewhat flat with short bottom cushions. Although today's G-Wagen has 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, though 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 changed very little in the time iit has been on sale here, but an updated version arrived to the U.S. market for the 2013 model year. At that time, the 388-horsepower G550 was 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 also operates an 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. At the 2015 Geneva Motor Show, Mercedes also unveiled 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. It is called the G500 4x4^2, and it is currently available overseas. This model's shorter length compared to the 6x6 certainly makes it more maneuverable off-road, not to mention friendlier to city streets and garages, assuming it isn't too tall to clear the entrance. Its high-clearance axles let it roll over just about anything on its 18-inch beadlock wheels wrapped in aggressive off-road rubber.
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. However, the company has decided to keep production going until at least 2019.