While many SUVs make the transition into the car-based crossover world, the military-grade Mercedes-Benz G-Class trundles on with its planar body, fantastically powerful engine choices, and downright miserable fuel economy.
A competitor only, really, to the Land Rover Range Rover and the former HUMMER H2, the G-Class was bred for the Iranian military in the 1970s. Rather than mothball the project during that country's revolution, Mercedes instead began building and selling the vehicle, which continues to date, in pretty much the same form since the 1980s, though with major upgrades to its interior, drivetrains and safety features.
With its flat sides, nearly vertical windshield, and strikingly boxy body, it's easy to see the martial application of the G-Class. Clamber inside, though, and a truly rich interior with wood paneling and leather upholstery greets drivers and passengers, just as it does in most other Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
Buyers of the $100,000-plus G-Class are offered two choices in performance. The 2011 G550 sports Mercedes' smooth, stalwart 382-horsepower V-8 engine coupled to a seven-speed automatic. The 5.5-liter, 500-hp G55 AMG adds an intercooled supercharger and upgrades to a beefier five-speed automatic to push the barn-door body through the atmosphere. The G550 accelerates to 60 mph in about 8 seconds; the G55 AMG pounces more brutishly to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, while gulping gas to the tune of 11/13 mpg. The smaller V-8 manages 12/15 mpg. The cosmetic distinctions between the two are few, though the G550 has new 18-inch wheels this year, while the G55 AMG has 19-inchers, as well as unique badging and chrome trim, along with illuminated door sills.
Thanks to its enormous curb weight and tall body, the G-Class handles with a top-heavy feel that requires attention in highway driving, particularly in crosswinds. Ultimately, it has astonishing grip, and with the G55's manic power overload, the big SUV can be truly quick. Off-road, it's a billy goat, with exceptional crawling capability and three locking differentials--as well as a true low range--to keep it plugging away in mud, gravel, and snow.