2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
May 24, 2012

It has more power and more luxury features than ever, but the G Class' boxy charm and its hardcore off-road talent remain intact.

Whether you think "gangsta" or "Gelaendewagen" when you hear the letter "G," the Mercedes-Benz G Class probably fits your visual definition. It's boxy, brash, blingy, so out of date it's hopelessly hip. It's an Instagram version of the past, like playing Atari 2600 games on an iPad.

Best of all, the G Class is authentically an SUV--not a curvy crossover, not a control freak that strips the fun of challenging off-roading out of your hands. Based on a design said to have been built for the Shah of Iran's military, back in the late 1970s, the G-Class has evolved only when it had to, meeting safety and emissions regulations and the luxury needs of the day as they popped up in its more than 33 years on sale. It's an automotive piece of amber jewelry, preserved in one form, recast as a pretty bauble for another purpose entirely.

It's one of the most capable sport-utes on the planet-and one of the most expensive. With a base price of more than $100,000, the G Class is a cult object and a celebrity magnet, with its only real competition being the Land Rover Range Rover or, possibly, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX 570 twins. Even in that very small competitive set, it stands out in sharp relief. The sides are flat, the roofline high and horizontal, the outline relentlessly rectilinear. It's been softened inside, though, with a new set of gauges this year, a big LCD screen for infotainment features, and through the years, layer upon layer of leather, wood, and chrome to disguise its origins.

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The 2013 G Class is carried over in base form as the G550, powered by a 5.5-liter V-8 with 388 horsepower, coupled to a seven-speed automatic, with power channeled through its four-wheel-drive system, low and high ranges, and three locking differentials. The twin-turbocharged version of the same V-8 nets out at 544 hp in the G63 AMG, shaving almost a second from the G550's 0-60 mph time of 6.0 seconds--down to 5.3 seconds--though they share a limited top speed of 130 mph and abysmal gas mileage of 12/15 mpg, and possibly less.

On-road performance is about what you'd think. The top-heavy feel and hefty controls demand attention, though electric steering feels lighter than the former recirculating-ball setup. Astonishing ultimate grip gets tempered often by aggressive traction and stability control--and it has to, to manage the G's plentiful body roll. Ride quality's managed well enough for such a rugged ute, though noise levels climb on textured pavement and gravel paths. The G's appeal is all about the latter, and once it's off any kind of graded path, it shines. Locking any or all of the differentials exposes the real SUV underneath the layers of refinement, and it just keeps clawing its way over rocky paths and plugging through muddy bogs, places where you'll only find Defenders and other endangered species.

Inside, the G-Class impresses with all the headroom you're likely to need. It is somewhat narrow, though, and front-seat passengers will notice the width the most since the center console is fairly tall and bulky. The seats themselves are typically firm and power-adjustable, with multicontour adjustments. The second-row bench has some bottom-cushion tilt to soften the flat cushion. It's a five-seat SUV with plenty of cargo room, but passengers will notice it takes a good climb to get into the G-Class, and cargo loading through the side-hinged rear door takes a higher lift than in today's crossovers. High-quality materials and an excellent finish mark the cabin.

Neither the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) nor the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) has crash-tested the G-Class. Anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution along with stability control are standard in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class, as are side-seat and curtain airbags. A rearview camera is standard, and it's useful since visibility is constrained at the rear, where a wide frame surrounding the rear window blocks out most of the view. A lane-departure warning system and blind-spot monitors are new additions to the safety list.

Those upgrades are joined by more infotainment features than ever. Each G Class has Bluetooth connectivity, a sunroof, a navigation system with 40GB of hard drive space for maps and music, a six-DVD audio system, satellite and HD radio, real-time traffic, an iPod interface, a wood-and-leather heated steering wheel, and heated and cooled leather seats in front, with heated second-row seats standard as well. Now, both the G550 and G63 AMG also have mbrace2--a mobile-app connectivity suite that enables apps like Yelp and Facebook through the G's COMAND controller.

The G550 is expected to be priced from more than $107,000 when it goes on sale in August 2012; prices haven't been mooted for the G63 AMG, but it arrives in showrooms at the same time.

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2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class

Styling

Largely unchanged for more than thirty years, the G Class' iconic straight-edged sheetmetal now wraps itself around a softened interior.

At one point in its 34-year career, it had to land in the "dated" pool. But at a certain age, even boxy shapes that show real legs get put back on the A-list with the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award: the "icon" label. The G Class probably passed that milestone when it still could park in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

Timeless and T-square-drawn, the G Class stands out in any crowd, unless the crowd has its own strike authorizations and U.N. peacekeeping force. Based on a military vehicle from the 1970s, like the old HUMMER lineup, the G Class has hardly altered its flat sides, nearly vertical windshield, and strikingly boxy greenhouse. Today the G Class still stands angular and perfectly taut, just like some of its Beverly Hills test pilots, only without the telltale creases and scars of repeated touch-ups.

G-watchers will point out the modest changes marking the 2013 models, small changes like LED daytime running lights, new sideview mirrors, and chromed brush guards. The G63 AMG wears a louvered grille and its own bumpers, with optionally red brake calipers, 20-inch five-spoke wheels, and subtle AMG badging on its flanks and down its standard stainless-steel running boards.

Dressed more for success than for grudge-matching it out with Mother Nature, the G Class cabin hides its rugged origins beneath a nicer veneer of wood and leather this year. The regular shapes, flat door panels, and tall glass areas keep the bygone flair intact, but hosing it out after a day completely off the beaten path? No, you won't be doing that, not with all this lush finery covering up the G-Wagen's formerly bare bones. The extreme price tag nets lovely leather trim on the seats and door panels, chrome on the differential-lock switches, and a choice of finishes to replace the burl walnut--carbon fiber-alike trim or piano black, if you like. The new cut-tube gauges are a handsome, worthwhile update, as is the large LCD panel now stacked on top of the dash. But as we felt with the latest BMW 3-Series, the screen's placement seems fragile, maybe more so here, in a vehicle where reaching for Jesus handles is almost part of the sales pitch.

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2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class

Performance

Straight-line acceleration's awesome, especially in the G63 AMG, and so is off-roading--but handling is at the mercy of stability control and a tall, heavy body.

Two G Class models are defined by their powertrains. The G550 sports Mercedes' widely used, smoothly stalwart 388-horsepower V-8 engine with 391 pound-feet of torque, coupled to a seven-speed automatic with a high degree of manual gear control. It's a well-sorted drivetrain, smooth in highway driving and docile until it's not. In the 5,600-pound G550, the normally aspirated V-8 and automatic combine for acceleration to 60 mph of 6.0 seconds; it'll reach a limited top speed of 130 mph, but it struggles to achieve a 12/15 mpg fuel economy rating.

The G55 AMG adds two turbochargers to the same engine for a net of 544 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque. It uses a paddle-shifted version of the seven-speed automatic to punch new barn-door holes in the atmosphere. The muscular, rorty engine pounces to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds, despite a curb weight over 5,700 pounds. Top speed is reined in to 130 mph. Gas mileage hasn't been calculated yet for U.S. models, but the G63 AMG will have stop/start technology as standard equipment--which should improve on the former supercharged G55's abysmal 11/13-mpg EPA rating.

The G550, we've found, keeps a very brisk pace, but on-road performance in the G63 AMG is impressive and even shocking, within logical boundaries. To that end, the AMG's top-heavy feel requires attention on the highway, though steering takes less upper-body strength than in the past, thanks to new electric setup that's lighter than the old recirculating-ball setup. The steering system still doesn't offer much feedback, since it's up against an electric motor, live axles, four-wheel drive, and massive 18-inch or 20-inch tires--any one of them, krypton to natural wheel feel. The gas pedal requires a hefty foot too, and so do the brakes. In other words, no multitasking allowed.

The G's ride is generally composed on smooth surfaces, ready to rumble with tire noise when the texture turns to gravel, or worse. The amount of ultimate grip available is astonishing, and the G55 model can be hustled to its limits thanks to big, grippy 20-inch wheels and tires and upgraded six-piston brakes shared with the ML63. That is, until stability control intervenes--as it does quite often, and quite early, before the G Class' heavy doses of body roll trigger all sorts of red flags in the traction system, cutting engine power and engaging brakes to scrub off speed before it scrubs off tire tread. Or paint.

The appeal of the G-Class clearly rests in its extreme off-road talents. It looks heavy-duty-and it is--save for towing capacity, which is a distinctly European-sounding 3500 pounds, about what you'd get in a Ford Flex. An automatic four-wheel-drive system with three electronic locking differentials and low-range gearing keeps it clawing over rocky paths and plugging through muddy bogs where you'll only find Land Rover Defenders and Toyota Land Cruisers and other endangered species. The G has ground clearance of almost 8.3 inches, approach and departure angles of 36 and 27 degrees, and can ford almost two feet of water. It maintains its rugged character, in part, by dismissing the latest terrain-control systems adopted by many of its competitors. It's gone beyond the days of manually locking wheel hubs, what with its four-wheel traction control and hill-start assist, but not much more--not when compared to the electronically controlled driving modes of the latest Lexus LX 570 or Range Rovers.

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2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class

Comfort & Quality

The new cabin's brought the G up to more demanding standards, and the seats are firm and sporty.

If the outside of the G Class reads like an industrial shipping container, the inside is a luxury suite expertly fitted inside that cargo hold. It's not the most flexible or most easily mounted SUV on the planet, but if you're already past its stratospheric sticker price and relentlessly rectilinear body, the climb-in height and side-swinging rear door aren't difficult to get past.

Inside, the G Class impresses with all the headroom you're likely to need, ever. It is somewhat narrow, though, and front-seat passengers will notice the width the most since the center console is fairly tall and bulky. The seats themselves are typically firm and power-adjustable, with multicontour adjustments, and heating and ventilation. The power-telescoping and power-tilting steering wheel extends quite far, and the result is a driving position less bus-like than some other heritage SUVs deliver.

The second-row bench has some tilt built into its bottom cushion, which softens the flatness of the seat, and it's also heated. The seatbacks fold along a 60/40 split, and can be flipped forward to open up more of the cargo area, though the space added isn't vast.

With the rear seat in its usual place, the cargo area measures just fewer than 80 cubic feet. Opening it for cargo loading exposes a design detail that marks the G Class as old-school ute. It's a side-loader--instead of swinging up and out of the way, the heavy rear door swings away to the left, under the weight of a spare tire and its heavy steel cover. The door opening isn't as large as the rear of the vehicle, which makes it less useful than some seven-seat crossovers we've pressed into temporary U-Haul duty.

The cabin has better small-item storage, at least, though the cup holder is definitely an ad-hoc affair--it's a mesh bag hanging on a plastic ring to the right of the center console. It seems sturdy, though, and as a rule, the G Class interior is marked by a high degree of fit and finish. Wood, leather, and metallic trim dress up the angular basics well, and at least some of the road noise is muted out--though the rumble of the AMG engine and some air rushing around the high A-pillars whistles into the cabin.

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2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class

Safety

There's more safety tech than ever, including lane-departure warnings, a rearview camera, and adaptive cruise control.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has crash-tested the G Class in recent memory. We don't expect either agency to perform any tests any time soon, either, due to the G Class' extreme price and low sales volumes.

Mercedes-Benz fits the G Class with nearly all the safety gear it puts in other vehicles. Anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution along with stability control are standard in the 2013 G-Class, as are curtain airbags. Seat-mounted airbags are included, too.

The G Class' stability control and four-wheel-drive system provide more than an extra dose of safety when driving in heavy-duty or off-road situations. The stability system tailors its programming when towing, and of course, the G Class still has three locking differentials, which more advanced drivers can use to extract themselves from difficult terrain when lesser vehicles fail to proceed.

A rearview camera and parking sensors are standard, and are useful since visibility is constrained at the rear, where a wide frame surrounding the rear window blocks out most of the view. Visibility is great, otherwise: since the G Class is designed for hardcore off-roading, its flat front end and sides leave almost no doubt where the corners of the vehicle are, and parking is easier than in almost any other big SUV as a result.

Mercedes also bundles more safety technology into the latest G Class, including its Tele Aid system, which provides emergency and theft-tracking services. LED daytime running lights are new, as are adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitors. Though it's not the first SUV that comes to mind when we recommend family-friendly vehicles, the G Class has the requisite front-seat airbag deactivation system and LATCH system for mounting child safety seats, and has a shoulder seat belt in the middle second row.

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2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class

Features

Mercedes embraces connectivity in the G Class with streaming audio, mobile Yelp listings, and a big LCD display.

Fully and luxuriously equipped as a G550, and even more so as the G63 AMG, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class offers almost everything as standard equipment, leaving few features wanting.

The G550's standard-equipment list runs the gamut, starting with the basic power windows, locks and mirrors; climate control; sunroof; and AM/FM/CD player. It's upholstered in leather, with a heated wood and leather steering wheel, power-adjusted for height and telescopic length. The front seats are power-adjustable ten ways, have memory adjustment, and are heated and ventilated; the rear seats are heated, too, and fold 60/40.

The G550 also has ambient lighting; auto-dimming rearview and driver-side mirrors; stainless-steel running boards; rain-sensing wipers; an integrated garage door opener; and walnut trim. For entertainment, the COMAND controller runs a range of systems through a 7-inch high-resolution screen: it controls satellite and HD radio, iPods and MP3 players, mobile phones via Bluetooth with some voice control for the phone and audio as well as the standard navigation system. There's also a six-DVD changer with video-playing capability; a 40GB hard drive containing maps with space reserved for music storage; harman kardon surround sound; and real-time traffic, weather, news, and restaurant information delivered via Sirius. Mercedes' mobile-connectivity suite, mbrace2, is also fitted, which means in-car versions of Yelp and Facebook, accessible through COMAND.

The G63 AMG has very few non-performance features to add to the extensive list, other than AMG-specific trim and badging. The leather trim is Nappa, and the headliner is Alcantara sueded material. The shifter is AMG's design, covered in wood and leather, and the gauges are AMG-spec, with metallic trim. Piano-black trim is specified in the place of wood, though it's possible to order your G63 as you want it.

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2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class

Fuel Economy

The G Class just can't help itself at the pump; even the G550 earns supercar-like EPA ratings.

If your G Class is just one of dozens of baubles in your personal collection--jumbled together with things like oil platforms and emirates--you probably don't give two shakes how many miles per gallon it earns on the EPA's highway cycle.

It's a good thing, because thinking about things like that could give you heartburn. In theory.

The carryover G Class, the 388-horsepower G550, is the only version with a semi-official fuel economy rating. Last year, the same model earned a staggeringly low EPA rating of 12 miles per gallon city, 15 miles per gallon highway. With no major mechanical changes, it's expected to be the same for the 2013 model year, though we'll update the information if it changes when the EPA sets it loose later this year.

That 12/15-mpg figure is the good news. The 544-horsepower, twin-turbo G63 AMG is likely to fare much more poorly on the gas-mileage tests, though standard stop/start technology could soften the blow on the G63 AMG's city-cycle economy.

The likely combined scores are the reason we've given the G Class a green score we typically reserve for supercars. It carries more than three times as many passengers as the average Lamborghini, but the G Class drinks gas just like an Italian exotic--or worse than one, depending on the model.

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