The Car Connection Mercedes-Benz G Class Overview
The Mercedes-Benz G-Class is an old-school SUV that's new for 2019. (Yeah, we know.) The G-Wagen was initially a military specialty vehicle, but has been slathered with enough luxury hardware to appeal to well-heeled buyers. It's roomy, trucky, and expensive.
The G-Class hasn’t changed much outwardly over the years, though mechanically it's been continually upgraded with modern running gear. With the G-Wagen, Mercedes has a cult favorite that appeals to off-road enthusiasts and socialites equally.
A new G-Wagen bowed for the 2019 model year, the SUV's first clean-sheet redesign in four decades.
MORE: Read our preview of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
Deriving its name from Geländewagen, literally German for "off road vehicle," the G-Class is truly unlike anything else on the road.
An all-new model arrived for 2019, sharing little more than an engine and door latches with its predecessor. The redesign retains the boxy, upright styling—so much so that casual observers might not notice the cleaner, but hardly more streamlined shape. Inside, the 6-inch wheelbase stretch pays dividends in rear-seat leg room and the G-Wagen boasts more shoulder room. The view out remains expansive, albeit with a dashboard and instrument cluster from the modern era. Switchgear and even the available dual 12.3-inch displays that share a single glass pane are pulled from Mercedes' high-end sedans.
Under its hood, the G550 that debuted first features a familiar 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 rated at 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. Mercedes says that while the engine is unchanged, a new 9-speed automatic takes the place of the outgoing model’s 7-speed.
That 9-speed pays dividends both on-road and off, with fuel economy improved over the dismal figures from its predecessor and the wider range of ratios to enable slower going off-road. The G-Class discards its old solid front axle for an independent suspension, which Mercedes says will help on-road handling. Off-road, the G-Class doesn't offer the wide range of traction control modes seen in Land Rovers and Toyotas, instead relying on a trio of differential locks.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class history
The G-Class originally was developed by Mercedes-Benz for the Shah of Iran and military use, but was introduced for civilian buyers in 1979, after the Shah was deposed.
Hand-assembled in Austria, the so-called 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 received 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 mpg city, 13 highway for the thirstier AMG model.
The G-Class has been changed very little in the time it 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-hp G550 was joined by a revamped AMG model, the G63, outfitted with a new twin-turbo, 5.5-liter V-8 with 544 hp, a stop-start system, and a 7-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' infotainment controller, which also operates an app and connectivity suite.
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 100 were built and cost more than $500,000 each. 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 4x4², 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.
The classic Mercedes-Benz G-Class
The G-Class' engines changed for 2016. The base G550 swaps out its naturally aspirated 388-horsepower 5.5-liter V-8 for a 416-hp 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 hp to 563 hp, and Mercedes also introduced the V-12-powered G65 AMG, now with 621 hp and massive 738 pound-feet of torque. Other 2016 changes for the Geländewagen included new bumpers, adjustable shocks for the G550, a new gauge design, and an expanded color palette.
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.
Driving the G-Wagen is unlike piloting any newer vehicle. The belt line 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.
A few times in the past the G-Class has been nearly axed from the lineup, with Mercedes-Benz unsure whether it should continue to engineer and develop future models, given such niche appeal. However, its future seems safe for now.