Tailoring The Mercedes-Benz G-Class To The Modern Age

The Mercedes-Benz G-Class turns 40 next year, an elder statesman in a sea of newcomers like the Maserati Levante and Lamborghini Urus. But the German brand is not content to let its iconic SUV grow old gracefully, equipping it instead with a new, more powerful drivetrain and a cabin rife with modern luxuries.

For decades, the brazen SUV known as the G-Wagen set the tone for rough-and-tumble driving while remaining one of the most luxurious all-wheel-drive vehicles on the market, a six-figure status symbol from Miami to Dubai. That’s unlikely to change once the next generation arrives in dealerships later this year.

Until then, the G-Wagen is hitting the auto show circuit. In January, the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit with a 416-horsepower, 4.0-liter biturbo V8. The 577-horsepower AMG G63 variant followed, launching earlier this month at another high-profile global automotive event, the Geneva International Motor Show. Both models will head to the annual car show in New York next week.

Forbes sat down with Gunnar Güthenke, head of product for the G-Class, to talk about adding massaging seats to the rugged off-roader and why the time is right to update a classic.

Why is now the right time to update the G-Class?  Will adding luxury features like the brand’s widescreen cockpit and 64-shade ambient lighting system shift the perception of what it stands for?

From our internal perspective, we have throughout the last 39 years always continued to operate as the G-Wagen. Yes, there were some smaller improvements over the years, but we've never really stopped investing. When we made the decision in 2014 to make a much larger improvement, that was more or less driven by customer feedback. For us, it’s about keeping the G-Wagen modern than reacting to new competition.

To us, the G-Wagen has always combined outstanding off-road capability with really luxurious interiors. If you now take an interior from 20 years ago, it doesn't look so modern anymore, but we've always put the newest telematics into our vehicle. We probably haven’t updated it as frequently as other models, but in general we have always tried to keep the G-Wagen up to date. Offering a widescreen cockpit as well as massage seats is something which is logical in this tradition.

Which vehicles in the marketplace are you benchmarking the new G-Class against, and has that changed from the previous generations?

Many of our customers don’t only have one car; they have several. Sometimes when we talk to them, it’s ‘Oh, I was considering buying myself a boat or investing in some piece of art, or is now the right time to buy a G-Wagen?’ We hear this from customers more often than direct comparisons to other Mercedes models or SUVs from different brands. It’s less a choice between other vehicles than a choice between other investments.

How do you reconcile the G-Wagen’s identity with the current movement toward autonomous and electric cars? Is there a plan to integrate those features into the G-Class eventually?

The G-Wagen is for people who like to drive themselves. The more other vehicles move into autonomous driving, the G-Class will stand out. Of course, we are integrating all kinds of safety features that our company is offering, but autonomous driving as such is not in our focus. We will electrify all vehicle lines within Daimler, including the G-Wagen, but when it comes to timing, I’m not in a position to talk about this today.

Do you think electrifying the G-Wagen will change its character?

It's a very good question. We take it as a challenge to move into this direction with a clear benefit to the driver and a clear benefit that is authentic to the G-Wagen. What that is, we will probably present when we're ready, but we cannot do it only to follow a trend. We need to make sure it fits.

The G-Wagen is not a volume seller. How is the next-generation G-Wagen setting the tone for the rest of the Mercedes-Benz lineup? 

Within Mercedes, the G-Wagen is the founder of our SUV portfolio; they all proudly carry the ‘G’ in their name. But at the same time the G-Wagen is a unique vehicle, and we honor this tradition. We are convinced it's an icon, so we have to manage it very carefully and not follow too many trends.