Remaking Mercedes-Benz’s G-Wagen for the modern age means striking a balance between adding the luxuries already permeating the brand’s lineup while keeping what made the boxy off-roader a design icon the first place.
For its next generation, the six-figure, military-style SUV beloved from Beacon Hill to Beverly Hills, not to mention Dubai and Shanghai - gets gussied up with a new interior, new engine, and formidable off-road chops. Sporting the first major redesign in the nameplate's 40-year history, the 2019 model is one of Mercedes’ most significant launches this year, carrying over only five parts from the outgoing version as it forges ahead in an increasingly crowded segment.
Of course, the G-Class has gradually evolved since it debuted in 1979 with a choice of four engines supplying between 71 and 154 horsepower. But this latest undertaking is the most ambitious, boosting on- and off-road performance, comfort, and telematics. Its new 4.0-liter V8 biturbo delivers 416 horsepower in the G550 and 577 ponies in the high-performance AMG G63 version.
Notably, engineers strived to remedy the major flaw of the previous generation - its clunky, on-road performance - without sacrificing off-road dexterity. To prove its prowess, Mercedes-Benz flew us to the South of France to drive the narrow, twisty roads threading through wine country. Longer, wider and slightly taller than the old model, the new G-Class did feel top-heavy on tight turns, but to its credit, we never feared it would tip. (You’d need to exceed a 35-degree angle to be in danger of that, 7 degrees more leeway than the old model.) However, the cabin was noisier than engineers claimed, forcing us to speak a little louder.
Inside, the new G-Class, which arrives in dealerships later this year, gets the same amenities found in the brand’s new E-Class and S-Class sedans, including a 12.3-inch widescreen cockpit beneath a fully bonded glass panel, 64-color ambient lighting and, mercifully, real cupholders. Those comforts served us well high up in the Corbier mountain range, where we put the G-Wagen to the test on the same off-road track at Château de Lastours where Mercedes introduced the original model. With nearly 9.5 inches of ground clearance, it confidently crawled over boulders at a harrowing, 26-degree ascent, forded more than two feet of muddy, chocolate-brown waters, and skirted the limit on sideways tilting.
The new G550 shaves 375 pounds from its frame using a mix of high-strength steel and aluminum and upgrades to a quintet of driving modes - Comfort, Sport, Eco, Individual, and G-Mode - tailor the G-Wagen’s driving characteristics to the terrain. “The G-Mode allows you to tackle the terrain you think twice about,” our driving instructor said from the passenger seat. He was right; once we got into the rhythm from our comfortable, air-conditioned perch, fear gave way to thrill - even if we did cling to the grab handles.
In the wilds, the G-Wagen was clearly at home, and not in the ersatz, driving-along-Sunset-Boulevard way. Throw it into low range and set the lock differentials with the push of a button, and the G-Wagen thrives in its natural habitat, scaling boulders and other treacherous terrain with minimum driver input. Descents require even less human effort - take your foot off the pedal and let the engine brake on its own. When you retake control, the SUV’s front camera helps navigate blind drops.
Of course, it won’t come cheap. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but the base model is likely to exceed the current model’s $123,600 starting price.