Mountain Wheels: Mercedes’ massive G-Class is the SUV they couldn’t kill
Of all the cars that have refused to die, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class — the beloved and boxy Gelandewagen, the original cross-country vehicle — remains, to the casual observer, the least changed since its 1979 debut as a commercial vehicle.
And for an ultra-rugged machine that began as a German army truck, this luxury Jeep continues to have special appeal to buyers seeking something that’s capable, luxurious and seemingly styled with a chisel.
Mercedes made a bold attempt to get rid of the G-Wagen a few years back, subbing in the attractive but far more contemporary GL in 2006, but the vehicle’s iconic appeal has kept it in production.
I saw a grand total of one other G-Class during last weekend’s drives in the mountains (you may have spied them on TV in “The Handmaid’s Tale”), so they do remain a rare but astounding offering in the Mercedes lineup. Only 20,000 were sold in 2016, which gives you an indication of the car’s unicorn status.
Polarizing is probably the key term here, with a cab that has as much up-front glass as a garbage truck, and a massive, box-like shape that makes the vehicle seem like it’s 12 feet tall — in reality, it’s only 77 inches high, which is still impressive.
Everything on the G-Class is about solidity, including side and rear doors that need to be slammed as hard as a barn door to close, and the loudest electric door locks in the business. That’s all part of the deal, along with traditions like a triad of lock buttons on the console, clear turn signal/marker lights atop the wheel wells that are the size of toasters and design that’s all right angles.
I haven’t driven a G-Class in more than a decade and the long-awaited almost total makeover of the car just a few backs is a bit of a misnomer, as it still looks almost identically G-Class from the outside — the massive greenhouse, the tall, rigid hood, the whole bit.
Power has understandably improved from the 72-horsepower engine found back in 1979. My 2019 G550 gains a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 416 horsepower and 450 foot-pounds of torque, rated pretty accurately at 14 mpg for combined mileage.
Inside, the 2019 I drove had the entire range of absolutely modern M-B electronics, high-end leather, wood, real metal, a gazillion-watt Burmester stereo system (complete with shiny speakers on the dash and up above the rear-view mirror).
The vehicle’s displays and controls on my $124,500 vehicle — a price bumped to $134,315 with adaptive damping suspension, higher-end super-massage seating and an almost $5,000 Nappa leather and full-cabin suede headliner package — border on the absolutely overwhelming.
I would not recommend trying to dial in an energizing massage for either you or your passenger, readjust the dynamic driving mode, set the car into low range, mess with the stereo, readjust the multizone air conditioning system and accidentally activate the front or rear rock-crawling cameras, all at the same time. Maybe turn the screen off entirely if you plan to take the vehicle off-road.
Because that is where the G-Wagen shines, frankly. The vehicle’s narrow track and wheelbase (64.5 inches wide, 113.8 inches long) and top-heavy stature are awesome for towering above other cars at stop lights, but its 5,551-pound curb weight means there is a bank vault’s worth of mass to contend with on stops, starts and curves.
Yes, the adaptive damping keeps that from being outrageous, but give yourself several car lengths of breathing room when dealing with weekend bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 70, as stops can be lurchy, to say the least. Raw acceleration, no problem — floor it and you will fly away from traffic with a massive roar of exhaust.
Step off pavement, though, and you can see why this ancient mariner of the automotive world still appeals to the safari set. Its solidity and maneuverability, despite its proportions, is remarkable, and other than the fact that it’s $134,000, we would have had a gay old time trying out those diff locks with rock crawling that likely would have broken off its handsome (and very necessary) chromed running boards.
I now leave the vehicle-wrecking to my friends on the internet, so suffice to say that G-Wagen will get you where you want to go.
Interior comfort was the biggest gain in the G-Class’s recent redux, and proportions are pleasant, in what might be the sunniest vehicle on the market. There’s surprisingly limited cargo room in the rear, though you also might be able to wedge a full-sized refrigerator in there, if you tried.
Not enough power? Consider the fun you’ll have sweeping corners and doing cones in the 577-horse Mercedes-AMG G 63, or look to aftermarket psychopaths like Brabus who have created an 800-horsepower variant. Of course they have.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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