The Mercedes G-Class is the ultimate socialite mobility vehicle for obvious reasons. Its look is simultaneously flashy and classic with a good whiff of Fuck You energy. It’s surprisingly easy to drive in tight spaces and doesn’t mind potholes. Major revisions for 2019 made it even more easily wielded by basic bitches of all genders, but really, a U.S.-spec G still doesn’t make any kind of sense.
Full Disclosure: Mercedes loaned me a G550 after I asked for one. This drive actually happened last summer, not this summer, but the vehicle hasn’t changed. The big G-Wagen update went down for the 2019 redesign.
Testing Conditions: A few laps around Los Angeles and a journey out to Joshua Tree to get some sand between the tire treads.
One of the first vehicles I ever reviewed for Jalopnik was a last-gen G63 AMG. I hated it, which should surprise no one. I like specialized vehicles, and was offended that Merc took a great off-road platform and saddled it with high-performance street tires, hot rod exhaust pipes and a setup optimized exclusively for roaring off from stoplights straight ahead. Hmm. I guess that could still be considered a specialized build. Perhaps I was too quick to judge...
Anyway, the concept of the G does have some appeal beyond showboating. A well-made, highly capable and comfortable overlanding rig sounds right up my alley, really. When the G-Class was updated for 2019 I was keen to drive one, particularly in this cool non-AMG spec in a great shade of green.
The vehicle’s been out for some time and its main mechanical evolution from the old one, ditching a straight axle for independent front suspension, has already been discussed in detail. So instead of another standard review, I just let Senior Technical Editor David Tracy talk to me casually about the G550, and we’ll use our conversation as a vehicle for sharing candid impressions.
Here’s that dialogue, edited for clarity and flow. Some readers said our last “interview review” was tough to read so I tried to futz with the formatting a little bit:
David Tracy: So I heard you drove the new G-Wagen? Which model, and what’d you do with it?
Andrew Collins: Oh I drove it, my brohan. On-road, off-road, straight from the G-Class spawning grounds in Beverly Hills to the desert. I specifically requested the G550 because I find the AMGs tiresome. This model still has over 400 HP and costs north of $130,000, so, it’s not exactly a bargain basement spec though.
DT: Okay, so this is an off-road-ish model? Big sidewalls? Lockers? Skids?
AC: Sort of. Merc doesn’t really offer a “rugged” spec of the G in the U.S. right now. It does have three locking diffs and tough construction, but no special armoring or anything. And while there was slightly more sidewall than you get on big blingy AMG wheels, the truck Mercedes sent me was, of course, on highway tires so I couldn’t really take advantage of the G’s true abilities.
DT: But you took it off-road anyway. Where? Anything truly challenging?
AC: I had to get some good ’grams, so I went out to Joshua Tree to leave the pavement. We went through some soft sand, no issues with traction, climbed a fairly steep and rocky track so I could have an excuse to activate the rear locker. Nothing really intense, but the vehicle did feel confident and comfortable.
Unfortunately, with road tires and being solo, I wasn’t brave enough to properly Send It in a $130,000 car. That said! The last time I was in a G, a G63, I got stuck on wet grass in Vermont. Again, the fault of the tires. But embarrassing nonetheless and kind of what made me realize the oxymoronic nature of the way these are sold.
DT: Hmm. Good tires are a big deal. I’m surprised Mercedes doesn’t offer a more aggressive option. Oh well. So you’ve driven the last one with the solid axle. How does this one compare?
AC: I mean you can fit whatever I guess, but the press car I had was certainly optimized for city life. But yeah, the front axle! That’s clearly the biggest mechanical change for the new G. And yes, there’s no question that steering response and stability feels better in the new truck.
The vehicle seems a lot more surefooted going through intersections and on-ramps. Lane changes are pretty smooth, the truck just feels happier changing directions now than it used to.
DT: Makes sense. Rack and pinion versus old-school steering box. Not as much jostling, I bet.
AC: Definitely not. The ride is pretty nice. Disconcertingly so, considering the rig’s still shaped like a brick. Visibility is great too... it’s one of the best things about its “old SUV” design.
DT: It rides that well?
AC: It’s pretty smooth in town for what it is. I mean, it’s no E-Class. But considering it’s still pretty much built using off-road architecture, it’s pretty pleasant. But I have a new theory about why rich people don’t mind that these ride a little bit like tanks.
That rolling bank vault vibe is part of the appeal. I see loads of these in densely populated urban areas and almost none outside of town. I bet most people who own them rarely spend more than a couple hours in the saddle at a time and rarely hit highway speeds.
Are you really going to notice weak driving dynamics between stoplights on Sunset Boulevard? No.
What people will notice though, in the new G, is the gauge cluster which has been evolved into Merc’s new ultra-wide screen.
DT: Oh, nice. Lemme see.
AC: This is more in line with what Merc’s doing on its other vehicles. I personally think the old circle-gauges had more character but this has more wizbang factor. I do think Mercedes does a great job with digital displays now. They’re always cool-looking, with nice smooth animations, incredible resolution and neat depictions of car info.
DT: Speaking of cockpits and cool-looking, compared to the new Defender, how cool is this thing? Let’s be real, that’s what people want to know.
AC: Ah, great question. And there’s nothing I enjoy evaluating more than “coolness.”
The G has much more presence. The Defender photographed well in Namibia all loaded up with overland accessories, but in a parking lot in America it looks bland and will disappear among every other modern SUVish car unless people are looking at from the dead rear.
The G looks like it’s chiseled from a single piece of Pretentiousness, and despite (because of?) its extremely simple design it’s instantly recognizable.
Now, inside, it’s a slightly different story. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.
The new G cab looks like every other Benz inside. Nice, like I said, but not very off-roady or adventurous.
Land Rover, on the other hand, really leaned into creating a safari caricature in the Defender’s cabin and it paid off. You feel like you’re on An Adventure in that thing, the way everything’s shaped and laid out, and that’s going to make it fun to drive.
My old college roommate articulated this when he rode in my old Discovery 1 for the first time: “I feel like I’m on safari in this thing.” That’s the whole point!
As far as true off-road capability, it’d be really interesting to see the G and Defender together, somewhere real, way outside city limits, both wearing all-terrain tires. I think either vehicle would be tough to stop.
DT: Got any cool features to show us?
AC: Honestly, the G is largely devoid of fun gimmicks. The rear, center and front manually locking differentials are of course unusual to have in a factory luxury car, but those have been G-Class signature pieces since way back.
I only barely used the rear locker on my test drive, and only because I wanted to futz with it.
There is, of course, the meanest-sounding door latch and locking mechanism in the biz to enjoy every time you enter and exit a G. Sound on:
DT: So who is this car for? And for those of us who can’t or don’t want to buy it, why should we care about it?
AC: The G is a default rich person’s grocery-getter in Los Angeles, because people like the look and, practically speaking, it really is a nice vehicle to use for short drives around down due in large part to the vehicle’s visibility.
Of course it’s an illogical, borderline amoral, vehicle to use for personal town transit as the Earth winds down its habitable-to-humans period, but who am I to throw stones? We might as well enjoy burning gasoline while we still can, right?
DT: Fuel economy ain’t great, I take it.
AC: The brochure claims 13 mpg in the city, probably translates to high single-digits for most people’s real-world driving. I’m sure Benz has been slow on building an EV version of this because it’d take a lot of juice to move this much mass with no help from aerodynamics. And if it offered a more frugal low-displacement variant, that would cheapen the brand.
There is a lot of inherent off-road capability baked into the G-Class platform, and it’d be a cool combination of extreme adventurousness and luxury on a set of off-road tires. But that combination, while hilarious, still seems mostly dumb to me.
I see plenty of trucks off-roading with mods and parts that easily make them worth what a G costs. And yet, I have seen exactly one (1) G-Class off-roading, in person, in my life.
Though I know there are some hardcores who would say the non-AMG ones are great overlanders, I know Overland Journal’s main man Scott Brady wheels his six-cylinder G on the reg. But, there again, he has an odd imported non-lux spec one.
All this to say, I feel a little conflicted about the G because I simultaneously want to like it and hate it. Archaic vehicles are my favorite, and I love SUVs in general. But a six-figure treatment on an old body that’s sold on road tires 90 percent of the time... I don’t know. It just seems wacky.
Or maybe I’m just grumpy because these things are always cutting me off in LA traffic (upside-down smiley face emoji.)
If you’d like to dig into the new-for-’19 G a little more, check out Tracy’s conversation under the truck with an engineer, his analysis of the new suspension situation, crash-test commentary, and Erin Marquis’ model rundown.