2021 Mercedes G550: The Refined Tank Rocks
The G Wagen is still an off-road icon, and the new generation is more civil.
Since 1979, Mercedes-Benz has produced its hardcore off-road machine formally known as the Geländewagen. Also known as the G-Class or G Wagen, this patriarch of the Mercedes SUV family has conquered all sorts of terrains across the globe, while also becoming popular in well-heeled neighborhoods as kid haulers.
After a decades-long stretch of producing the G-Class in its previous form, Mercedes recognized the majority of the G Wagen's drivers never took it off-road, and wanted something a bit more civil for daily use. In 2018, Mercedes introduced an all-new G-Class, and while it retains the iconic styling of the classic model, there are significant revisions inside and out to bring this SUV into present day. Has its identity changed?
Covering The Key Figures
At a quick glance, the new G Wagen doesn't look much different from its predecessor, aside from cool LED rings for daytime running lights in the headlight housing. There were a couple features Mercedes kept from the older G-Class, including the signature door handles with the round metal thumb switch, the headlight washer nozzles, and the spare-tire cover. Aside from carrying over these components, the G is truly an all-new car.
Exterior dimensions are nearly identical to the previous generation, only adding two inches to the overall length and just shy of two inches to the wheelbase, but this new G-Class dropped some weight. Despite carrying 5,556 pounds--or 2,520 kg--of mass, the new G Wagen dropped 200 pounds from the 2017 model.
Under the hood of the G550 is Mercedes' popular 4.0-liter hot-inside-v biturbo V8 that pumps out 416 horsepower and 450 lb-ft (610 Nm) of torque. Mercedes gives the new G-Class a 9-speed DCT and all-wheel-drive with 40:60 torque distribution, with a 2-speed transfer case and three locking differentials for off-road duties. Tank-like performance expectations be damned, the G550 can scoot from 0-60 MPH in 5.6 seconds, and has an electronically limited top speed of 130 MPH. Drivers who demand more performance on the spec sheet can bump to an AMG 63 option that boasts 577 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque from its tuned engine, bit it will cost you an extra $25,000 over the G550's base price.
All this kit doesn't come cheap, as the base price for the Mercedes G550 is $131,100. Ticking several option boxes, including $1,400 to upgrade to an adaptive suspension, $6,500 to spec stunning Deep Green paint, and the $8,100 G manufaktur interior package which adds loads of Nappa leather, a Dynamic headliner, massaging, heated, and ventilated front seats to rack up an MSRP of $156,270.
The City Cruiser
While the AMG take-rate is around 80% for the G Wagen, the G550 is no slouch. The turbocharged V8 offers the smoothest plateau of torque across its rev range with effortless acceleration whether you're making a quick lane change downtown or blasting past a slow-moving motorist on the freeway. I enjoyed throaty exhaust notes from the sport exhaust system that was fitted as part of the optional AMG Line package which includes enhanced body styling, flared wheel arches, and Mercedes-Benz lettering on the brake calipers.
In its focus on making the G-Class more comfortable and agile in daily driving conditions, Mercedes replaced the former generation's rigid front axle with a double wishbone setup while finally putting the horribly outdated recirculating ball steering out to pasture in favor of an electronically-assisted rack-and-pinion system. The result is a more compliant city SUV that's easier to maneuver around corners, with less of an upper body workout. The new G550 feels more connected with the road, but its steering and handling is a bit more truck-like than the Land Rover Defender. Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires wrapped around 20-inch wheels give good grip on the road, without too much noise, while being moderately competent off-road.
Masking the G550's curb weight is impossible, but the optional adaptive dampers do an exceptional job of balancing load transfer of the nearly three-ton G-Class, making it comfy over city bumps while not exhibiting too much body roll in the bends. EPA fuel economy estimates are 17/19/18 (city/highway/combined), and although I did a good mix of highway driving during my week-long test, even using the Eco drive mode more often than not, I barely managed a supercar-like 14 MPG average.
Interior appointments are what you'd expect from an upper-tier Mercedes, with the G manufaktur option taking things to another level. The dash is coated in thick black leather with deviated stitching, and I love the blend of metallic trim and open-pore black ash wood that gives the G550's cockpit a modern yet traditional theme.
Cabin volume is good, with a tall greenhouse, and plenty of hip and shoulder room for four adults. Though Mercedes states the G-Class as a 5-passenger vehicle, you're only going to put the smallest children three-wide across the back seat. If you're in a climate with colder winters, you'll appreciate the optional rapid heating front seats, matched with massaging to ease your back on longer drives. Having tested the G550 during a Texas summer, I made more use of the ventilated seat feature.
Conquering Any Terrain
Maintaining the brand standard, the G-Class has to be able to tackle any conditions and surface its owner cares to explore. Still hand-built in Graz, Austria, with the 4,740-ft Schöckl Mountain proving grounds at its disposal, the new G Wagen is no mall crawler. One key feature that improves the G550's off-road handling characteristics is the new G-Mode.
Not as simple to operate as the system in the Land Rover Defender I recently tested, this new dynamic mode takes some learning to fully operate its off-road modes and configurations. Engaging once you press the low range off-road reduction gear or select one of the three differential locks, G-Mode adapts the adjustable chassis damping and steering, while reducing throttle response and unnecessary gearshifts to ensure optimum control without sacrificing off-road capability.
I appreciate that the trio of 100% locking diffs are manually operated by buttons on the center of the dash, requiring you to know a bit more about what you're doing to get the most out of the G Wagen. Despite swapping the rigid front axle for more compliant double wishbones up front, the G550 hasn't lost much in the way of capability. Sporting 9.5 inches of ground clearance, 27 inches of fording depth, and 26º breakover, 30º approach, and 31º departure angles, the G-Class is designed to allow maximum roaming.
My speciality is typically exhibited behind the wheel of performance cars tested on canyon roads or race tracks, but I'm not totally useless when testing off-road vehicles. During my review, I gave the G550 good exercise on gravel, rocks, and some deep mud, and it slayed those surfaces without breaking a sweat. Surprisingly, the fender flares kept the flanks of the G-Class clean when I was ripping through a massive mud pit, providing function over form, while disrupting some photo ideas I had.
Though more suited to on-road driving, the Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires were easily up to the task of confidently thrashing around any terrain I threw at them. If you plan to take your G Wagen on rougher adventures over demanding conditions, I suggest ticking a couple off-road option boxes when ordering, and definitely make sure all-terrain tires are equipped to unlock the G550's true potential.
Some Pros And Cons
Revised fascia gives the G550 a refined yet rugged appearance, and I appreciate Mercedes keeping the overall exterior design as close to the older model as possible. The black bull bar fits the part, even if it will rarely be used for protecting the front of your $150,000 SUV. Ride height and clearance are quite tall, so smaller drivers may have trouble hopping up into the G550. Driving position is positively upright, and the seats still make you feel like you're riding in a luxury SUV rather than a pickup.
New for 2021, the G-Class boasts 54 unique interior upholsteries and 34 exterior paint options, which when selected with the stack of G manufaktur options gives you over one million possible combinations. You have no excuse not to buck the trend of far too many black, white, and gray SUVs on the road, and I love that my tester was selected with Deep Green paint over saddle brown leather.
Cargo volume isn't spectacular, with only a bit more depth than is needed for a carry-on roller bag, but the G550's boxy shape means the cargo area is practically shaped, giving you enough space to tuck away all the supplies you'll need for a camping adventure or road trip. I also appreciate the wide-opening door out back, that allows for easy loading. The removable privacy cover also helps conceal any cargo you've got tucked into your G Wagen.
Equipped with a pair of 12-inch displays for the instrument cluster and infotainment system, the G550 has the modern setup in the high-end Mercedes models, but because it was developed in 2017, you're stuck with the dated COMAND system rather than Mercedes' new MBUX unit. Rather than having the touchscreen UI, you'll have to use the puck and trackpad on the center console or small steering wheel touch controls--which I like--to change settings or make your music selections. Luckily the COMAND setup has Apple CarPlay installed.
Ambient lighting is installed in the G550, which can make your cabin look as subtle or disco as you prefer. I also love the machined Burmester speaker covers throughout the G-Class' interior that look like the coolest cheese graters.
Mercedes Knows What G Wagen Buyers Want
Rather than polarizing buyers of generations past, Mercedes stuck to its guns with the new G-Class, and the G550 will be just as welcome at the finest steakhouse valet line as it will be along the most demanding trails of your favorite OHV park.
For my tastes, the big, off-road capable SUV needs to feel less heavy yet more tame around the city, which is why I'd go for a Land Rover Defender instead. Especially the upcoming V8 model. If you want to stick with Mercedes, crave an SUV that's more fun on the road, and aren't planning to tackle the most hardcore trails, go for the AMG GLE 63 S.