2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class First Drive: Nothing but a G-Wagen

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Being successful the first time around is tough, but it’s even harder following up an initial smash success. When the pressure is on, it’s easy to screw up.

It may be hard to imagine, but over the past 40 years, there have been four generational changes to the Mustang (not all of them good), five Jeep Wranglers (if we count the CJ, which you should), and five Chevrolet Corvettes. But there’s only been one Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen.

Known colloquially as the G-Wagen, and officially as the G-Class, the Bundeswehr-ready SUV was originally released in 1979 for military and civilian buyers alike. The legendary G-Class has seen plenty of minor tweaks over the years, but the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550 and Mercedes-AMG G 63 represent Benz’s first attempt at a second G-Wagen.

It’s always daunting, reinventing an icon. But Mercedes nailed it.

Mercedes largely kept the proven G-Wagen formula intact for the second-generation G. The 2019 edition keeps the old model’s iconic squared-off design, its body-on-frame construction, and its live rear-axle. But Mercedes made serious improvements elsewhere. The ones buyers will likely notice most are at the front axle and inside the cabin.

Up front, Mercedes ditched the live axle and old-school hydraulic steering in favor of an independent front control-arm suspension setup and an electric power steering system. The changes promise to significantly improve both ride and handling. Inside, Mercedes brought the G-Class’ interior up to S-Class-levels of luxury and comfort. The new body-on-frame platform is longer than before, giving passengers increased leg room—especially in back where legroom has increased by 5.9 inches.

As for what else is completely new on the 2019 G-Wagen, it’s probably easier to tell you what’s carried-over: the rear-mounted spare tire cover, headlight washer nozzles, sun visors, and an unseen interior mounting bracket. The exterior door handles, hinges, and lock mechanisms likewise remain – ensuring the G-Wagen keeps the first-gen’s rifle-like shunk of its door locks sliding shut.

Some of the more noteworthy goodies are under the hood—both the G 550 (called the G 500 in Europe) and the G 63 get a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 paired with a nine-speed automatic and full-time four-wheel drive with a low-range transfer case (complete with an improved 2.93 crawl ratio), and locking center, rear, and front differentials. The G 550’s carryover V-8 makes 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, while the G 63 ditches its 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 for a hand-built version of the 4.0-liter that makes a whopping 577 hp and 627 lb-ft in the AMG model.

An electronic adaptive suspension system designed to improve the G-Class’ performance both on- and off-road is optional on the G 550 and standard on the G 63. It pairs with a more user-friendly differential system (which now include ‘at-ready’ pre-lock lights letting the driver know the selected diff will automatically lock if needed) and new off-road drive modes, dubbed “G-Mode.” G-Mode activates whenever low-range is selected or the center differential is locked (this changes the four-wheel drive setup from the default 40/60 front/rear split, to 50/50), and it adjusts the suspension damping (if equipped), as well as the throttle and steering mapping to improve the G 550’s off-road abilities. The G 63’s version of G Mode is more extensive, adding dedicated Trail, Sand, and Rock settings in an effort to compensate for the G 63’s slightly shallower approach angle and larger standard 20-inch or optional 22-inch wheels. The G 550 gets 18-inch standard and 20-inch optional wheels. All-terrain tires can be optioned on either model.

In putting the G 550 and G 63 through their paces in Southern France, I can say that, from behind the wheel, the two 2019 G-Wagens feel like the old model went to finishing school. You still have the same commanding, upright view out of the cabin, and yet the new G-Class feels remarkably modern.

Of the two, the G 550 is the better balanced. Its carryover V-8 is given new life thanks to its nine-speed automatic. Hardly a slouch off the line in its previous form, the new G 550’s brisk acceleration belies its cinderblock aerodynamics. The nine-speed shifts quickly and transparently, always choosing the right gear, and in sport mode it improves performance by holding gears longer, delivering rev-matched downshifts backed up by a lovely V-8 soundtrack.

Handling behavior is dramatically improved too. The steering rack is still on the slower side and feels a bit truck-like—a compromise made in the interest of off-road precision—but the steering feels much more accurate and delivers considerably more road feel than before. Even more impressive is the improvement in ride quality of the G 550 equipped with the electronic adaptive suspension (no steel-sprung G 550s were available at launch). It’s softer and more forgiving, isolating occupants from bumps and bruises on the road, while mitigating body roll and improving the way the G 550 goes around a corner.

The G 63 feels just as maniacal as the old model when you bury your foot in the throttle, with a soundtrack to match. Even when not on the gas, this hand-built V-8 feels fast; with its 627-lb-ft of torque are available low in the rev band, the AMG gets moving at a good clip without really having to try. The sport-oriented G 63’s steering is low on effort like the G 550’s, but high on feel. The major drawback to the G 63 is its ride quality, which is far flintier and less forgiving than its little brother. The payoff is the G 63’s higher cornering speeds than the G 550 can manage, but I have my doubts that The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Berlin, and Beijing who flock to the AMG models will really appreciate this difference.

Although most buyers of the last-generation G-Class rarely took their Geländewagens off-road, the Mercedes team spent many sleepless nights ensuring that the new 2019 G-Class would be just as off-road capable as the old one. Their efforts paid off.

Mercedes took us to a French countryside chateau that also doubles as a rally training course, as well as the site of the launch of the 1991 G-Wagen update and one of the many off-road testing sites for the 2019 G. Rather than the cursory dusty-trail drives that many cautious automakers employ, Mercedes released us on an extensive off-road course that took more than an hour to complete. The Stuttgart brass deserve credit here—most automakers design and engineer their own off-road courses for press vehicle launches, but this course was far too lengthy and extensive to have been engineered for the G’s success. It included fast gravel stretches, mud, multiple water crossings, and rock-crawling slopes so steep I would’ve personally thought twice about attempting them on my own.

Equipped with factory-optional Falken Wildpeak tires on 18-inch wheels, the G 550 scrambled up rocky embankments, churned through thick mud, and crawled down plunges with ease. When things got tougher, low-range worked with the pre-locked diffs to keep things moving. The pre-locking is indicated by a yellow light below each of the three diff switches that change to a red light on top of the corresponding differential switch as they engage.

Even more impressive was the G 550’s off-road ride quality, which is much more balanced than before. It isolates you from impacts at low speed, and at high speed it floats over all but the sharpest impacts. It’s incredibly versatile, reminding me of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, another off-roader equally at home scrambling up rocks as it is running fast across the open plains.

The G 550 doesn’t mind getting wet either; despite its radiator and air intake being mounted lower than before, fording depth has increased to 27.6 inches. The G has a new party trick: When sensors detect high water, they slam the G’s air intake shut and start taking in air from the top-forward corners of the hood, ensuring the engine doesn’t flood. Inside, while things stay dry, a message pops up on the instrument cluster telling you not to exceed 10 km/h until you’re out of the water.

No matter the model, the interior of the new G-Class is worlds richer than before. Slightly quieter inside than its predecessor, the cabin features traditional luxury touches such as thick, buttery leather with attractive stitching, and modern technology touches such as a digital instrument cluster, Mercedes’ latest infotainment suite, and for the first time on a G-Class, modern driver assist and safety technology. The cabin is comfortable, spacious, open, and airy front and rear. The optional Active Multicontour Seat package rivals Volvo’s seats for comfort and support . The cargo area grows some for the new generation, and while the rear seats fold in a 60/40 split, they don’t fold flat as the rear axle impedes a bit into the cargo area.

Mercedes says pricing for the new 2019 G 550 and G 63 will be announced closer to its late 2018 U.S. debut, although if European prices are any indication, prices should only rise slightly. Expect to pay about $125,000 for a G 550 and $140,000 for a G 63. Fuel economy figures will also be released closer to launch; a small improvement over the out-going G550’s 13/14/13 mpg city/highway/combined and G63’s 12/14/13 mpg is expected, with an anticipated hybrid model boosting things considerably in the coming years.

The original 1979-2018 G-Class is a tough act to follow. But it seems like Mercedes spent four decades thinking about how to reinvent its icon for modern regulations and sensibilities, while still following the formula that made the first edition such a success. It was time well spent. The 2019 G-Class drives the fine line between evolution and revolution, capturing the spirit and personality of the original, while improving in just about every way. It may be more modern and refined than the original, but it’s still unmistakably a G-Wagen – which is unquestionably the biggest compliment it can get.

2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
BASE PRICE $125,000-$140,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINES 4.0L/416-hp/450-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8; 4.0L/577-hp/627-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 5,450-5,500 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 113.8 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 189.7 x 76.0 x 77.2 in
0-60 MPH 4.0-5.5 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON Not yet rated
ON SALE IN U.S. Fall, 2018



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