First Drive: 2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550

The latest generation G-Class is a bigger, better box

Zach BowmanwriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON, France — The bluff wasn't vertical, but it wasn't far off it, either. Our instructor was pointing at a slice through the low brush, the pale, broken stone of Southern France exposed in jagged steps. From head on, it would be a hard climb in any vehicle, but we weren't squared off at the obstacle. Instead, we came at it from a hard, right-hand turn, off camber just to make it interesting. No part of me believed the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550 would make it. Not stock. Not without a lift and aggressive tires. Instead, the SUV was unfazed, idling up the rock and dirt, sending my gut spinning with a brief lift of the right rear tire as we pivoted. If you were worried that the new G-Class had been neutered for the new age, don't be.

Imagine the curse of being tasked with bringing modernity to the G. The 463-model G-Class has soldiered on without significant revision since 1989, and Mercedes-Benz sold better than 20,000 units last year. This is a vehicle that has thrived in spite of change, stalwart in both shape and function even as the world around it has grown hostile to both. Here is an SUV with a bludgeoning drag coefficient of 0.54 (the Ram 1500 manages a comparatively svelte 0.36) that consumes premium fuel with abandon. The elements that have made the G-Class an off road titan—narrow width, boxed frame, and solid axles—make it ill-equipped to coddle the luxury buyers who favor it. Compared to rivals from Range Rover, the previous G-Class drove like it was nearly 30 years old because under a thin veneer of leather and deep pile carpet, it was.

That's also part of what's made it so popular. While competitors have constantly worked to make their towering SUVS feel like a sedan, the G has remained suitably truckish. It has no interest in pretending to be a car. The team behind the all-new G-Class had the unenviable job of improving the vehicle without spoiling the elements that have made it one of the marque's signature models. The result is a larger SUV with a touch more civility that hasn't sacrificed any of its capability.

That began with a new frame, body mounts, and body, which pulled around 374 pounds from the structure thanks in part to an aluminum hood, fenders, and doors. Even so, Mercedes says the design is 55 percent stiffer than the previous version. It's also 2.5 inches wider and two inches longer, delivering more interior room than before. There's now a functional center console up front, and rear passengers don't find themselves rubbing knees with their neighbors. The extra width also allowed engineers to fit legitimate climate controls for the back seats.

That cabin now looks like it belongs in the upper echelon of the Mercedes-Benz lineup, with a completely revised dash. The optional, high-resolution instrument cluster is gorgeous, as is the massive 12.3-inch central display. The latter still isn't touchscreen, but is easy enough to navigate through the console-mounted touchpad and rotary selector. More importantly, the G-Class is quieter than before. An acoustic windshield and side glass, extensive sound deadening, and double door seals do a better job of keeping noise at bay.

That's not to say the new G is silent. There's a reason modern vehicles look so round and generic. Every sharp or vertical edge, every protrusion is a chance for wind to sing and whistle. While the 2019 G-Class now has a slightly softer exterior design, it still retains many of the harsh characteristics of its predecessors, including those protruding, fender-mounted turning indicators and the vehicle-length body protector strip. The door handles are even carryovers from the previous model. Combine all that with a steeply raked windscreen, and there's more racket than you'd expect from a freshly designed vehicle. Still, we don't care. It's a good reminder that this is still a G.

The biggest change is a new independent front suspension. Abandoning the old stick axle was the key to modernizing the G-Class, allowing engineers to use an electromechanical rack and pinion steering system. It also opened the door to the complete suite of Mercedes-Benz driving aids, including parking assist, and lets the engine sit lower in the passenger compartment for a better center of gravity, to meet pedestrian safety criteria, and improve crash ratings. More importantly, the change civilized the G's driving dynamics.

It's strange how familiar the 2019 G 550 feels from behind the wheel. The doors still require a certain amount of force, shutting with the satisfying and solid sound of metal on metal. The locks are a carryover, and they still snap in place with the sharp punctuation of a rifle bolt. You can hear the clatter from across a parking lot. The A- and B-pillars are now thicker and made of high-strength steel to meet federal rollover standards, but the former are cleverly turned on edge to maintain the model's traditional visibility. At no point are you confused about what you're driving.

When the road inevitably turns to something other than a straight line, the 2019 G 550 actually behaves itself. The catastrophic understeer and body roll of the previous generation hasn't vanished, but it takes considerably more speed to find it. For most buyers, it will feel like sliding behind the wheel of a Tahoe, whereas the previous generation was more akin to coaxing a wheelbarrow full of top-heavy crates down a hallway. Power still comes from the same twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 as last year, with 416 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque

But none of that would be worth a damn if the SUV didn't live up to the G's reputation as a mechanical force of nature. Mercedes admits that a very, very small percentage of G-Class buyers will ever use the full extent of their machine's off road ability. But really, that's no different from any other high-performance vehicle. How many C 63 sedans will see a track in their life? How many Wrangler Rubicons will go bashing up a trail? The company could have very easily abandoned the machine's three locking differentials, body-on-frame construction, and slab-sided looks in favor of something more aligned with the vehicle's actual use case. It would have been a sin.

There's more ground clearance than before, now 9.5 inches, and the combination of the new 9-speed automatic transmission and a transfer case with a 2.93:1 low range (previously 2.1:1) means the new G can inch its way over whatever is in its way. The torque converter was set up specifically for the G-Class. While some vehicles offer a hill-hold function that relies on a sensor and the parking brake, the converter can hold this SUV on nearly any incline without assistance from the brake for up to an hour. It's a simple system that uses all four wheels to maintain grip. Likewise, there is no hill descent control system for the G-Class. It doesn't need it. In manual mode with low range and first gear engaged, we inched down 30 percent grades without so much as looking at the brake.

We spent hours scrambling over the ridges around us, crawling up near-vertical, loose-footed ledges and wading through headlight-deep water, chasing a row of windmills to their perch overlooking the Mediterranean. This was not some manicured trail. It was a collection of unforgiving, nerve-peaking scrambles, and at no point was the new G 550 out of sorts. Whether lifting a wheel, or two, or lunging up difficult grades, the truck just kept going in spite of everything around it, the same as it always has. The same as it will for years to come.

2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550 Specifications

ON SALE Late 2018
PRICE $128,000 (base) (est)
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V8/416 hp @ 5,250-5,500 rpm, 450 lb-ft @ 2,250-4,750 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 15/17 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
L x W x H 189.7 x 85.7 x 77.2 i
WHEELBASE 106.2 in
WEIGHT 6,700 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 5.8 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 130 mph
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