The Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen ("overland vehicle"), which hardly has changed since it was launched thirty years ago, is further proof that few vehicles are as enduringly popular as a squared-off, utilitarian, military-esque four-by-four. Witness the long and very successful run of the original Jeep Cherokee; the evergreen appeal of the Land Rover Defender, which, sadly, is no longer sold here; and the demand for the original FJ40 Toyota Land Cruiser. Clearly, people view these sorts of vehicles as the real thing, and they speak to our desires for adventure. They also are a welcome break from the modern landscape of aerodynamically optimized crossover vehicles that all look the same after a while.
The G550 also speaks to Americans' desires for prestige, from its pie-plate-sized front star badge to the shiny, blue-lit "Mercedes-Benz" scuff plates. It's amazing how Mercedes managed to line the previously Spartan G-wagen with a fully modern Mercedes interior; anyone who has driven a new Mercedes in the past fifteen years will immediately be at home in this luxurious cabin, as everything will be familiar.
There are, of course, some compromises, no matter how much wood and leather is stuffed into the G550's cabin. The weird buttons for inflating seat-lumbar bladders get in the way every time you try to fasten your seatbelt. There's surprisingly little rear-seat room for such a big vehicle. The slow-acting, recirculating-ball steering is either endearingly retro or annoying, depending on your viewpoint. The door handles are difficult to operate, and the doors are difficult to close completely once you're inside the cabin.
All of this, of course, is part of the G550's charm, as are the bolt-upright windshield; the huge, side-hinged rear cargo door; and, of course, the vehicle's legendary off-roading abilities, which I did not have an opportunity to explore this time but which I've experienced in previous G-wagens I've driven.
What's perhaps most amazing about the G550 is how fast the darn thing is. This is thanks to a new-for-2009 V-8, which replaced the previous 292-hp, 5.0-liter SOHC V-8. Now the G-wagen gets the same modern 5.5-liter V-8 that proliferates across the Mercedes lineup. Its 382 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque are more than sufficient to propel the G550 with amazing rapidity, and if you really dig into the accelerator, there's an intoxicating exhaust growl.
As for fuel economy? Surely you don't care, but I achieved about 13 mpg on a 400-mile freeway trip, driving between 75 and 80 mph.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor