This is the first all-new G-class in four decades. First things first. Although the civilian G-class has received several updates and upgrades over its 39-year-run (its lifespan is even longer if you count the original military version designed at the behest of the Shah of Iran), the 2019 model is the first ground-up redo of the G since it was introduced to the public in 1979. The 2007 GL-class—now called the GLS-class—was originally intended to replace the G, an idea that seems almost humorous in retrospect.
The G is still handmade. The first Gs were hand-assembled by Magna-Steyr, and the latest Gs are built that way, too. The leather is hand-tooled, and in the case of the G63 AMG, even the twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 is assembled by hand.
The door handles are unchanged. Along with the iconic boxy shape, the new G-class retains its iconic door handles with the same push-button latch assembly in use for decades. Opening the G’s door is an immensely satisfying experience; the thumb button offers a solid amount of resistance before giving way, and the door latch releases with a substantial clack—a reminder of how the word “German” became a synonym for “precision” back in the late 1970s. One downside: The old-school handles mean you have to use the remote to unlock the doors. This is unlike every other modern Mercedes models, which unlock when you touch the handle. Incidentally, the only other carry-over parts are the headlight washers and the spare-tire cover.
The G is (apparently) airtight. Closing the doors is not as easy as you might expect: The G seals up so tightly that you have to practically slam the doors to get them to shut completely. It’s an impressive indicator of high build quality, but we’ve found ourselves wishing that Mercedes had programmed the windows to automatically index slightly when the doors are unlocked or opened, as seen on myriad vehicles with frameless glass.
It’s better off-road than ever. One of the biggest changes made to the G-class is the substitution of an independent rear suspension for the old G’s live front axle. Yet Mercedes went to great lengths to improve the G’s already substantial off-road ability: The approach, departure, and breakover angles have all been improved by one degree; ground clearance is up 0.2 inch thanks to no “pumpkin” on the front axle; and fording depth is up by four inches. The low-range crawl ratio is 38 percent lower, too. Finally, the G can climb a 45-degree slope (we’ve done it) and stand sideways on a 35-degree incline without rolling over (we did it at 32 degrees, and that was terrifying enough).
It knows when it’s swimming. The new G-class can wade through water up to 27.6 inches deep. As the G enters deep water, a “wading sensor” closes the primary intake channel located behind the radiator, and the engine then draws air from a higher, alternate intake behind the headlights.
The headlights are part of the show. We love the G’s new daytime running lights, a white LED ring surrounding the trademark round lenses. But what’s even cooler is the lighting effect when you switch on the headlights: The DRL fades out and the headlight fades in. Turn the headlights off, and the G cross-fades back to the DRLs. Very, very cool.
It (finally) has a back seat you can live with. One of the biggest complaints about the outgoing G-class was the tight back seat. Mercedes made it a point to give the new G a habitable second row, although most of the additional legroom is vertical rather than horizontal due to the raised rear seat. We’re fine with that—legroom is legroom, and the G certainly has headroom to spare.
The Mercedes-AMG G63 is ridiculously quick. The G63’s output numbers are impressive: 577 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque. Still, 5,500 pounds or so of curb weight has a way of tempering even the strongest of engines, and it doesn’t help that the G has the aerodynamics of an office building. We thus lowered our expectations a bit before hitting the gas for the first time, but the G63 exceeded them by a mile: It jets like, well, a jet. A very square jet. Mercedes claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds, and we certainly believe it.
The G63 sounds bad-ass—and so does the G550. With its giant, side-exit pipes, the G63 makes great noises. But we’re also pleasantly surprised at how wonderful the G550 is to the ears. Rather than save all the aural thunder for the AMG model, Mercedes gave the “lesser” G an authoritative exhaust note and a nice, deep V-8 throb. And while the G550 looks a lot slower on paper—Mercedes says 5.7 seconds to 60—it still feels plenty quick.
The G-class is a strange vehicle to drive quickly. Driving the G quickly on curvy roads is an experience, that’s for sure. The G has the slow steering you’d expect from an off-road-ready SUV—even if it is now a modern rack-and-pinion setup instead of the last-generation’s recirculating-ball system—and both the G63 and G550 list appreciably when you turn into a corner. But once the body takes a set, it stays there, and the new model has little to none of the unsettled, post-directional-change wobble of the old one. Driving the G63 fast feels a bit like swinging a sledgehammer for the pure joy of it in that it’s rather liberating provided no one is standing too close.
There’s no hill-descent control—and Mercedes says the G doesn’t need it. Given its off-road chops, the lack of hill-descent control (HDC) from the G’s toolbox seems like a notable absence. Mercedes says the G doesn’t need HDC now that it has a 2.9:1 crawl ratio, but anything with a torque converter will try to run away given enough gravity, plus it seems silly that Mercedes’ latest-and-greatest off-roader relies on engine compression to help slow its descents in the same fashion as, say, a 1977 International Scout. We did go down some steep slopes in low range, and the G-class did an admirable job of tiptoeing down them. We’d still prefer the extra safety net.