Aaron Richardet, the owner of Osprey Custom Cars, told me that he was “looking to punch the G-Wagen in the nose” with the 1991 Land Rover Defender 90 build that was sitting in my driveway. Finished to an impressive standard, inside and out, the nearly $180,000 price tag certainly put the restomod firmly in the neighborhood of Mercedes’ do-everything SUV icon.
But I didn’t need to use my imagination to know which uber off-roader I’d prefer, as the Defender joined a 2022 Mercedes-Benz G550 in my care that week. A great few days of testing for me, and a glimpse into just how bananas the world of SUVs has gotten here in the second decade of the 21st century. There’s never been a more interesting time to buy a super-luxury off-roader (or a more perfect season), presuming you’ve got between one and two hundred grand to spend.
save over $3,400 on average off MSRP* on a new Mercedes-Benz G-Class
The standard bearers in this segment – our Best Luxury-winning Range Rover and the range of G-Wagens that run from “base” G550s up through insanity spec AMG creations – are better than they’ve ever been. GMC and Rivian will sell you a fully electric, massively maneuverable, and insanely quick electric Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) that isn’t afraid of big rocks or deep mud. And companies like ICON, Ringbrothers, and Osprey are making classic SUVs into daily-driveable muscle trucks at a level of quality almost unheard of a decade ago.
The landscape of off-road toys is exceptional, without question, but I was anxious to see which of the two super SUVs would get my money, figuratively speaking of course, after a head-to-head test.
The Custom Contender
I drove the Osprey Defender to the corner store about five minutes after it had arrived. The 1-mile trip set the stage for the next week, as I answered questions from no fewer than three interested onlookers before I was able to head home with my soda and snacks.
Something in the delicious mix of the hand-polished Keswick Green paint, aggro Cooper Discoverer AT3 tires on glossy black 18-inch alloy wheels, and snort of the 6.2-liter V8 engine at startup tends to draw a crowd.
The two-door “station wagon” has a ton of eyeball, even from across a crowded parking lot. The Defender 90 shape is classic enough that even a “normal” version from the 27-year model run gets a lot of attention. But Osprey’s build, replete with LED lighting front and rear, a sleek body-color grille, and striking black accents, let even a casual observer know this is something special.
Climb inside the cabin (as one gentleman did with very little prompting from me) and the transformation is even more evident. Richardet told me his vision for this 90 was a kind of upscale cigar bar, and with quilted tobacco-colored leather stretching from the bottom of the doors to the headliner, it’s easy to say he was successful. A modern stereo and head unit (CarPlay is supposedly available but I couldn’t get it to work well) contrasts with a glorious, thin-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel that wouldn’t be out of place in a vintage Jaguar or 911. And somehow the retained plastic bits, instrument cluster, and rubber floormats pull the vibe together rather than ruin it.
People have been putting big motors in underpowered old Defenders for ages, but I will admit that the implementation of the 435-horsepower LS3 V8 is magical here. With a free-breathing exhaust the Corvette-sourced engine is a sonic treat, revving quickly and allowing for wheel-spinning starts on dry pavement. The softish brake pedal in combination with all that power and fury was a little surprising at first, but I learned to put my foot down hard to stop, and to stop worrying.
The Established Player
It’s odd to call a G550 “the conventional choice” but I suppose that’s correct in this context. Both the Mercedes and the custom Osprey ask around the same money for the privilege of ownership (as-tested MSRP of $169,020 for the G550, $179,950 for the Defender 90), and both combine creature comforts with a package that will climb most mountains.
But where the restomod Land Rover is bubbling over with personality, the G is far more staid. Even in an exceptional Deep Green paint over Saddle Brown leather (I couldn’t have asked for closer colorways to compare if I tried) the G550 blends more easily into modern carscapes. Sure, if you know what you’re looking at you know this is a special truck, but it’s far less shouty than the one-off Osprey.
There’s no question that the G550 is also the pick for parents of kids. The fold-up backseats of the 90 are completely charming. But they proved a bit too nerve-wracking for me to fit rear car seats in, and as a result, all of my runs to and from daycare were made in the Benz.
Of course, the Mercedes is likely to be safer in a crash no matter where you’re sitting, but it also just goes, stops, and turns in a more predictable way, too. The twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 makes less power and torque (416 hp and 450 lb-ft) than the Defender’s transplanted V8, but a sophisticated nine-speed transmission, active suspension, and more streetable tires all make it easier to drive the G quickly.
Gallery: Osprey 1991 LR Defender And 2022 Mercedes-Benz G500
I didn’t have the time or opportunity to take the unlikely pair to the nearest off-road park. That’s disappointing but entirely fair, I’d say, as a test of how they’re both likely to be used. Sure, Osprey makes less refined builds that are just dying to get dirty, and I know that some kind of G-Wagen has crossed just about every trail on the planet at some point. The bona fides are real. But if actual owners of each are like me, they’ll at least have to think pretty hard about their wonderful paintwork and cool wheels before they decide to go rock crawling.
For my money (which doesn’t actually stretch to $170k SUV purchases, if I’m honest) and my life, the G550 would be the obvious choice. At a stage of life where I have to consider the health and safety of my travel companions (mostly my toddler boys) no matter where I’m going, the ability to safely load two car seats overrules everything.
Richardet did tell me that more and more of his customers are using their customized Defenders as daily drivers – especially as more of them work from home and drive for pleasure. And certainly, vehicles like this, with ground-up refurbishments, are likely to be about as reliable as 30-year-old British vehicles get. An Osprey truck would be more fun, minute to minute, and more of a special experience every time behind the wheel.
As a second or third vehicle – to do weekend trips with a partner or Saturday drives into the country – the Osprey Defender 90 tingles my brain’s pleasure center in a way no modern car ever could.
We’re Not Done Yet
Thanks to COVID and camping, the unmistakable appeal of a good roof tent, or pure fashion, the motoring universe seems intent on, for lack of a better phrase, overlanding all of the things. The newest G-Wagen and resto efforts from the likes of Osprey are just the tip of the iceberg where knobby tires are concerned.
When Lamborghini and Porsche each launch rally-ready supercars, for instance – the Huracan Sterrato and the 911 Dakar, respectively – it seems clear that we are entering the halcyon days of the ORV. Remember when it seemed like a big deal for either of those brands just to sell an SUV?
Of course, trucks have always thrived in this space, but wild competitors like the Ram TRX and Ford Raptor R are pushing the Baja genre to new heights. Even smaller trucks – at one point affordable off-road options – are pushing into more extreme price ranges with uprated abilities. See the $40K-plus midsizers like the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison, Ford Ranger Tremor, Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, etc.
I’ll take a week in any of them and love it, make no mistake. But, ultimately, I’ll be watching to see if the money sucked up into the leisure luxury off-road world will do something really useful, like drive down the price of an old 911.