– Carcassonne, France

Automakers and auto writers alike tend to overuse the term “all-new,” but with the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class, it feels appropriate. Just five parts carry over from the 2018 version of this SUV: the spare-tire cover, sun visors, headlight-washer sprayers, door handles, and a structural bracket hidden within the dash. Everything else? Completely new.

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550

At first glance, though, it doesn’t really look any different. The basic boxy shape remains, and in fact the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 (it’s badged as the G500 in Europe) has bulked up considerably compared to its predecessor: by 2.1 inches in length on a 1.6-inch longer wheelbase, 3.0 inches wider, and 0.3 inches taller. Yet the closer you look, the more you see the subtly tweaked details: new headlights with halo-like LED running lights, restyled taillights, and various other little changes. Utilitarian heritage touches remain, though: the gutter along the edge of the roofline, the giant hinges for the doors, and those push-button door handles that operate with a satisfying physicality.

When it comes to the mechanicals, the same type of evolution is evident. The basic idea is the same, but Mercedes engineers have redesigned things everywhere you look. Yes, the G-Class is still a body-on-frame SUV, with a ladder frame and a solid rear axle. Yet up front is now an independent suspension arrangement, with electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering instead of the dated recirculating-ball setup.

The G-Class also spent a lot of time hitting the gym and sticking to a diet of high-strength steels and aluminum. Thanks, in part, to making the fenders, hood, and doors from the latter lightweight material, curb weight is claimed to drop as much as 375 pounds. (Exact U.S. figures aren’t available yet, but the 2018 G550 tipped the scales at a beefy 5,833 pounds). 

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550

In what will be welcome news for anyone who endured the old model’s cramped quarters, every interior volume measurement has increased. Up front, an extra 2.7 inches of elbow room means I no longer bumper my passenger’s right arm, and while it was never in short supply before, legroom is up by 1.5 inches. I can now sit comfortably in the second row, too, where passengers enjoy 5.9 inches more legroom than before. It’s still not, say, S-Class spacious, but it’s going to be tolerable for four or even five adults to ride along.

More important, the design and nice-ness of the cabin take an immense leap forward. There are now real cup holders instead of a silly mesh net, for instance, and a roomier center console cubby, replete with charging ports. Materials are plusher and prettier all round, and you get a far more modern set of technologies, with dual 12.3-inch displays for the instrument cluster and infotainment system, operated by buttons on the steering wheel, voice commands, or a touchpad and rotary dial on the center console. It feels just like sitting in an E- or S-Class, dramatically easier to use and better to look at than the last G-Wagen I drove.

So too does it drive a whole lot different than the last G-Class I tried. The body and frame are 55 percent stiffer than before, so there are almost no shudders through the cabin over bumps. The new front suspension and steering breathe new life into the wheel. No longer is steering a chore and aiming around a corner a game of guess-and-check. There’s far greater ease and accuracy to the G550’s front end, especially in the city, which allows for a more relaxed and flowing driving style.

Power from the biturbocharged 4.0-liter V8 is unchanged but still tremendous, with 450 pound-feet of torque delivered from as little as 2,250 rpm and a bountiful 416 horsepower. Now with nine gears to choose from, the automatic transmission makes great use of all that power without really ever getting in the way: it slinks through cities with ease, while snap-snapping through gears when you dial the Dynamic Select switch from Comfort to Sport or Sport+. Couple that to the lower overall weight, and the G550 leaps and scurries, always able to find more oomph in reserve (it should easily beat its predecessor’s 5.8-second 0-60 time). You’ll even get some burbles and crackles from the exhaust in brisk driving – and that’s before upgrading to the AMG G63 version (stay tuned for a review of that model soon).

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550

Not that I drive the G550 exactly like a sports car: It’s still tall, and you still sit very high, so even with the adaptive dampers in Sport+ I’m cognizant that there’s a lot of inertia moving around when sweeping bends approach.

There’s still no word on fuel economy; the 2018 G550 scored a dismal 13 miles per gallon city and 14 mpg highway in EPA tests.

Happily for purists – and those of us lucky enough to thrash the thing around the same rocky off-road course Mercedes used to demo the G-Class back in 1990 – none of this on-road manners training has hurt the SUV’s mountain-goat personality. In fact, part of the reason there’s still a solid rear axle (albeit now attached with a five-link, trailing arm-type suspension) is so that engineers could hit their off-road durability targets. Specifically, the development mules had to endure more than 1,200 miles of trekking up and down the Schöckl mountain near Graz, Austria.

The key numbers for gravel grinding have improved: Ground clearance is up 0.2 inch to 9.5 inches, the breakover angle climbs by one degree to 26, and the departure angle improves from 30 to 31 degrees.

What those numbers don’t reflect is just how simple the G550 is to handle on tricky terrain. There’s really no kickback through the steering wheel, and even over big bumps the suspension never bangs or punishes occupants, making the outdoor excursion relatively comfy; I even leave the air-conditioned seat running the whole time. Mostly, the G-Class just lumbers around like Gulliver walking around Lilliput. Engage low range simply by pushing a button, then lock some or all of the differentials (just push the giant silver buttons on the dash) for more grip. The low-range ratio is aggressive enough that climbing steep slopes (ascending up to a 45-degree angle is possible if you’ve got enough grip) needs only the gentlest depression of the throttle, while descending is a foot-off-brake affair thanks to abundant engine braking. It’s not just that the G can go places other luxury SUVs can’t, it’s that it can do so without seeming in the least bit strained or perturbed by the efforts.

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550

On-board technologies make off-roading even simpler. For starters, the SUV goes into “G Mode” when you select low range and lock one of the diffs. That means the adaptive dampers are softened, the steering assist adjusted, and the throttle and transmission remapped for smoother progress over the tough stuff. Plus, you can scope out the ground ahead easily thanks to a 360-degree camera, while readouts on the infotainment screen show your tilt and inclination angles (up to 35 degrees of sideways tilt is acceptable). Better yet: when wading through deep water (you can go through up to 27.6 inches of it, four more than before), a water sensor in the front bumper signals the engine to close the air intakes in the front fascia, while a warning in the instrument cluster advises if you exceed the 10 kilometers-per-hour (about 6 mph) maximum speed recommended for fording.

Of course, you probably shouldn’t replicate my off-road excursion on the stock wheel-and-tire setup; my G550 tester was equipped with the optional Off-Road package that deletes the running boards and equips 18-inch wheels with Falken Wildpeak A/T rubber.

In terms of equipment and options, the G550 is plenty opulent. Push-button start is standard (it wasn’t available at all on the old model), along with heated leather seats, 64-color adjustable ambient lighting, 19-inch wheels, the Comand infotainment system comes with navigation and supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and there’s a Burmester surround-sound system. Other options include massaging front seats, adaptive suspension, additional 19- and 20-inch wheel choices, and various styling packages. Standard safety tech includes pre-collision warning and braking, traffic-sign recognition, blind-spot monitoring, and a driver-drowsiness warning. The new steering components allow for the first time, the introduction of features like self-parking and lane-keep assist.

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550

For all the improvements, there’s no getting around the fact that the G-Class is a beefier offering than rival luxury SUVs. To whit: There’s still as much wind noise as an economy car, even though there is now an extra rubber seal around the top of the doors, and all the exterior glass now has a slight curve (it was completely flat before). And even with the not-quite-flat glass, you still get tons of frustrating reflections in the windows, annoying catching in your peripheral vision. Too, that ker-clunk door latch and handle may be endearing to owners, but it requires a harder-than-expected shove to close the doors on the first try. So, no, it isn’t as prim and proper as a Range Rover or even Mercedes’ own GLS-Class. Then again, that ruggedness is sort of why buyers like the G in the first place.

It’s also likely to be rather expensive, of course. Though no official numbers are ready yet, the outgoing G550 lists for $123,600 before destination and options, and it’s likely the 2019 will have an even higher starting price.

The thing about the old G-Class was that people loved its take-no-prisoners charm despite its flaws. The 2019 model, though, is markedly more livable in every situation. It still never lets you forget its rough-and-tumble roots and tough backbone, yet the number and severity of the old G’s demerits have been reduced to a point where, finally, it feels as luxurious as its badge and sticker price suggest. All that, and you’ll still be able to lock the differentials and escape through the woods if some apocalyptic scenario strikes.

Photos: Mercedes-Benz

Gallery: 2019 Mercedes-Benz G550: First Drive

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550

Engine Biturbocharged 4.0-Liter V8
Output 416 Horsepower / 450 Pound-Feet
Transmission 9-Speed Automatic
Drive Type Four-Wheel Drive
Top Speed 130 Miles Per Hour
Weight 5,400 Pounds (est.)
Seating Capacity 5
On Sale Late 2018
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