There’s a real danger when updating an iconic car. Designers and engineers have to weigh the demands of purists that value the charm and character of yesteryear with the wants a constantly evolving market. While small in sales volume, the pressure of redesigning the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen was surely immense.
Fortunately, the latest G-Wagen marries the old and new almost perfectly. In fact, after a week of testing, the only shortcomings I could find were things that, had Mercedes attended to, would result in a vehicle that isn’t a G-Class.
The G-Wagen’s military roots have no impact on the luxury on display in its cabin. This is a beautiful place with ultra-high-quality leather, wood, and metal everywhere you look. It’s clean and lovely. Even the slab housing the twin 12.3-inch displays (one for the instrument cluster and another for the infotainment system), which normally feels out of place in other Mercedes models, is better integrated here thanks to its leather-wrapped surround.
It’s the little touches, though, that highlight both how excellent the G-Class’ cabin is and how careful Mercedes has been in adapting a luxury cabin to off-road duty. Little bits of stitching here and there are one thing, but the nifty knee padding on the transmission tunnel, the neatly integrated grab handle on the dash in front of the passenger, and the simple, subtle metal buttons for the locking differentials marry Mercedes luxury with robust functionality. If you dislike Range Rovers because luxury overshadows off-road credentials, the G-Wagen is the vehicle for you.
If excess is all you care about, then by all means buy the Mercedes-AMG G63. But at least take the G550 for a spin first, because the standard twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 has an AMG’s personality, even if its 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque (relatively speaking) lacks the punch of the G63’s 577 hp and 627 lb-ft. The base engine revs every bit as brutally as its uprated sibling, with a baritone exhaust note and unending acceleration. Deploying the 4.0-liter’s power is a bit like ordering a four-wheeled artillery barrage.
While the G-Wagen’s reputation has been sullied by reality stars, socialites, and other assorted douchebags, it somehow remains undeniably cool. The latest update only reinforces that fact, with small aesthetic upgrades that perfectly modernize a classic piece of design. I dig the circular LED running lights, the tiny taillights, the huge cover for the spare tire, and the hood-mounted turn signals. I love the door guards and the exposed gutters on the roof. It’s all perfect.
And then there are the bits you can’t see.
The door handles have a perfect mechanical feel. Press the button to open one of them and you feel the internals working to lift the latch from the catch. Slam the door and the sound that comes out is best described as a majestic “thwump.” Finally, hit the button on the fob to lock the doors and the G-Wagen does a fine impression of a bolt-action Mauser rifle.
The G-Wagen’s brick-like shape and upright windows have an unfortunate side effect: at night, there’s constant glare from the displays and cabin lighting. It’s irritating, especially with the ambient lighting system engaged. The bigger, more painful annoyance comes on sunny days, where the upright windshield seemingly has the reflective qualities of a mirror.
I discovered this, to my regret, after the car nearly blinded me. The sun was shining directly onto the windshield, which reflected its rays through my dining room window and on to the wall. When I turned the corner into the room, the off-road-capable death ray blasted me directly in the eyes. It also happened multiple times while I was photographing this gallery.
This one really goes without saying: the G550 is silly expensive. Prices start at $124,500, while the vehicle featured here demands $139,945. That is a helluva lot of money when you consider the number of vehicles that can match the G-Wagen off-road, have equally beautiful cabins, or have as undeniable a cool factor. That said, getting all of those attributes in a single vehicle isn’t easy. While the G550 costs a pretty penny, by and large, it feels worth the price.
Again, this isn’t too surprising. Pairing a 400-plus-horsepower V8 with brick-like aerodynamics will never result in good fuel economy. The G550 earns 13 miles per gallon city, 17 mpg highway, and 14 mpg combined, per the Environmental Protection Agency. That said, much like the price tag, if you’re considering a G-Wagen, fuel economy isn’t likely on your list of purchase priorities.
Gallery: 2019 Mercedes-Benz G550: Pros and Cons
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550