Brilliant. Brutish. Badass. Butt ugly. Boxy. Benz. These are all words that I’ve heard people use to describe the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen over the years. Commonly referred to as “G-Wagen,” this rugged, Rubik’s Cube-inspired slab of German SUV engineering is a testament to what happens when a good idea turns sour and then becomes a stunning success.
Originally designed to be nothing more than a military machine, the G-Wagen got its first big break in the late 1970s, when Mercedes-Benz realized that it could market the truck to civilians. At the time, the German brand had a surplus on hand thanks to a certain Persian prince ordering a metric mess-load of them – right before being removed from power. Unrefined and diesel-powered, yet undeniably capable, the vehicle proved to be a tough sell all the way up until a young salesman by the name of Heinz Neunzig realized that marketing the vehicle to families was the key to moving units.
Flash-forward a few years, and Heinz had turned the brand’s most unloved chassis into a huge hit. By incentivizing the Mercedes-Benz sales force, constructing off-road courses for customer testing, and getting entire families to take the vehicle for a spin, Heinz was able to change the public’s perception forever. And while Americans wouldn’t be able to buy these machines until close to two decades later, global interest in the SUV proved to be astounding.
What most people don’t realize, is that up until the most recent reincarnation, the G-Wagen has gone virtually unchanged since its inception, and for good reason. Being born of military stock, the vehicle features blocky lines and simple glass designs in order to make their replacement as painless as possible. Replacing damaged body components in the field during a skirmish or while rescuing civilians can be a royal pain, especially when there isn’t a Mercedes-Benz dealership right down the road. Having the ability to make a quick fix via whatever sheet metal may be laying around is a major bonus, hence the G-Wagen being one of the most widely utilized commercial and government vehicles on the planet.
That’s not an over exaggeration, either. From fire departments in Australia and security forces in Europe ordering them by the thousands, to the United Nations and United States Marine Corps, the G-Wagen has become a staple the world over.
On the flipside comes the opulent excess – wealthy celebrities turning rugged off-road vehicles into status symbols. What started with just a handful of Hollywood stars owning bone-stock G-Wagens has spiraled out of control. From ball players tucking gargantuan chrome wheels beneath each corner, to wealthy businessmen outfitting their G with every imaginable 4×4 bolt-on (only to avoid dirt at all costs), urban landscapes have become the G’s new home.
The Geländewagen has become a victim of its own success, and it seems that the crazier the vehicle gets in regard to performance, opulence, and aesthetics, the more people want it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 4×4² version of the outgoing generation of the G550, which to date remains one of the most insanely fun vehicles I have ever reviewed.
Over the top on virtually every level, the G550 4×4² is without question one of the most capable off-road SUV options ever concocted. With its imposing presence, exposed twin shock suspension, flashy brakes, bulging raw carbon fenders, matching LED windscreen visor, and $6,500 paprika paint upgrade on board, you can see why the elite are drawn to this unique machine. It’s opulent over-indulgence in its purest form, all backed by 4×4 dexterity like no other.
Unfortunately, the average 4×4² will spend most of its life parked in a heated garage or circling Whole Foods looking for a space that can safely fit its frame. Learning the proper order for locking all three differentials and engaging the low-end traction setting aren’t in the cards for most buyers, because they’re afraid they might scratch a wheel or chip the paint.
This seems incredibly hypocritical to me. If you can afford something this extreme, you can cough up the additional dough to have it fixed when something breaks. When Mercedes-Benz agreed to send me down a G550 4×4² for a week, I knew right away that I was going to put this monster through its paces. I just had to see what was permitted before proceeding. When asked about limitations on what could be done off-road, the Mercedes-Benz PR specialist on the other end paused for a moment, and then calmly stated, “Don’t launch it or water-log it.”
I hung up the phone and quickly got to securing a day of mudding with local Cincinnati 4×4 specialists, All-Terrain Outfitters, who recommended an off-road park an hour away in Kentucky called The Dirty Turtle. With what seemed like endless acres of trails at our disposal, as well as a trusted recovery vehicle/spotter leading the way, I prepared for the testing and photographing of my Mercedes-Benz G550 4×4² loaner, not knowing what to expect from the 3½-ton German juggernaut.
Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room, for the 4×4² truly is about as big as one, making it a bitch to park and impossible to use in certain off-road scenarios. With a fender-to-fender width of 86.2 inches, an overall height of 88 inches, and 177.1 inches of length, the primary thing that hinders the G550 4×4² is its own proportions. That said, I found myself choosing my trails carefully that day, for the SUV has a turning radius that’s just as monolithic.
However, once a clear path presented itself, and both center and rear lockers had been engaged, every challenge proved conquerable. Churning up inclines and creeping across riverbeds was a cakewalk, thanks to a whopping 17.2 inches of ground clearance beneath and an undercarriage engineered to specialize in breakovers. Saving the final front locker for only the slipperiest of conditions, the 4×4² handled obstacles that were wet, dry, rocky, or gravel-based with ease.
The only major obstacle came toward the top of one of our hill climbs, where a deluge of rain had left mud so deep that the Mansfield bar in the rear became a concern. While disconnecting the bar would have been a cinch with standard hand tools, concerns over lack of grip from the 325/55R-22 Pirelli Scorpion ATR tires caused me to err on the side of caution and choose another path.
Bumping back down the mountain, with ventilated massaging seats pampering my posterior, I thought to myself, “Now this truly is the best of both worlds.”“> All of the luxury amenities you can shake a torque wrench at, paired with virtually every imaginable 4×4 performance enhancement Mercedes-Benz has to offer, come standard on this automobile. It’s the automotive equivalent of “all-inclusive glamping,” but with a far more militaristic approach.
A few nerdy 4×4 notables that helped make my 5+ hours at the off-road park such a breeze were the G-Wagen’s beefy portal axles, low range settings, tucked exhaust, and reinforced skid plates for security’s sake. Wheel articulation comes courtesy of custom dual KW coilovers at each corner with adjustable damping, and the use of suspension arms engineered for extreme clearance add even more peace of mind when in the wild. Virtually any environment can be conquered in this monster, earning it a top pick for vehicles to look for when the zombie apocalypse erupts.
Kicking out softball-sized globs of mud, we get back up to speed on the interstate, turning my attention back to what makes this Benz such a brute. With its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 packing two snails between each head, the G550 4×4² generates a hefty 416-horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. The tradeoff is that you get an EPA estimate of 11 mpg in town, and the exact same on the interstate. This is not only due to the engine’s hyper-performance focus or the seven-speed automatic’s gearing, but the vehicle’s 6,635-pound curb weight and lousy aerodynamics.
But who gives a crap about the price of premium petrol when you own something as outlandishly expensive as a Mercedes-Benz G550 4×4²? Bouncing around town in one of these machines instantly makes you the day’s topic of discussion, and you’ve got the goods to back it all up. Well… sort of.
Despite its impressive size, and having incredibly comfortable front seats that are surrounded by a hefty array of luxury enhancements, the 4×4² is still a somewhat spartan vehicle with a lot of design flaws. Rear seat comfort is modest at best, offering just 41.9 inches of legroom and a seatback position that is nonadjustable and almost completely upright. Its pivoting rear cargo door may look massive, but it offers very little loading space, and for being military-bred you’d expect more storage compartments throughout. And even though they’ve been a G-Wagen staple for decades, the annoying mesh cupholders seem to be more of an afterthought than a standard amenity.
Design complaints complete, we now turn to city driving, which can be a bit unnerving if you aren’t accustomed to lifted automobiles. Not only is the 4×4²’s steering incredibly vague, but the suspension and squishy Pirelli tires are a breeding ground for body roll and unnecessary bounce when firmed-up in Sport mode. You also won’t find any surround-view cameras on this SUV, forcing you to rely on the single backup display, your mirrors, and a lot of prayer. Parking decks, drive-thrus, bank deposit lanes, and garages all have to be reconsidered and carefully calculated, forcing you to carve additional time out of your day just to make these mundane tasks happen.
Impracticalities and inefficiency aside, driving a 4×4² in town is like shopping at Target in a leotard made entirely from smoked paprika and silk. EVERYONE is going to stare. Those in the know throw a thumbs-up in the air, while haters merely glare and assume that you’re a trust fund baby or a ball player. Random strangers ask what in the hell it is and what mods you’ve done to it, while others compliment you on your “badass Jeep, bro.” There is no stealth mode with this one, and quite frankly, that’s precisely why the G-Wagen has proven to be such a success all these years.
However, with the 40 year-old chassis seeing a new generation, you have to wonder what the next incarnation will entail. It’s no secret that the more outlandish and luxury-laden the Geländewagen, the more the elite are going to be willing to cough-up for it. But will Mercedes-Benz make another 4×4²?
As of this moment the German automaker has made zero mention as to whether or not it will continue to produce the 4×4² as a continuation of what you see here. Automakers will often cancel a model entirely even when it is still turning a profit, just to watch the public turn into a frenzied mess over the thought of its rebirth years later.
Way more than just a series of bolt-ons and a set of one-off embroidered seats, the 4×4² is part Unimog, part carbon fiber masterpiece, and part performance package. It’s a one-off like no other, and will likely take quite some time before it reemerges on the market, if it ever does at all. Mercedes-Benz stands to make a fortune if it can pull off another round of these beasts though, so hopes remain high that the next generation of 4×4² will come to fruition.
A few final closing thoughts focus on the little things that make this leviathan so enjoyable to operate, even for those of us who have issues spelling Geländewagen.
First of all, I love how in order to close a door in this SUV, it must be forcefully slammed shut, rewarding you with a latching sound akin to a large caliber artillery round being loaded. It also packs a burble that only the Mercedes-Benz Bi-Turbo V8 can offer, and does so with wild abandon. The brakes feel fantastic due to their equally enormous size, the quilted stitching on the seats is sublime, and if smoking stogies while off-roading is your thing, ashtrays are abundant.
So if you plan on buying something like the Mercedes-Benz G550 4×4², or anything that costs close to a quarter of a million dollars and boasts a multitude of specialized performance perks, test it out!
High-performance vehicles should be used for their intended purpose and not limited to being little more than hierarchical societal badges on wheels. Don’t be afraid to thrash your performance machines and get a few souvenir scratches. They were built for this, which is precisely why this SUV will hold a top spot as one of the best bone-stock 4×4 vehicles ever crafted.