Not all boxes are created equal. Some are just empty. Boxes that are filled with goods are typically covered with descriptions and colorful pictures that let you know exactly what product to expect inside.
Then there’s the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
It began as a response to the Shah of Iran’s request for an off-road vehicle that could go over any terrain. Development started in the early 1970s and led to a production version of the cube-like adventure machine in 1979 (it’s doubtful the Shah had time to celebrate the debut because that was the same year he fled his country during the Iranian Revolution).
The 460-series version of the Geländewagen (German for “cross-country vehicle”) rolled out of a Steyr-Daimler-Puch factory in Graz, Austria and into the possession of off-road enthusiasts around the world. In 1983, Jacky Ickx and Claude Brasseur used a modified 280 GE to win the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally.
Many other G-Wagens became transportation for military forces and emergency medical services, particularly the 461, a variant which began production in 1990. That’s also when the 463 G-Class came out. It wasn’t until 2002 that Mercedes-Benz officially began importing the G-Class into the United States. The market was open to all who wanted one of the curveless utes.
Looking at the modern G-Class, you’d be forgiven for instantly forming assumptions about it. It has a three-pointed star on its grille and a base price higher than some mortgages, so it’s tempting to think of it as a palace on wheels. You often see G-Wagens in the parking lots of high-end shopping malls, the only dirt on them from smooth suburban and city streets, not challenging trails, which might lead you to think the G-Class is a status symbol best suited for only making its way over the speed bumps outside of a Neiman Marcus.
However, despite being clearly labeled and undeniably decorated, the G-Class is a box that doesn’t tell you everything about what’s inside of it. Luckily, I recently got the chance to open up a 2017 Mercedes-Benz G550 and discover its contents.
The G550 is the $122,400 entry-level model in a lineup that includes the $141,400, 563-horsepower AMG G63 and the $220,400, V12-powered AMG G65. It really didn’t matter how much my G550 tester cost ($136,375, as tested). The most important thing was that it was a G-Wagen. Everyone seemed to know what it was. It was a celebrity that I chauffeured around town.
While I was photographing the G550, a boy who wasn’t even born when Mercedes started selling the G-Class in the U.S. shouted out to me, “Is that a G-Wagen?” My girlfriend and her gal pals, who all work in high-end interior design, piled into it to have their pictures taken. Some of my guy friends, one of whom is a motorcycle-riding mechanic, took turns ogling the G550’s ingot-like design and exploring its interior. By the time they saw it, I had learned a great deal about what it was like to drive a G-Class.
I did my best to convey the highlights of the experience, but they mainly seemed interested in the packaging. I found it hard to blame them. The G-Class stands out as a right-angled singularity in a country gone mad for curvy crossovers.
My test vehicle arrived in front of my apartment a few weeks before Halloween. It was already dressed for the festivities with its $6,500 designo manufaktur Paprika Metallic paint job and optional Night Package, which added black bumpers, fender flares, mirror caps, side strips, wheels, and roof.
The term “luxury off-road vehicle” is not exclusive to the G-Class. A variety of manufacturers produce such machines. Land Rover’s Range Rover is an example that immediately comes to mind. The Bentley Bentayga is another. They may be built to accomplish the same things as the G550, but they certainly weren’t built in the same way. Their designers used arcs and curves to make them as wind-cheating as they are eye-pleasing. The G550’s lines all met each other at right angles decades ago. In the years since then, they have not bent or softened to help the G-Class achieve greater aerodynamics. The hand-welded, steel-bodied anachronism continues to bludgeon its way through the air and onto the driveways of lavish homes.
“I thought it would be nicer than this.” I heard that more than once when my friends sat inside the G550. To them, being in one of its seats was both a privilege and a disappointment. I found the cabin to be a juxtaposition of bygone construction and modern luxury.
After slamming the thin metal driver-side door (if you want soft-close doors, look at another Mercedes), I sat in a heated and cooled (but not massaging) seat, surrounded by gleaming Anthracite poplar wood trim. Glancing at a door panel, I could see exposed screw heads and the creamy hides that were part of my review vehicle’s $1,950 designo Porcelain Nappa leather package. Neither one of the front windows had auto-up functionality, but the G550 gave me the convenience of Distance Pilot DISTRONIC adaptive cruise control and navigation, the comfort of an adjustable suspension (Comfort and Sport), and the peace of mind of Blind Spot Assist.
In the second row, the stadium-style heated seats were surprisingly short on legroom. Using a black plastic door handle to swing open the seemingly 1,000-pound door (thanks to the spare tire attached to it) revealed a handle that appeared to be dug out of a parts bin decades ago on the other side and 79.5 cubic feet of cargo space – once I manually folded the rear seats down.
The G550 looks like a bank vault and weighs as much as a gold cache you might find in one. It tips the scales at an eye-widening 5,724 pounds. It needs an equally substantial engine to get it up to speed in less than an hour.
The G550 has one.
Its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 cranks out 416 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque. Combined with a 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic, that gets the G550 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and allows it to tow 7,000 pounds. On top of that, the 4.0 lets out an addictive, guttural growl through the pipes right under the rear seats. Jamming my right foot down just for grins and a firm shove back into my seat was a frequent occurrence.
On-Road Driving Impressions
The G550 drove just about how I expected a steel, body-on-frame, 4X4 SUV with roots in the 1970s to drive. The steering was heavy at low speeds and vague once the speedo needle swung more to the right. I was especially careful going around curves because the G550 is nearly 6.5 feet tall.
The ride quality was surprisingly pleasant, even when the suspension was set to Sport. I didn’t bother leaving the G-Wagen in its Eco drive setting because the thirsty beast only gets 14 mpg on the highway. Plus, the exhaust seemed to emit an annoying, fluttering bass note at certain speeds, so most of the time I drove around in Sport mode.
Off-Road Driving Impressions
The G550 has three locking differentials (front, middle, and rear), more than eight inches of wheel travel, 9.25 inches of ground clearance… and a lot in common with the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Both are legendary off-roaders with upright and angular profiles. The similarities go beyond just visual, though. Like the JK, the G doesn’t have selectable terrain modes or off-road cruise control like the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro or Land Rover Discovery – just lockers, space below its belly, and analog prowess.
I got a chance to take the G550 over the trails of a sprawling game ranch during the Texas Auto Writers Association’s 2017 Texas Truck Rodeo. I picked the most difficult path available. The G550 walked through it. It could’ve completed the entire course of whoops, grades, and rock crawling in high range, but I engaged low range and fired up the lockers – middle first, then rear, then front – just for the hell of it. The G550’s sub-16-feet length and short overhangs made it nimble and easy to guide through the trees. At one or two points on the way up a chewed-up rocky path, the Pirelli Scorpions lost their grip on the loose earth underneath them. Once I adjusted my line, they hooked up and sent me higher into the Texas Hill Country.
The G550 may not have won the SUV of Texas award, but it left everyone who drove it – including me – with a smile on their face.
The 2017 Mercedes-Benz G550 was an attractively and deceptively wrapped box. It looked like a mall-crawler, which many use it as, but had the reputation for being a serious off-roader. To truly know what the G550 contained, I had to open it up. I didn’t always like what I found when I reached inside, but once I did, I certainly didn’t want to put the lid back on.