First Drive: 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
The First All-New “G” in 39 Years
We absolutely adore the Mercedes-Benz “Geländewagen.” And how could you not? It’s big, flashy, and driven by Hollywood elites, socialites of Manhattan, and Miami billionaires. The vehicle has a military heritage, comes packed with ridiculously powerful engines, has more locking differentials than a Jeep Wrangler, and costs more than the average American home. And, despite not having had a full redesign since its civilian introduction in 1979, Mercedes is selling more of the beloved G-Wagens than ever before.
It may come as a surprise to most, but Mercedes-Benz began officially importing the G-Class into the United States in 2002. Since its introduction and subsequent importation to the U.S., the utility vehicle has undergone a couple light face-lifts, with slight tweaks to the exterior styling, interior appointments, and engine options. Nearly four decades after its introduction, the Bavarian bad boy has finally received the full redesign it so desperately deserved.
To the casual observer, it may appear that nothing has changed, and that is by design. When working with a vehicle as iconic as the G-Class, radical changes are not welcome. Still, the all-new 2019 G-Class shares only five components with the outgoing model: the headlamp washers, outside door handles, sunvisors, D-pillar vents, and the spare-tire cover. Gone is the solid front axle, exchanged for the better handling characteristics of an independent suspension with rack-and-pinion steering. The frame has been replaced with a new, stiffer unit and the whole vehicle has grown in size, adding 1.6 inches of wheelbase and a massive 5 inches of track width (overall size grows 2.1 inches longer and 4.8 inches wider). Mercedes claims a 375-pound weight reduction, thanks in part to the use of aluminum on the fenders, doors, and hood. Basically, we could talk for the next six days about all the changes that were made for 2019, but let’s take a look at how they drive instead.
Our adventure in the 2019 G-Class started fittingly enough in Beverly Hills, routed us down the California coast to San Diego, out to the Anza-Borrego desert, and back again. We were given both the G 550 and AMG G 63 models, and we logged nearly 500 miles behind the wheel over the course of three days.
Come Inside, Sit a While
While the exterior can be confused with every generation of G-Class ever built, the interior is a different story. The 2019 model brings the G solidly into the 21st century by incorporating Mercedes’ latest 12.3-inch COMAND infotainment system—Mercedes’ most advanced to date—along with offering an optional second 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster display. Also available are such niceties as adaptive cruise control, traffic-sign recognition, active brake assist, active lane-keep assist, and an entire suite of automated safety features. We did take issue with the active lane-keep assist on two occasions, where construction and temporary striping confused it to the point of nearly running us into the K-rail at 70 mph.
The added width is most noticeable in the front seats, as the driver and passenger are no longer forced to rub shoulders, and they have also gained 1.5 inches of legroom. And there’s finally a decent center console and set of cupholders. Rear-seat passengers will rejoice as well, as they receive a massive 5.9 inches of additional room to stretch their legs. The Active Multicontour front seats took a bit of getting used to, as they quickly and automatically adjust bolster where it’s needed the most, but after just a few miles of having them off, we missed the support. Don’t fret, they can also be turned to massage mode when the mood hits.
While the new G is stuffed with more real leather, wood, metal, and carbon fiber than you can shake the proverbial stick at, that doesn’t mean it has gone soft. You still sit tall and upright, looking out over the top of traffic from a majestic perch through the now slightly raked windshield. Retaining its predecessor’s low hood line and upright seating, the 2019 G-Class still feels right. Also still present, thankfully, are the vault-like doors that close with a very distinct and satisfying whack.
The Engine Room
The new G-Class has two available engines. Well, make that one engine with two different output ratings. Sorry, folks, the bonkers AMG V-12 is gone and its return is not looking good. The engine that’s retained is a turbocharged 4.0L V-8, which is carryover from 2018. In G 550 trim, the engine churns out 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. Select the AMG G 63, and the wick gets turned up to the tune of 577 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque. Both engines benefit from a new 9G-TRONIC nine-speed automatic transmission. The G 63 will scurry from 0-60 mph in just 4.5 seconds, which is nearly a full second quicker than the outgoing model. For those wondering, the 2019 G-Class’s top speed is an electronically limited 149 mph. And, no, we did not test them on it.
Naturally, our preferences led us to enjoy the G 63 most of all. With 127 more horses and 177 more lb-ft, we’re really not sure why they even bother selling the G 550. Seriously, at this price point, just buy the AMG. Anyway, both models eagerly hustled away from stoplights, and passing slower vehicles (which is most of them) is done with ease. The new transmission dispatches shifts eagerly and with a firmness that lets you know this is a performance vehicle. When shifted manually, the transmission fires off gear changes when desired, not when it feels like.
While we had a ton of fun railing on the G 63, its active exhaust system did tend to get a little drone-heavy and tiresome on longer stretches of highway. It was during these times that we wished for the more subdued engine note of the G 550.
Carving Corners Like a Boss
It’s really no secret that the handling of the outgoing G-Class left quite a bit to be desired. Really, though, how could it not? Previous generations were fitted with a solid front axle, which, while great for off-road articulation, lacked greatly on even the slightest curve. And the recirculating-ball-type steering system likely repurposed from a dump truck provided a fantastic bicep workout piloting the heavy beast nearly anywhere.
Now, however, thanks to its electronic-assist rack-and-pinion steering, independent front suspension, adaptive dampers, and full-time all-wheel drive, the G hugs corners and carves canyons with the best of them. Well, OK, it’s actually a nearly 3-ton box masquerading as a sportscar. Even still, it’s now a lot less nerve-wracking to drive the G-Class at speed, and cornering really is a nonevent. On G 63 models, the all-wheel-drive system is biased toward the rear (40:60), and slipping the AMG Dynamic Select system into Sport+ gives the impression that you’ve got a chance of keeping up with the E-Class that’s pulling away while driving up Mulholland. You don’t, but it’s fun to pretend.
In normal driving conditions, both the G 550 and G 63 were comfortable and composed, driving nearly as effortlessly as a GLE. Road imperfections are damped out perfectly, steering is tight and precise, and cruising around town is—dare we say—enjoyable.
Living Like the 10-Percent
To the uninitiated, likely living somewhere in middle America (or at least away from the coasts, where the highest G-Class concentrations are), the G is likely to be confused for a Jeep Wrangler: tall, boxy stance; round headlights; rugged styling; and, until now, a solid front axle. We can forgive these folks, and hopefully Mercedes can, too. Really, this should be taken as a compliment, as the two together comprise the upper echelon of off-road capability. Unlike the Wrangler, however, Mercedes brass tell us that only about 10 percent of G-Class vehicles will ever leave the highway, and for first owners, that number is much lower.
Despite these depressing figures, Mercedes-Benz kept all of the G-Class’s impressive off-road capability intact for 2019. As with the old G, the new one still features three locking differentials to be used as the terrain gets progressively more difficult. Situated in their traditional home in the center of the dash are the center, rear, and front differential lock switches. The G-Class retains a two-speed transfer case with a dedicated low range, and the only solid axle in the Mercedes-Benz lineup is found at the rear.
The G has no electronic hill descent control, just good ol’ fashioned low range and First gear. Mercedes claims it can climb or descend up to a 45-degree incline and ford more than 2 feet of water (27.6 inches), and it features 31-degree approach, 30-degree departure, and 25.7-degree breakover angles.
To experience its prowess, we spent several hours in a G 550 trundling along through the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area in Southern California. You’d think the new independent front suspension would hamper the vehicle’s capability, but we found it did just the opposite. Sure, it would occasionally lift a wheel while articulating through and over obstacles, but thanks in part to the locking differentials, forward progress was never hampered. Due to this new suspension and the active dampers (which are optional on the G 550 and standard on G 63), we were able to cruise at relatively high speeds over what would be considered rough terrain.
With all three lockers turned on, we easily clawed our way up a rutted and rocky hillclimb. And the engine’s 416 hp made sand dunes a blast, though admittedly, we yearned for the AMG’s 577 hp. We did manage a perfectly symmetrical donut in the sand, so add one to the win column for that.
The vehicles we were driving were completely stock, except the tires. Mercedes had fitted all-terrain tires on 18-inch wheels and affixed them in place of the standard street tires. Thankfully, they did say that the more off-road–centric rubber will be a dealer option, so it isn’t entirely a sandbagging offense.
Better in Every Way
Born for military service, the original G-Wagen is now a legend. In the decades that followed its introduction to civilian life, it has become a celebrity. It has starred in movies, television shows, and is often found parading around in the wealthiest corners of the world as a fashion accessory of the elite. And despite the fame, it has stayed true to its roots for almost 40 years.
The 2019 G-Class is better than its predecessor in every way. On-road comfort, off-road prowess, interior appointments, acceleration, handling—you name it, and it’s better. Thankfully, it’s easy to see that the folks at Mercedes still harbor some nostalgia for the days of old and realized what a crime it would be if the new G wasn’t distinctly G. The new Geländewagen is an amazing work of mechanical art and a thoroughly modern vehicle that anyone with 150 grand in their pocket would be proud to own.
2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550Vehicle type: Five-passenger fullsize SUV
Base price: $124,500
Price as tested: $153,115
Engine: Turbocharged 4.0L V-8
Transmission: 9-speed 9G-TRONIC automatic
Horsepower: 416 @ 5,250 rpm
Torque: 450 lb-ft @ 2,250 rpm
Curb weight: 5,349 pounds (est.)
Towing capacity: TBA
EPA mileage rating: 13 city/17 hwy/14 comb
2019 Mercedes-Benz G 63Vehicle type: Five-passenger fullsize SUV
Base price: $147,500
Price as tested: $175,945
Engine: Turbocharged 4.0L V-8
Transmission: 9-speed 9G-TRONIC automatic
Horsepower: 577 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 627 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Curb weight: 5,458 pounds (est.)
Towing capacity: TBA
EPA mileage rating: 13 city/15 hwy/14 comb