There may be no modern-day SUV as unique as the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. At a time when many sport/utilities are moving from body-on-frame to unibody constructionand beefed-up all-wheel drive instead of true four-wheel drive, the G-Class remains proudly old school. As it should. Its heritage, like that of the Wrangler, Defender 90, Hummer, and Land Cruiser, started with the military, and that capability lives on to this day. What's amazing is that the G-Class doesn't just survive as the market moves to carlike vehicles: It thrives. It is a relatively low-volume vehicle, but the G-Class continues to sell consistently well.

While the dimensions haven't changed much since the military Gelandewagen was offered in civilian from in the 1970s (in Europe), that doesn't mean it has stayed exactly the same. This is a vehicle Mercedes continues to update, not only to keep everything current on the safety and emissions fronts, but also to ensure the interior contains all the goodies people expect in a Mercedes. In the case of the 2012 G550 we tested, those goodies and amenities are part of the reason the bottom line ended up being just a touch over $111,000.

Why is it so expensive, you ask? Imagine taking the same vehicle, with military-grade underpinnings, three transfer cases, and all the off-road capability you could possibly want, and adding things like navigation, leather, satellite radio, surround sound, and more. It's like trying to cram all the new Mercedes goodies in a package that hasn't changed significantly in over 30 years. It adds up.

The result, though, is thoroughly impressive. The G-Class is one of those special vehicles with an eye-catching iconic shape. If there's one in a parking lot, you can easily spot it, as it stands out from the aerodynamic, rounded-jellybean crossover crowd. This G550 stood out more than usual, as it is bright red. Having a tank in the city isn't unique enough -- why not drive a tank that's red?

Even unlocking the G550 is unusual. The door locks have a solid-sounding metallic "clack" noise, one where you can imagine there are small releases and gears allowing you entry into a vault. Its upright sides and vertical windshield accentuate the vaultlike feeling inside. Yet even though the slab-sided SUV bears 30-year-old historic lines, the cabin has plenty of 21st-century amenities inside, nestled in a classy black interior with white designo Nappa leather seats. It still has three locking differentials, one of a very small club that uses that setup, with its rocker switches located above the nav screen in the center stack. And the interior is wonderfully quiet, letting in little more than the sound of the engine.

This Mercedes was powered by a 382-hp, 391-lb-ft, 5.5-liter V-8. The engine has plenty of low-end torque, and is fairly quick off the line. At the track, the G550 reached 60 mph in 6.1 seconds -- not bad for a 5600-pound truck. It completed the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds at 92.1 mph. And if you need to go faster in a G-Wagen, there is an AMG option, one that -- amazingly -- makes up more than 60 percent of sales in the U.S. The engine sounds substantial too. It sounds like an American V-8 -- almost. At idle, there is a fantastic lumpy lub-lub-lub, as if you're piloting a speedboat.

Unfortunately, where you're brought back to reality is when you turn the G550. Its turning radius is fairly awful, and it often takes two tries to get into a parking space. The G550's 43.5-foot turning radius is comparable to that of the Crew Cab Ram 3500 HD (43.9 feet). To put this into perspective, the Mercedes is 53 inches shorter overall, on a wheelbase 37 inches shorter. Steering a boat may be quicker.

The Mercedes isn't all that great on twisty roads, either. It's a tall truck, and feels so in corners. It's not built for canyon-carving, so it's no shock that, when you try to hustle it on a mountain road, it feels a bit tippy. That's simply a reminder that you have to slow down in this vehicle, in this environment. That same poor performance was evident when the G550 went through Motor Trend's figure eight and lateral g testing, mostly because stability control intervened. In this vehicle, though, it's not a bad idea to have a system that'll keep you from doing something silly. It rides like a truck, too, so Mercedes fans that have never driven a truck from this company before may be disappointed.

But, really, who cares? This isn't a sports car -- this is an icon, one so capable and confident off-road it would make you want to find cool trails to drive it on. The locking diffs are easy to use and work very well. There is doubt this Mercedes would get you out of trouble. We drove it off-road, and it takes big obstacles to stop the G-Class. It is truly a shame that the people who typically buy G-Classes are not off-roaders, and vice versa.

So most of the people in the U.S. who buy G-Classes are driving on-road only, and most of those are driving AMGs only. As far as I'm concerned, the AMG buyers are the ones who are helping make sure that this truly unique vehicle stays around -- and that's something we totally encourage.


2012 Mercedes-Benz G550
BASE PRICE $108,850
PRICE AS TESTED $111,050
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 5.5L/382-hp/391-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 7-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 5603 lb (50/50%)
WHEELBASE 112.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 184.5 x 71.8 x 76.0 in
0-60 MPH 6.1 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.7 sec @ 92.1 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 130 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.59 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 31.4 sec @ 0.50 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 12/15 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 281/225 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.47 lb/mile