Mercedes updated the G-Class for 2013 with minor styling tweaks, a remodeled interior and an updated AMG variant: the 544-horsepower G63 AMG. Compare the two here, or stack up the 2013 and 2012 G-Class here. We tested a G550, whose six-figure price gives it few direct competitors beyond Land Rover's Range Rover and a well-optioned Porsche Cayenne. Compare them here.
Like Driving a Building
The G-Class' body-on-frame architecture is built for off-roading and towing, as its 7,716-pound maximum towing capacity attests. But the resulting highway manners make for an experience that's like driving a building. The solid-axle suspension — a setup preferred by hard-core off-roaders — lopes along clumsily at highway speeds, sending soft shudders through the chassis over expansion joints. Wind noise is admirably low for an SUV with the aerodynamics of a boxcar, but constant tire rumble persists.
Changes in direction produce saggy, will-it-tip-over body roll , and anything close to an evasive maneuver has the standard stability system cutting gas and clamping brakes until the SUV rights itself. Not that you'd ever want to drive aggressively; the steering employs an outdated, recirculating-ball setup, and it might as well connect to the front wheels through a telegram messenger. Swing the wheel left or right, and the nose … eventually … responds. Steering feedback is a numb mess, as is the G-Class' awful 43.5-foot turning circle. Drive lightly; the G550 shouldn't be flung around.
At least Mercedes' 5.5-liter V-8 matches well to the SUV, which weighs the equivalent of two Honda Civic sedans. Typical of Mercedes, the accelerator has a relaxed, gradual progression, but the normally aspirated V-8 hurries the G550 to highway speeds if you push the gas hard. The standard seven-speed automatic displays some kickdown lag but little gear hunting, and a Sport mode eliminates some of the initial gas-pedal sleepiness.
Mercedes estimates the G550 hits 60 mph in just 6 seconds — crazy quick for something this size. The penalty (no surprise) is gas mileage, which the EPA rates an awful 12/15/13 mpg (city/highway/combined). The turbocharged G63 hits 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds with similar EPA mileage. It also has larger disc brakes, which might improve on the G550's soft, unresponsive pedal.
I suspect the G-Class' prodigious off-road capabilities will find minimal usage, but even those capabilities seem yesteryear. The full-time four-wheel-drive system employs a two-speed transfer case and locking front, center and rear differentials — serious hardware. Our tester's wheels clawed easily through wet, tire-deep mud, but without the height-adjustable suspension that other pricey SUVs employ, ground clearance in the G-Class is just 8.1 inches. The Lexus LX has 8.9 inches; the Range Rover adjusts up to 11.6 inches. Mercedes says the G-Class can ford 19.7 inches of water; the Ranger Rover can handle 35.4. Approach and departure angles fall short of Land Rover's flagship SUV, too.
Old with the New
A redesign this year added some more contemporary pieces to the G-Class' short, shelf-like dashboard — among them a tablet-like navigation screen and a steering wheel and center controls that match those in Mercedes' other cars. The sky-high seating position affords a view of the tops of most other cars, aided by an upright windshield and spindly A-pillars. High-grade leather and wood surrounds you, and the Harman Kardon stereo can blat out distortion-free hip hop, which seems the only appropriate music to blare in a G-Class.
The comforts largely end there. The front seats have short cushions that sag forward as you elevate the seats. Even with the seat-angle adjuster in full-reverse tilt, I felt like I was sliding off. Tall adults will find front legroom scant, hampered by too little rearward adjustment range. A single, flip-out front cupholder hangs your latte inches from the front passenger's knee, and various interior pieces — the solid metal sunroof, the door locks — look lifted from a 1985-era Mercedes. The rear seats have adequate legroom and a high seating position, but accessing the cargo area's respectable 45.2 cubic feet of space requires opening a heavy swing-gate — and minding the limited clearance behind.
Safety, Features & Pricing
The G-Class has not been crash-tested. Standard features include front airbags plus side curtains for both rows, but no torso-protecting side-impact airbags. Antilock disc brakes and an electronic stability system are also standard. The G63 gets larger front and rear discs. Click herefor a full list of safety features.
The G550 starts at about $115,000. The G63 runs more than $135,000, or about the price of Land Rover's top-tier Range Rover Autobiography Edition. Neither G-Class has any factory options. Standard features include 18-inch wheels, leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, a navigation system and Harman Kardon audio with USB/iPod integration and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming — plenty of luxury, but well short of the massaging seats, panoramic moonroofs and backseat entertainment systems offered in other upper-crust SUVs.
The G63 adds 20-inch wheels and unique bodywork, as well as the turbo V-8. Shell out more cash, and Mercedes' Designo program can outfit either G-Class with a multitude of custom paint and leather options.
G-Class in the Market
Mercedes has no plans to shelve the G-Class anytime soon. Press materials for a loosely related concept car that debuted at the 2012 L.A. Auto Show mused that the iconic off-roader could still be around in 2025. Given the G-Class' past few decades, it may not look much different by then. It's like that wind-up watch: all style, limited usability. Problem is, cars these days need to be so much more.