- The Mercedes-Benz G550 starts at $US122,400, but our test car cost $US136,375.
- The G-Wagon debuted in 1979 as a utilitarian off-roader, but it has evolved into a plutocratic runabout.
- Though it’s far from flawless, the G-Wagon is effortlessly cool.
As an auto journalist, I drive more than 70 cars a year. But there are few vehicles I’ve been more excited to experience than the Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen – or as it’s more commonly known, the G-Wagon.
Technically, Mercedes-Benz retired the G-Wagon moniker in favour of the G-Class designation in 1998, but to its fans, it’s still the G-Wagon.
That’s why we simply couldn’t say no when Mercedes-Benz dropped off a 2017 G550 clad in an eye-catching paprika metallic paint job. For the past four decades, the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon has been one of the standard bearers for what an SUV should strive to be.
However, the high-price luxury SUV we know today had decidedly humble beginnings, on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East.
Though its roots are planted firmly in the mystique of its uncompromising off-roading prowess, the G-Wagon has now become the SUV of choice for the posh suburbanite or the Hollywood starlet looking for something “different.”
In many ways, the G-Wagon is a rolling contradiction. It’s a vehicle made famous for its ability to survive and thrive in some of the world’s most inhospitable conditions. But these days, it’s likely to be found driving around the palm-tree-lined boulevards of Southern California, decked out in fancy wheels and a custom paint job.
The Mercedes-Benz G550 starts at $US122,400, but our test vehicle drove off the dealer’s lot at $US136,375.
Here’s a closer look at the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon.
The Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon’s story dates as far back as 1973, when Mercedes’ parent company, Daimler-Benz, signed an agreement with Austria’s Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG (now Magna Steyr) to create a go-anywhere, all-wheel-drive, cross-country vehicle — also known as the Gelandewagen. To this day, all G-Wagons are hand-built at Magna Steyr’s factory in Graz, Austria.
The first prototype G-Wagon emerged in 1974, but a production civilian variant did not go on sale until 1979.
During the 1970s, no one understood the full potential of the SUV segment. Without conclusive data, Mercedes was hesitant to enter into the G-Wagon project. However, the program got a boost in 1975 when the Shah of Iran — a major shareholder in the company at the time — ordered 20,000 military G-Wagons.
The first-generation 460 Series G-Wagon debuted in 1979 with a heavy-duty ladder frame chassis, 100% differential locks, and all-synchromesh transfer case. Power came from as series of four- and six-cylinder gasoline and diesel engines producing 72 to 150 horsepower.
The 460 G-wagon came in a variety of body styles ranging from a fun two-door convertible to a long-wheel-base off-road delivery van.
In 1990, Mercedes debuted an updated G-Wagon, called the G463.
It included refreshed styling, more-powerful engines, and the addition of three locking differentials to the G-Wagon’s beastly four-wheel-drive system.
The 463 Series remains in production today, albeit with significant upgrades.
Though the G-Wagon has been on sale since 1979, it wasn’t officially imported into the US until 2002.
In 1992, Mercedes went back to the basics with the model 461 Series. Based on the original 460 Series, the new G-Wagons were designed to be utilitarian commercial work vehicles for governments and businesses.
Over the past four decades, the G-Wagon has proved an automotive chameleon. It has appeared as everything from a military vehicle to the popemobile.
There’s also the 6×6 version …
… and the 4×4 version of the 6×6 …
… and the landaulet convertible version of the 4×4 version of the 6×6.
For many years, the G-Wagon was even sold to Soviet Bloc and other communist nations under the Puch brand.
Because of its exceedingly long service life, the G-Wagon’s contemporaries have changed tremendously. In the early days, it competed with the original Range Rover …
… the Toyota Land Cruiser …
… the Jeep Grand Wagoneer …
… the Lamborghini LM002 …
… and the Hummer H1.
These days, the G-Wagon’s rivals are considerably posher. They include the current-generation Range Rover …
… the Lexus LX570 …
… and Bentley’s Bentayga.
While early G-Wagons were modest in their power output, current versions are anything but. Our G550 test vehicle was powered by a 416-horsepower, 4.0-litre biturbo V8 engine. Believe it or not, it’s the least powerful version of the SUV available in the US.
Two other versions come with hand-built AMG powerplants. The G63 is equipped with a 563-horsepower, 5.5-litre biturbo V8, while the G65 gets a monstrous 621-horsepower, 6.0-litre biturbo V12.
Mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, the 5,724-pound G550 can hit 60 mph from a standstill in a brisk 5.8 seconds. The AMG-powered models are even quicker — the G63 can hit 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, and the V12 G65 in 5.2 seconds.
Apart from a few updates and enhancements, the G-Wagon’s styling remains virtually unchanged from the boxy military vehicle that debuted in the 1970s.
However, the interior is a different story. Over the decades, the G-Wagon picked up luxury features such as air conditioning, power windows, and an automatic transmission. Today’s model is a veritable luxury palace compared with early editions.
Open up the heavy-duty doors and you’ll find a leather-lined cabin filled with some of the latest technology from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin.
In front of the driver is a pair of stylish analogue gauges flanking a digital information display.
Dominating the center stack is a large infotainment screen running an older generation of Mercedes’ Comand infotainment system. However, the G-Wagon has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.
And the G-Wagon proved unexpectedly high-tech. Highlights include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot awareness, parking assist, and Mercedes-Benz Mbrace app integration.
The door-mounted spare tire and large headrests conspire to severely restrict rear visibility.
Out back, the rear cargo area is accessed through an out-swinging hatch.
Inside, the boxy cargo area has plenty of room for a week’s worth of shopping.
Overall, the G-Wagon’s cabin conveys the sense of solidity one would expect. Everything feels as if it has been hewn from the most durable and heavy-duty materials Mercedes could find.
So what is the G-Wagon like to drive? Unsurprisingly, like a 38-year-old military vehicle.
On the road, the G-Wagon’s handling is numb, and the ride is harsh for a luxury SUV. And since it has all the same aerodynamic properties as a brick, the wind buffeting at highway speeds make for a rather noisy cabin.
But that’s not the worst part of it. At high speeds, the slab-sided G-Wagon catches wind like a sail – making it alarmingly unstable and a bit unnerving to drive.
That said, it would be unfair to expect the G-Wagon to drive like a modern-car-based crossover. After all, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but there are limits to this approach that even Mercedes can’t overcome.
However, the more the road conditions deteriorated, the better the G-Wagon got. At lower speeds, our test car handled the snowy New Jersey winter with aplomb. It also mastered the state’s notorious potholes.
At the end of the day, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is <em>sui generis</em>. It’s unique in that no one has ever attempted to turn a hard-scrabbled military vehicle into a posh boulevard cruiser.
As a consumer product, the G-Wagon is far from perfect. It’s incredibly expensive for a package that’s objectively out of date. Compared with its contemporaries, the G is noisy, crude, and inefficient.
However, to judge this car by traditional metrics wouldn’t do it justice. The G-Wagon isn’t for someone in search of an E-Class wagon with more ride height. (Mercedes has a slew of alternatives for you in that case.)
What you get with the G-Wagon is an effortlessly cool industrial-strength war machine cloaked in a veil of civility. To experience the G-Wagon is to understand the piece of mind you have knowing your car was meant to handle conditions far more brutal than anything you can throw at it.
The Mercedes-Benz G-Class isn’t a car you buy with your head, but with your heart. And no matter how many flaws it has, there’s no getting around the fact that it will always be an automotive legend.
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