Forget the obvious contradiction for a minute — the realization that one of the best off-road vehicles you can buy off the rack is far more likely to be profiling on Las Vegas Boulevard than rock crawling in the Las Vegas Dunes recreation area. Or that in ultra-flat, fair-weathered South Florida, long one of its strongest markets, the only series-production passenger vehicle with three standard locking differentials will do its most important duty during shopping excursions from Coral Gables to Bal Harbour.
Mercedes-Benz is fine with that. The marketing wizards at M-B understand the G-Class is not necessarily a rational choice, but changes to the next Geländewagen recognize its evolving customer base. Most are geared toward improved ride and road handling, comfort and the luxury appointments that have drawn high-dollar customers since the G-Class was officially offered for sale in the United States in 2001.
The most profound change is a new front suspension with independent double wishbones, in place of the 39-year-old stick axle. The 2019 G550 and G63 AMG also add electrically assisted power steering, more interior volume, a new instrument panel and a wiring network that accommodates Mercedes’ latest gizmos and safety systems. The new G-Class uses just a handful of carryover parts, including the standard engine, the rear-mounted spare tire cover, headlight washer nozzles, sun visors and the exterior door handles and locks. The 2019 G represents the most extensive update in the four-decade history of an over-engineered, fundamentally simple status symbol that defies contemporary standards of personal transportation.
It looks pretty much the same, yeah, but the G-Class body is new. Freed from constraints that long determined its width — what would fit inside German military helicopters — the new G-Class has grown dimensionally. It’s still designated internally as model 463 (as civilian Gs have been since 1990), but it’s 2.1 inches longer and a substantial 4.8 inches wider than a 2018, on a wheelbase that increases 1.6 inches to 113.8.
Its bodyshell is now made from a variety of high- and ultra-high-strength steels, and the roof is laser-welded rather than spot-welded. The fenders, hood and doors are aluminum, and for the first time the fixed windows are bonded with adhesive to the metal, rather than held by gaskets. The 2019 G is still essentially hand-built at Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, but its gaps are tighter and its panels more precisely placed than ever.
Underneath, the familiar ladder frame remains, modified for new dimensions and suspension with new steel alloys, but still fully boxed—including the cross beams. The frame remains the bottom layer of G-Class assembly, which helps lower the center of gravity and protects the major mechanical components, fuel tank and exhaust in the event of ground contact. Engineers say the new body/frame package trims 375 pounds from the G’s substantial mass, yet still improves torsional rigidity from 4,821 to 7,495 lb-ft/degree, or 55 percent.
The new front suspension bolts directly to the frame, no subframe allowed. Its wishbones are stacked nearly 3 feet apart, and the strut towers are now connected with a massive brace visible in the G’s engine bay. The old four-link solid rear axle is also revised, with a fifth, lateral link — essentially a Panhard rod — intended to maintain better wheel alignment on pavement under higher lateral g loads. The steel coil springs remain, but new electronically adaptive shocks are optional on the G550 and standard on the G63.
Motor-assisted steering replaces the previous hydraulic system. Mercedes notes it’s slightly more efficient, measured by parasitic loss of engine power, but the real driver is obvious: The electric boost enables semiautonomous features like park assist and lane keeping. The G550 comes standard with 19-inch wheels, and the G63 with 20-inchers, though options range from 18 to 22 inches according to the buyer’s intent.
To anyone concerned that the new suspension somehow diminishes the G-Class’ off-road cred, we offer a few figures. Front axle clearance actually increases slightly to 10.6 inches, and overall ground clearance is up a quarter-inch to 9.5. The approach angle remains 30 degrees. Breakover and departure angles increase 1 degree, to 26 and 31. For good measure, the new G’s fording depth increases 4 inches to 27.6.
The 2019 G550 continues with the same engine — Mercedes’ “hot inside vee,” 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, tuned to 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, as it was for 2018. Mercedes’ new 9G-Tronic nine-speed torque converter automatic replaces the older seven-speed in the previous G-Class. The AWD is changed a bit, too, starting with one fewer prop shaft. The transfer case is now flange-mounted at the end of the transmission, rather than separately downstream. The ratio for low range also increases 40 percent (to 2.93:1) for even greater torque multiplication.
The 2019 G63 AMG gets a new engine, though it’s the same one used in the G550. Here it’s tuned and assembled by AMG, and output increases to 577 hp and 627 lb-ft — 14 hp and 64 lb-ft more than the older, heavier 5.5-liter turbocharged V8 in the 2018 G63. Mercedes says it drops the G63’s 0-60-mph time 0.9 second to 4.4, while the governed top speed increases from 130 to 149 mph.
The AMG engine is also equipped with cylinder deactivation to ease your social conscience, and the G63 gets the usual AMG sort of spiffs, including a unique grille, flared wheel arches and side exhaust with a driver-adjusted flap to manage decibel levels. Every rock-crushing SUV needs side pipes and a drag-strip roar, wouldn’t you agree?
Inside, the increased exterior dimensions and a slight reproportioning translate to a bit more room for all G-Class passengers and a substantial 5.9 inches more legroom for those in back. The new dash and center stack are dominated by Mercedes’ Comand multimedia system and two 12.3-inch, high-res screens under a single sheet of bonded glass, though the familiar two-fisted grab handle remains directly in front of the passenger seat. There are also touch-sensitive control pads on the steering wheel spokes and virtually all of the stuff on an S-Class or GLS — things like 64-color ambient lightning, Pre-Safe, attention assist, adaptive high beams, traffic sign assist and active lane keeping.
And for the first time, the 2019 G-Class is equipped with a management program for off-road driving. G-Mode engages whenever low range is selected and fine-tunes engine, transmission, suspension, steering and traction management for off-road use. The bird’s-eye 360-degree camera also pays big dividends in tight quarters along rocky trails.
These probably weren’t things the Daimler-Benz board envisioned in 1975, when it approved production of a light-duty vehicle suitable for government and private use on- and off-road in all markets. This Geländewagen would feature manually locking front, rear and center differentials, with a synchronized transfer case that allowed its driver to select low range on the fly. A big, flat windshield and blocky shape would optimize approach and departure angles, maximize interior volume and allow excellent visibility close around the vehicle. Body panels could be replicated with primitive metalworking techniques far from the beaten path. Four gas or diesel engine options delivered from 72 to a whopping 150 hp. The first serialized Geländewagens rolled from the factory in February 1979.
Turned out to be a pretty good idea. The G is now the longest-running vehicle series in the history of the world’s oldest automobile manufacturer. The original business plan envisioned a run of 15,000-20,000. G-Class production surpassed 300,000 in mid-2017, and the pace is accelerating. Mercedes sold a record 22,000 Gs in 2017. In a typical year, roughly 15 percent go to government or commercial fleet customers, but the bulk go to individual buyers like those in the United States, which remains the G-Class’ biggest national market, with the highest take-rate for G63s. In 2017, G-Class sales in the States rose 6 percent to 4,118, even as Mercedes sales as a brand declined slightly.
Ian Hadley James, marketing chief for the G-Class line, can’t say for sure exactly how many G-Class owners actually drive their vehicles off-road, but he concedes that most do not. Those who do tend to be enthusiast club members with older Gs they didn’t get from a showroom. James thinks that most G buyers instead like the idea that their vehicle can be driven through some really gnarly conditions off-road.
What’s certain is that the 2019 G63 AMG has four times the horsepower of the most powerful original Geländewagen. Forty years later, its nomenclature has morphed into the corporately consistent G-Class — a rugged, less rudimentary all-terrain vehicle that is also a fashionably expensive urban icon from Los Angeles to Moscow.
That’s brand power, but it also validates the direction of improvement in this significantly revised G-Class.
Let’s get this out of the way: Straight off the showroom floor, with the right choice of tires, the new G550 still does tricks that others cannot, and does them with impunity. Impunity from the type of surface underneath, from stress on its operator, even from fear of failure. The tricks include 50-degree grades, up or down, lateral treks across 40-degree grades and articulating through an endless sequence of bumps and craters that would twist lesser machines like a beer can headed for the recycling bin.
If anything, the G-Class will do these things more easily than before, thanks to the G-Mode control algorithm and at-ready settings for the differential locks, which automatically lock the diffs as necessary without driver intervention. The electronics can take care of gear selection, throttle rate and downhill brake application. The driver just needs to steer. With only a modest awareness of momentum, a beginner can feel like a Camel Trophy winner. Or Marcus Gronholm at Rally Finland, if the new G is a 63 AMG. With the standard speed-rated tires, the G63 will attack higher-speed, still loose and uneven trails with dirt-tracking flair and a high level of confidence for its driver. It’s worth noting that our new G-Classes did all this on a large estate in the mountains of the far south of France, usually used as a rally driving school and manufacturer’s development course, rather than the “off-road’’ courses typically staged by manufacturers to highlight their new SUV’s strengths.
Does the G-Class do these things better with the new independent front suspension than it did with the old stick axle? Short of back-to-back treks over identical routes, or maybe deliberate attempts to break something underneath, we can’t legitimately say. We can only share the development engineers’ boast about the Schöckl run.
The Schöckl is a mountain near Graz that has been used for G-Class development since before the vehicle launched. Over the decades Mercedes engineers have laid out a 3.5-mile course run both up and down over 55-degree gradients and 36-degree lateral inclines for comparison purposes—sort of like an off-road ‘Ring time. The engineers say that with the IFS, the new G-Class has dropped the best Schöckl-run time below eight minutes, or 26 secs faster than any G with the solid front axle, thanks largely to the consistently better front contact patch provided by the IFS.
We wouldn’t expect the typical G-Class buyer in Miami or Moscow to care much either way, but one can’t be sure. It’s clear the generational improvements make this new G better on paved roads, though it’s hard to quantify how much. Mercedes can smooth, soften and polish over decades (as it has), but the things that make a Geländewagen still create basic issues for smooth-pavement transportation, IFS or not.
Don’t get the wrong idea. The G-Class is not horrible transportation to the office or a B&B past the urban fringe, nor even bad. It’s unique, and in its own right actually fun. It’s less cumbersome than a Lexus LX 470, for example, and more engaging. Its control interface is much less messy. It still feels like you’re up over the front axle, bus style, and the high seat makes you feel like you own the road. That’s one of the most enjoyable things about driving a G on the street (and maybe one of its biggest draws for buyers in urban markets).
With the IFS and adaptive damping, it’s definitely smoother, though we never considered on-pavement ride quality one of the more objectionable things about the old G-Class. It’s generally quieter, even if it the wind whistle still picks up fast in direct proportion to speed. There’s more elbow room inside, literally and figuratively, and we’re getting used to MB’s electronic slab of a dashboard presentation. The G can also stow about 80 cubic feet of cargo or tow about 8,000 pounds.
The G-Class just isn’t the vehicle you should choose if certain types of on-pavement dynamics interest you, beyond the stoplight derby. Steering at low to moderate speed is … eh. It feels like it’s pressuring back against your input. That may be a new electric-assist thing, but mostly it’s a G thing. In general, there’s an off-road optimized feel to all the controls.
If it is the stoplight derby that interests you, the G63 can take on just about anything and more often than not win. A Mustang GT or Porsche Cayman S are within its reach, and no one would advise driving either of those cars over rocks. In a straight, flat line, this 5,500-pound block of G-Class almost defies inertia. It absolutely accelerates like a sports car, from any speed in any of its nine forward gears, but it doesn't turn like one (nor like a Porsche Cayenne). AMG can work all the magic it wants, but with up-high mass, the G63 is reluctant to change directions quickly, and it can be a bit unnerving when it does. Its big body takes awhile to catch up with the tires, even with tiny sidewalls. And even with a new, slight rearward bias in the all-wheel drive (without the diff lock, of course), the G63 still plows like a rugged military vehicle (which it is).
Again, this does not appear to be an issue in Moscow or Miami Beach.
This call is as hard as it gets because so much depends on context. The G-Class is unique, cool, exceptionally capable and never dull. This guy would love to own one, but only if he lived a long way from asphalt and didn’t worry about 15 mpg all of the time, or maybe if he were a remote mail carrier or a mineral seeking-geologist, or if he already owned at least three other cars.
The world needs the G-Wagen, even if most of them are parked in prominent valet spots at trendy restaurants in West LA. It’s an easy thumbs-up for Mercedes-Benz — for nudging the G in a direction that serves most of its buyers but not degrading the core values that put it so prominently on the automotive map to begin with.
On Sale: Fall 2018
Base Price: $126,000 (G550, est); $151,000 (G63)
Powertrain: 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, nine-speed automatic, all-wheel drive with dual-range transfer case and locking differentials
Output: 416 hp @ 5250 rpm, 450 lb-ft from 2250 (G550): 577 hp @ 6000 rpm, 627 lb-ft from 2500 (G63)
Curb Weight: 5425 lbs (G550, est); 5530 lbs (G63)
0-60 MPH: 0-60 mph, 5.7 sec (G550, est.); 4.4 sec (G63, mfr)
Fuel Economy: 14 mpg city, 16 highway (est EPA rating)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Better and more capable than ever, and still a statement
Cons: Still about a hundred choices more rationally suited for road transportation; still not sure what the statement is