The venerable Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen was 23 years old when it officially went on sale in America in 2002, making it old when it arrived. Automotive historians will tell you, however, that its history actually began in 1972, when King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran originally proffered that Mercedes-Benz build such a vehicle for military purposes. Unfortunately for him, he was deposed during the Iranian Revolution before the cars began rolling off their assembly line in Graz, Austria, in 1979, but civilians in many parts of the world have had access to them since.
Early models were little more than Austrian-built Jeeps—slow, dexterous, and uncomfortable, like a CJ-5, only boxier. But in time, the G became more livable and powerful, evolving into a bona fide “lux-u-vee” dubbed G-Class when Mercedes-Benz finally imported it. Brandishing flared fenders, powerful V-8s, and leather-lined interiors, its boxy roof towered over the rounded greenhouses of newer cars. Loud, AMG-tuned versions arrived too. The glitterati were in love with the kitschy click of the push-button door latches. Hollywood types parked them next to their Priuses. By 2018, prices started at $125K and climbed to nearly $350K for the lavish V-12-powered G65. But at no point before then, and at no time since, had the “G-Wagen” ever been redesigned. Until now.
The First Thing You Touch is Old; Everything After That is New
Redesigning an automotive icon is never easy, of course. A reimagined icon will inevitably be compared to its predecessors—and often unfavorably. In the case of the Geländewagen, which Mercedes-Benz understood was being purchased mostly for its fashion value rather than its off-road prowess, its very oldness was key to its charm. The G would have to reduce some of its nearly three-ton (!) weight and gain efficiency to keep it relevant (and legally salable in some countries). Also, adding comfort, space, and technology would help, as would a better driving experience, so long as it doesn’t diminish its unique character. No simple mandate.
Just as visitors to the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, learn that the lines of its foundation, columns, and entablature are all actually curved, so too may close inspectors of the 2019 G-Class note its many not-so-square, not-so-straight elements. Its body panels feature subtle curvature, with softer edges, tighter gaps, with flusher windows and lights and better-integrated fender flares, the latter widened for AMG models. Only three visible parts carry over intact: the headlamp washer nozzles, the chrome-ringed spare tire cover, and, yes, those beloved door handles. It has grown two inches longer and nearly five inches wider, yielding a much, much larger cabin. And yet, the entire vehicle is considerably more aerodynamic and, just as importantly, has lost a massive 375 pounds.
Still, each of its predecessors’ signature features are present, including its three-sided wheel openings, barnacle-style turn signals, mid-body rub strips, and hand-welded roof panel. Park one next to a 2018 model—or a 1979 model, for that matter—and you’ll notice they’re all a little different, the 2019 model featuring softer edges, a sleeker nose, tighter panel gaps, a less-vertical windshield, and bright, LED-ringed headlamps that can probably be seen from space. Out back, the low, rectangular tail lamps are flusher and also LED lit. Opening the vertical tailgate still feels like swinging out a wall. And with the cargo floor still waist-high, don’t cancel your gym membership just yet.
Whereas the exterior designers strove to replicate its predecessor, interior designers went for full-scale revolution. And they got it. A passenger-side grab bar on the dashboard is the only visual connection between the new and old G-Classes; all else, from its dual 12.3-inch displays and jet-engine air vents to its updated switchgear and active multi-contour seats, strengthen its connection to the current Mercedes model while creating a genuine sense of occasion. Along with newfound style comes newfound space—and a front center console with storage, and, at long last, cupholders. Three adults now fit in back without overlapping shoulders, and a huge six-inch increase in legroom allows them to also bring their legs and toes, too. We doubt the shah of Iran envisioned his military bounding across the Persian sand surrounded by multicolor ambient lighting and Burmester sound, but his brainchild now has those things, too.
G550 and G63: Closer Than Ever, Better Than Ever
The 2019 G550 remains America’s entry-level G for 2019, motivated by a 416-horsepower V-8 and a nine-speed transmission. The sportified Mercedes-AMG G63 now packs a prodigious 577 horsepower, plus stronger brakes, a stiffer adaptive suspension, more-supportive seats, and a flat-bottom steering wheel. Visually, the two are tough to tell apart, with the AMG’s squarer front bumper, enlarged intakes, and vertical grille teeth being its primary giveaways. Both models retain side-exiting exhaust pipes and incredible sounds, but only the AMG’s extended chrome pipes can be both seen and heard, poking forth as they do from beneath the rear door.
A fair bit of wheel time, on-road and off, in both versions at their global media drive in France, revealed trucks that seem closer in character than ever—which says more about the new G550’s competence than any shortcoming of the G63. Wind noise still erupts around the mirrors at highway speeds, but both are immeasurably calmer, quieter, and more stable creatures that steer more accurately, ride much better, and accelerate more eagerly. They feel heavy, but not unwieldy, and the G63 is remarkably fast and surreally grippy when you ask it to hike up its skirts and run. And that feeling of superiority current G-Class drivers love so much remains, courtesy of a seating position that stands as tall and commanding as ever.
And both are astounding off-road. With such aggressive approach/departure angles, contortionist wheel travel, super-short low-range gearing, 9.5-inch ground clearance, and wheels that can be mechanically locked in unison, getting stuck isn’t only unlikely, it’s nearly impossible. We deftly negotiated boulders, cruised up a 100 percent grade—a 45-degree angle—and caught air on high-speed whoop-de-dos in the G63. With the help of the 360-degree cameras and dynamic guidelines, and off-road displays in the center screen depicting vehicle attitude and data such as gradient, side angle, compass, steering angle, and differential lock status, negotiating obstacles without a spotter is now much easier.
The 2019 G-Class is arriving around the time you read this, with prices expected to pick up where their predecessors left off—roughly $125K for the G550; $145K for the G63. Whether that’s a lot of money or a screaming bargain depends on if you see it as a luxurious SUV with nostalgic styling or an icon, perfected. To us, it’s definitely the latter.