CARANDDRIVER: 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-class
The casting of the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen in 2015’s Jurassic World was appropriate for more reasons than just the vehicle’s ruggedness and suitability for shuttling Hollywood stars through mud. Introduced in 1979—and largely unchanged since—the G-wagen is a dinosaur. Fittingly, it appeared in the most fantastic installment yet of the sci-fi series, in which scientists created a new dinosaur. Because for the first time in almost 40 years, Mercedes-Benz has finally messed with the G-class’s DNA.
What’s New Looks Old
Oh, don’t worry too much. Just look at the pictures. While the 2019 model is comprehensively reengineered—only the door handles, the spare-tire cover, the sun visors, the headlight-washer nozzles, and a bracket under the hood are shared with its predecessor—it still looks very much the same. The edges are softer now and the roof pillars are a bit thicker, but all of the important G cues are there: the awkward trim strips encircling the body, a spare tire hanging off a massive side-hinged rear portal, square-cut doors (now with rounded edges) with exposed hinges, a clamshell hood, and marker lights on top of the fenders. Without seeing the old and new side by side, most people will be hard-pressed to identify many differences. Heck, casual observers will go on thinking it’s unchanged. Although it wasn’t installed on any of the Europe-market vehicles we drove for this first exposure, the brush guard will still be standard in the United States. And in addition to the G’s Lego-brick silhouette, the most important mechanical parameters remain: There’s still a ladder frame, and the truck still has three locking differentials.
But the front and rear differentials are a critical 1.6 inches farther apart now, and the front one resides in an independently suspended front axle, which is the primary reason for the G-wagen’s dramatically improved ride quality. Without a big log axle crashing around up front, Benz’s brick rides far more like a modern vehicle, soaking up bumps without making occupants feel like they’re doing the off-roading they almost certainly will never do. The boost from the electrically assisted power steering varies depending on the selected driving mode, but this model’s rack-and-pinion system is far more precise than the outgoing truck’s recirculating-ball setup.
Overall length is up 2.1 inches, and the new G is a significant 2.5 inches wider. This changes the proportions dramatically. While 2.1 inches represents just a 1 percent increase in length, width balloons 7 percent. From behind, all G-wagens now have the broad-shouldered bulk of the wild, portal-axled G550 4×42—particularly the Mercedes-AMG G63, which gets slightly wider fender flares than the G550.
Mercedes reapportioned the G’s new length to gain an extra 1.5 inches of legroom up front and a massive 5.9 inches more in the rear. Whereas tall people had trouble getting comfortable behind the wheel in the old truck and found the rear seat hopeless, now even our 99th-percentile editor was perfectly comfortable in any seat. And the G’s upright profile means headroom is never an issue. Mercedes says the seats are “ergonomically designed,” which is a huge upgrade from how you’d describe the same pieces in its predecessor. Those felt like they were carryover items from the original 1979 G-class, when the sales brochure might have described them as “something to sit on,” the way an overturned bucket or a knee-high rock will do when the only alternative is standing. The optional Active Multicontour Seat package will allow massages while off-roading, and the whole range of interior materials is now modern Mercedes.
Mercedes claims a 375-pound weight reduction thanks to extensive computer modeling of components and systems to determine where to shave mass. The body shell is steel, while the fenders, doors, and hood are aluminum. A laser-welded roof panel and an underhood brace connecting the tops of the damper mounts, much like a unibody’s strut-tower brace, help increase torsional rigidity by 55 percent and reduce levels of NVH. Although even with the windshield tilted back ever so slightly, there’s still lots of wind noise around the A-pillars at freeway speeds. And if you hear “strut-tower brace” and think of the dainty aluminum or carbon-fiber Xs under the hood of a sports car, know that this brace is thick enough to serve duty as part of a roll cage.
Better On, Better Still Off
While the independent front suspension goes a long way toward taming the G’s ride, and the sturdier ladder frame helps keep its center of gravity low, the G is still a tall, narrow truck. It doesn’t lean in corners nearly as much as its positively nautical predecessor, but the tires start squealing early and surrender to understeer shortly thereafter. Adjustable dampers are optional on the G550 and standard on the G63. The AMG also gets front and rear anti-roll bars that make for a slightly sportier box. Switching the dynamic dampers into firmer settings in either version buys fractionally more cornering ability, but you’re always aware of the G’s towering height and its off-road mission.
That’s a mission the G, as always, completes unerringly. AMG was involved in the development of the new G-class from the beginning, and so the difference between the two versions of the truck is less dramatic now than it was in the past. Previous AMGs sat lower than their counterparts—a seemingly contradictory upgrade to an off-road vehicle—but that’s no longer the case. Ground clearance for both models is 9.5 inches, with 7.3 inches of travel for the independent front suspension and 8.8 inches for the live-axle rear. At 30.9, 29.9, and 26.0 degrees, the approach, departure, and break-over angles all increase about 1 degree compared with the outgoing G.
But none of those figures can match the importance of the three locking differentials and the unrivaled traction they provide. Together with a low range that has nearly half again the reduction of the previous gear (2.93:1 compared with 2.10:1), those lockers mean the G is always working. We saw indicated 60-plus-degree inclines and declines repeatedly during an off-road demonstration, scrambling up loose rock and dirt like it was asphalt, and stopping and reversing back up hills to showboat. So long as it isn’t high-centered, the G feels as if it can’t get stuck.
If AMG’s involvement means that all G-wagens have a little bit of Affalterbach in them, the theme continues in the engine room, where both the G550 and the G63 now pack twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8s backed by a nine-speed automatic. The G550’s engine is unchanged from last year’s, making 416 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque. In place of its previous twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8, the G63 now packs a hotter version of the 4.0-liter cranked up to 577 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque, increases of 14 and 66 over the larger engine. (When it debuted in 1979, the original G offered 71 horsepower.)
Both variants still dump their exhaust ahead of the rear wheels, but the G550’s tips are tucked out of sight behind the side steps, whereas the G63’s twin tips poke out proudly. Both setups produce the rollicking V-8 wuffle so central to the modern G’s identity, with a flap in the AMG’s pipes allowing the choice of higher or lower volumes under light loads. After a few hours we might go for the quiet mode, but when you’re approaching a stone wall or a tunnel, you’ll want to be quick with the mode button and the window switches.
The experience of the two engines is similar, with the G63 presenting a more urgent, slightly peakier version of the same. (Its 627 lb-ft is accounted for from 2500 to 3500 rpm, while the G550’s 450 lb-ft stretch from 2250 to 4750 revs.) As before, either yields an astonishingly quick big box. Figure on the G550 needing 5.5 seconds to hit 60 mph and the G63 getting it done in just 4.5. Top speed for the former is limited to 130 mph; the latter allows 137 mph, or 149 with the optional AMG Driver’s package.
Now that the G-wagen’s ride and handling have been somewhat modernized, offering a 149-mph speed limiter is less incongruous than before. A more appropriate Driver’s package would include a winch and all-terrain tires, but it doesn’t; the G’s current demographic is unlikely to ever test its true strengths. This new generation’s improved manners are likely to keep it that way for another 40 years. Both models go on sale in late 2018, the G550 likely to start close to the outgoing model’s $125,000 and the G63 similarly holding the line near $145,000.
BY JARED GALL
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