If you go back a handful of decades, the approach to making high-class autos by Mercedes-Benz was different than the company’s approach today. Sure, there’s overlap between how Mercedes pursued luxury in, say, the 1970s and earlier, and how the Germany-based auto company pursues it today.
A lot of effort is made to equip Mercedes models with heaps of glitzy gear, advanced abilities, and pampering amenities. The company also relies a lot on its brand identity and association with an upper-crust lifestyle, promoting that image by sponsoring high-profile golf tournaments and high-fashion clothing shows.
The Mercedes-Benz of the 1970s was quieter. Its emphasis shaded more toward building rock solid automobiles that attained luxury status by performing the ordinary functions of an auto to a higher degree than other cars did. The company made mostly level-headed models that were more durable, more dependable, safer, better on the road, and more accommodating in fundamentals like seat comfort and support, and instrument placement.
Today the old Mercedes-Benz, with its emphasis on acing the basics, and the new Mercedes-Benz, which lathers on luxury, come together in the company’s G-Class on-road/off-road sport-utility vehicle.
That’s even after wholly remaking the G-Class for 2019 and launching the new version as a very contemporary car built for today’s tastes. To be more precise, let’s say that it is built for the tastes of today’s top tier of luxury-car drivers. With the G’s starting list price of $125,495, no one else can buy it.
Befitting that lofty price, the starting-level G550 rewards its buyers with heaps of high-class style. That’s especially apparent in the cabin, with decorative elements like open-pore wooden trim plates, pliant two-tone leather upholstery, geometrically perforated speaker covers, and jet-turbine-shaped air outlets set into stylishly contoured chrome recesses arrayed across the dashboard. It shows in details like the side-by-side, extra-wide dashboard information and control screens high on the dash beneath a single, long-spanning glass cover. It shows in the touch-sensitive steering-wheel cover plates that let you call up information with a swipe, and in the appealing shape of the hand rest that doubles as a touchpad for controlling cabin features – poised above a comfortable knob that provides duplicate control of the same functions.
Known as the G-Wagen, which is shorthand for Geländewagen, Mercedes’ boxy mid-size four-wheel drive luxobox SUV is manufactured by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria and sold by Mercedes-Benz.
According to Wikipedia, the G-class was developed as a military vehicle after a suggestion by the Shah of Iran — who at the time was reportedly a significant Mercedes shareholder — and offered as a civilian version in 1979. The Argentine Army is listed as the first military unit to use it, beginning in 1981.
In 1980, a specially manufactured G-Wagen that featured a clear thermoplastic top, served as the Popemobile. It is now reported to be in the Mercedes-Benz museum on display.
For all of its pampering excesses, the Mercedes G-Class remains a highly capable, rough-and-ready off-road traveler. To dispel any doubts about its abilities, the model looks like the rock-crawling, mud-slogging, snow-sleighing farm wagon it was originally meant to be. Tall and narrow, slab sided, boxy and angled like a microwave oven, with a flat windshield, tall doors and picture-window side glass, carrying an encased spare tire prominently on its big back cargo-access door, the G-Class advertises that it is made for rough duty.
The G-Class rides on a sturdy ladder frame. Its four-wheel-drive system features three differential locks that control the distribution of power according to surface conditions. It uses a rigid rear axle that helps it climb stubbornly. The G550 comes with a V8 engine outfitteded with two turbochargers, capable of pulling heavy loads. It has a nine-speed automatic transmission.
Mercedes-Benz also sells a high-performance variation of the G-Class. The AMG G63 has racing abilities, with engine output approaching 600 horsepower. It sells at a list price of $148,495.
The roots of the G-Class go back to 1972, when Mercedes partnered with the Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch, which made trucks and farm tractors, among other products. The two outfits looked into making an all-terrain passenger vehicle for farm use, military use and adventure travel. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class that grew out of that effort went on sale in 1979.
This year’s new, next-generation, 2019 G-Class is only the second generation of the model, representing the first time Mercedes completely re-engineered and restyled the G – although the company made many modifications and improvements to the original version through its four decades.
This year’s new model is larger than the first generation G, with its expanded dimensions translating into more cabin space for occupants. It also has smoother, more compliant command of roads, due to changes that include a lower center of gravity and an independent front suspension that frees the front wheels to respond separately to bumps, rather than reacting together.
While it improves its road manners and simultaneously keeps its rough-terrain credentials, the 2019 G550 also retains the status value that is a large part of a luxury car’s allure. The Mercedes G is so expensive, and it stands out so conspicuously due to its shape, that its drivers enjoy heaps of exclusivity and I-have-something-you-don’t-have notoriety.
That was apparent from the many glances my evaluation model received from other motorists on Merrimack Valley streets. A number of people gave the G a thumbs-up as they passed. As I loaded in groceries at a Market Basket parking lot, a man and his driving-age daughter stopped for a long conversation about the car.
The pampering aspects of the G-Class came through in experiences like the seat massage feature – part of a high-priced “Exclusive Interior Package” option that helped drive the bottom-line price of my test model to $140,195. A friend sampling the selectable massage settings in the front passenger seat commented, “I don’t know why anyone would ever turn this off.”
Its high-stepping, rough-stuff traction paid off for me in downtown Boston. Parallel parked alongside a high curb, the G-Class was hemmed in closely at both front and rear. To leave the parking space, I cut the front wheels hard to swing a back corner of the car over the curb and up onto the sidewalk. The G-Class stepped down from the perch as effortlessly as it had backed onto it.
As we said at the start, there’s overlap between earlier Mercedes-Benz models and cars the company makes today. The earlier Mercedes were very nicely outfitted and amply equipped. And the company today still strives to build models with rock-solid fundamentals. But only the G-Class makes those fundamentals plain, showing them off as part of its unique character.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, four-wheel-drive luxury sport-utility vehicle
Price range: $125,495 to $148,495 (plus options)
Base engine: 4.0-liter turbocharged V8
Power: 416 horsepower at 5,250 rpm; 450 lb.-ft. torque at 2,250 rpm
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 13 mpg city; 17 mpg highway
Wheelbase: 114 inches
Length: 190 inches
Width: 86 inches
Height: 77 inches
Weight: 5,551 pounds
Turning Circle: 44.6 feet
Fuel capacity: 26.4 gallons