Test Drive: 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen

Traversing mountainous Austrian terrain in celebration of the model's 40th anniversary

Since it arrived in the US back in 2002, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class has maintained its reputation for being a luxurious 4×4 often seen tackling speed-bumps in upscale shopping centers or en route to the valet stand. Abroad, the G-Class is known more for its impressive off-road capability and is deeply respected by the “adventure mobile” community that has made the most of their durability since the original Gelandewagen launched in 1979. So which is it: showy status symbol or hardcore off-roader? Mercedes-Benz maintains that it has long been both, especially since the debut of the G55 AMG in 2003 (which brought the G-Class into performance SUV segment). With 2019 marking both the 40th anniversary of the iconic boxy SUV and the launch of the new G-Class, it’s the perfect time to go directly to the source in order to find out if the latest model does indeed offer the best of both worlds without compromise.

It takes all of two minutes climbing a narrow, deeply rutted trail leading up the side of Schöckl Mountain (some 15km north of Graz, Austria) to find out that the new G-Class is every bit as capable as the one it replaces. Between a front passenger seat that offers a variety of massage functions adept at working out knots and cooling ventilation that provides direct-to-body relief from uncharacteristically high temperatures, the luxuriousness of the new model quickly becomes apparent too.

However, it’s not until we ascend to the top of the trail and take in the stunning views that the true luxury of the G-Class presents itself. A booming sound system, open-pore wood inlays and a widescreen infotainment set-up that reaches across the majority of the dash are most welcome, but most impressive is the ability to tackle such aggressive terrain in utter comfort. The ability to breathe crisp air on the side of a mountain in the evening, then blast back down the side of said mountain as though it were a paved countryside road—that’s luxury.

The small badge on the driver’s door sill of every new G-Class reading “Schöckl-approved” is no marketing gimmick. Since manufacturing began at the Magna-Steyr (formerly Steyr-Daimler-Puch) plant in Graz, the G-Class has been tested here and it will continue to have to prove itself on this mountain so long as it is in production and the mountain stands.

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to go for the ride of a lifetime with one of Mercedes-Benz’s test drivers on Schöckl Mountain, but now there’s a workaround. Regardless of whether you spend a minimum of $125,495 on a new G-Class or are just seeking a uniquely thrilling experience, the 1,000 square-kilometer G-Class Experience Center that’s slated to open to the public this autumn will give you a good idea of just how capable the new vehicle is.

From the Iron Schöckl, where you can experience what it’s like to go up and down a 100% grade (as well as discover how the G-Class can claim to be the only production SUV that you can stand straight up in), to the 45% grade of the G-Rock with small boulders strewn about it, the carmaker’s new off-road theme park is a delight. Those without much experience will benefit from seat time with a veteran driver and those with a history of off-piste driving will find this a great place to hone their skills. You could drive a G-Class up and down sets of stairs in the real world, but it probably wouldn’t sit well with local authorities. Here, you can do so as many times as you wish, before moving onto other activities like fording over two feet of water, finding the balance point on a giant see-saw or just ripping through muddy trails in the woods.

Excelling at all of these activities is made possible by the tough-as-nails underpinnings that have been a hallmark of the G-Class for the past 40 years. A steel ladder frame, low-range four-wheel-drive, three independent electronic locking differentials and serious suspension travel all the way around carry over from the first-generation G-Wagen.

Of course this a new model, so raising the bar is essential. A new independent front axle benefits from more ground clearance, now 10.6 inches and a lower 4×4 crawl ratio of 2.91:1 helps make the most of improved breakover and departure angles. Selecting low range or locking any of the differentials activates the new G-Mode which adjusts steering, throttle, transmission and adaptive suspension parameters to maximize performance in various off-road conditions.

In short, the new G-Class is now as smart as it is luxurious and durable, but not so smart that it infringes upon the inherent joy of off-roading. Again, Mercedes-Benz has managed to deliver the best of both worlds from top to bottom. Even with that aforementioned six-figure price tag, the G-Class feels underpriced—given what it can do and how long it can do it for. The only 4×4 that takes things a step further is the vehicle that predates it by 30 years: the Unimog. While we don’t get behind the wheel of one of the Universal-Motorgerät variants that Mercedes-Benz brought down to Graz from their home at the Unimog museum in Gaggenau, riding along in both contemporary and classic models offer a clear understanding of why the mighty machine is so enviable beyond the asphalt. Finding parking for a Unimog is a bit trickier, and for most people, the G-Class is plenty of vehicle—on road or off.

Images by Andrew Maness