Test Drive: Mercedes-Benz G550 is an Uncompromised Reinvention of a Cult Classic

Putting the all-new G-Wagen through the paces in the SoCal desert

“Make sure all of your change is out of your pocket because it will be, eventually,” Matt Bowerman, product manager for Mercedes-Benz’s classic off-roader, the G-Class, says right before we pile in to drive three hours from San Diego to Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area in Borrego Springs, California. “It’s like a flying brick,” he adds regarding the vehicle’s boxy form and incredible performance.

The brand’s longest-running production vehicle has returned with a vengeance. On the eve of its 40th birthday, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is navigating middle age with a major redesign, trying to stay hip as young rivals such as the Lamborghini Urus and Rolls Royce Cullinan emerge. Like any enviable facelift, the makeover has given the long-running global status symbol a modern look while retaining its rugged off-road appeal. Its 375-pound weight loss—due to an aluminum-based diet for the doors, hood and fenders—doesn’t hurt its born-again vivacity, either.

Though puny by today’s standards, the G-Class launched in 1979 as a military-style truck powered by a choice of four engines supplying between 71 and 154 horsepower. The 2019 G-Wagen packs much more pluck. The G550 delivers 416 horsepower using its new 4.0-liter bi-turbo V8, while the high-performance AMG G63 harnesses 577 ponies with its handcrafted AMG 4.0-liter V8 bi-turbo.

We feel the SUV’s additional oomph—meted through its new, silky-smooth nine-speed automatic transmission—as soon as we hit the freeway outside of San Diego. Once notoriously clunky on pavement, the updated SUV now performs gracefully with little rattle.

Packed with luxuries to demonstrate its relevance amid a sea of newcomers from Maserati, Bentley and others, the cabin keeps us entertained with 64-color ambient lighting, a capable infotainment system routed through two crisp, 12.3-inch display screens, and massaging seats that are especially soothing in gridlock. Perhaps most notably, the G-Wagen’s latest incarnation boasts cup-holders sturdy enough to hold a bottle of water, allowing us to stay hydrated while cruising the Sonoran Desert.

Arriving at Ocotillo Wells in the afternoon, we’re refreshed and ready to play. Stretched before us: more than 85,000 acres of sand dunes, granite slides and muddy springs. With nearly 9.5 inches of ground clearance, the SUV roams boulders jutting at sharp ascents, charges up soft sand dunes with authority, and pitches sideways without endangering us. New for the latest generation, the G-Mode setting matches the SUV’s driving characteristics to the terrain when one of three locking differentials is engaged. Our driving instructor warned us about spots requiring the G-Wagen’s precise steering as the path narrowed along the rocks, but the SUV shows its dexterity despite its top-heavy silhouette.

On one pass, our instructor asks us to test the articulation by tipping the side of the car near its 35-degree limit. We exit the car to find two wheels off the ground. Recalling Bowerman’s words, we instinctively pat our pockets. Sure enough, they’re empty.

Images by Josh Rubin