First Drive: 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class a $150,000 Off-Road Dream

December 21, 2018 by Rick Stella, @RickStella

The newest generation of Mercedes-Benz’s G-Class line of luxury off-road SUVs has undergone a major redesign for 2019.

The brand set out to improve the boxy off-roader, also known as the G-Wagen, without changing much of what customers have come to expect. Its nickname is short for Geländewagen, meaning “cross-country vehicle.”

The 2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 and the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 offer performance upgrades that improve handling, driving modes and safety systems.

Still a G

Since 2011, Mercedes has seen annual sales of the G-Class nearly quadruple, jumping from 1,191 units to 4,188 in 2017. But in 2018, sales have slowed. Mercedes sold 3,525 G-Wagens through November as buyers wait for the new model.

Although redesigned for 2019, the G-class Mercedes-Benzes maintain the style owners want. (Photo: Rick Stella/Trucks.com)

Though sales are lower compared with other premium large SUVs like the Range Rover, Mercedes takes its G-Class line seriously. Customers demand a certain quality and are protective over its performance and appearance.

This is why Mercedes is quick to say “the new ‘G’ is still a ‘G,’ only better.” Previous features such as the door handles, spare wheel cover and exterior protective strip are on the 2019 models, but a number of changes have been added.

New for 2019 are standard LED headlamps, a fully bonded glass head-up display, an improved suspension system and a new nine-speed automatic transmission. Each model is 4.8 inches wider and 2.1 inches longer, though the mini growth spurt did not dramatically alter the G-Wagen’s classic visual style.

Both models have a 4.0-liter V8 engine and all-wheel-drive but differ in terms of performance. The G550 offers 416 horsepower, 450 pound-feet of torque and a 130 mph top speed. The G63 delivers 577 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque and tops out at 137 mph.

The brand’s meticulous manufacturing process remains for the 2019 lineup. Each finished product receives roughly 100 hours of hand-building and stitching.

An Interior Makeover

Sitting in either the G550 or G63 is like sitting on a leather throne. It’s comfortable and boasts a high position. The windshield is compact, unlike typical SUVs, but the elevated view helps.

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Driver and passenger doors house buttons that allow customization of seat positions like height, depth, angle and leg length. Presets can be programed for different drivers.

The G550’s all-leather steering wheel is soft to the touch, while the G63’s available suede accents on either side of its leather wheel appear more likely to lose quality over time. The suede is comfortable, but it’s an easy target for grease or grime.

The G-Wagen takes steering wheel controls to a new level. It’s not just about making a phone call or turning up the radio volume. A touch navigation button on the left side of the steering wheel customizes the in-dash multi-information display, which includes special features such as adaptive cruise control and a G-Force meter.

The center console also has an easy-to-use dial that controls the infotainment system and swaps among driving modes. The same dial controls other luxe seat settings such as massage speeds and lumbar support.

A Dynamic Drive

The G550 offers five driving modes: Comfort, Sport, Eco, Individual and G-Mode. The G63 also has five, but they differ slightly: Individual, Comfort, Slippery, Sport and Sport+. Each offers different suspension, steering, transmission and engine characteristics depending on the desired drive style.

For example, Comfort provides smooth acceleration and forgiving steering. This was most apparent while driving on San Diego’s highways, where looser steering and soft acceleration helped navigate traffic and changing lanes.

Sport provided more power and tighter steering and held onto gears longer. Slippery is designed for use in rain or snow and is available exclusively on the G63. Other G63 exclusives are the new Sand, Rock and Trail off-road modes, which adjust the G-Wagen’s shifting, steering and throttle to better handle variable terrain.

The G63’s Sport+ mode goes one step further, building on Sport and turning the G-Wagen into a sports car. It has a louder exhaust and goes from 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds.

Its electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering system and independent front suspension have an accurate steering response across all modes. This feedback was loose in Comfort mode but tightened when Sport+ was engaged, allowing for sharper control. This was especially beneficial at high speeds.

The G63’s uptick in acceleration and power worked best for climbing winding mountain roads or passing slow-moving cars. Its available Summer Performance Tires also excelled at taking corners at speeds up to 50 and 60 mph without any squeal.

Off-Roading in a Luxury SUV

But it’s the G550 that really shines off-road. G-Mode, a drive mode exclusive to the model, allowed for more precise off-road handling. Specifically, G-Mode altered the G550’s adjustable dampening of its chassis, adapted its steering to the terrain and allowed custom shifting via paddle shifters.

Switching into G-Mode requires activating one of the G550’s three differential locks. G-Mode also fires up when the driver turns on the vehicle’s low-range off-road reduction gear.

This produced a smooth off-road drive. Steering was more precise, especially when driving along sidewalls or across rocky terrain. Leaving the G550 in first gear, it drove as if it were engaged in downhill assist, automatically braking when the vehicle picked up speed.

Safety is Key

The 2019 lineup offers safety features such as active brake assist, active distance assist, traffic sign assist and active lane keeping. There’s also an emergency call button that activates the moment the airbags deploy, sending GPS coordinates and vehicle information to emergency services.

Included in its safety suite is a new feature designed to monitor more than 70 driver behavior variables to judge if a driver is drowsy. Mercedes calls it Attention Assist. The system, Mercedes says, will provide audio and visual alerts if the driver is determined to be drowsy while driving.

Classic Styling

The G550 and G633 evoke the G-Class of old with their familiar boxy body style, stainless-steel brush guards and a large Mercedes logo emblazoned on the grille. The grille is flanked by chrome accents.

For a next-generation redesign, it remains faithful to G-Wagen purists. It’s the classic aesthetic wrapped around an improved safety system, upgraded interior and next-gen drive technology.

It’s also a fun on-road SUV and a highly capable off-roader.

All the bells and whistles, coupled with the luxury name badge, don’t come cheap. The G63, set to launch in 2019, has a base price of $147,500. The G550, available now, starts at $124,500.

Mercedes is banking on return business from loyalists, but whether the adventure crowd will follow on their heels and cough up six figures remains to be seen.

Editor’s note: To facilitate this report, Trucks.com attended an event at which Mercedes-Benz hosted travel and lodging.

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