The G-Class's old school feel is quite evident in the driving dynamics. High-riding and skinny, this ancient SUV leans in turns as much as or more than any vehicle on sale today. The new Sport mode limits some of that lean, but this is still a tall, ungainly vehicle. On the road, most of the controls are balky. In addition to the slushy handling, the steering is almost painfully slow, but it needs to be. If it were quick, the G-Class would feel tippy. The steering has plenty of feel, but what you feel are heavy, lumpy tires meandering into corners. Solid front and rear axles give the G Wagon a busy, bouncy ride, too. At least the brakes are strong and predictable, but in total the driving character is quite off-putting. That's all due to the 36-year-old architecture and the fact that the G-Class was built to be a military off-roader.
On the other hand, power is an asset. The new turbocharged base engine offers a little more pep than the outgoing 5.5-liter V8, launching the G550 from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds versus 6.1 seconds for the 5.5. This engine delivers smooth power with a hint of turbo lag at low rpms and a throaty burble appropriate of a V-8.
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The G63 AMG is faster yet, cutting the 0 to 60 mph time to 5.4 seconds and sounding even more menacing. Considering that this is a 5,700-pound truck, both times are very quick. But given that this vehicle is so tall and cumbersome, maybe all that power isn't a good idea. Charge into a corner and you won't have the control of other sportier Mercedes that get such prodigious power.
Both engines work well with the smooth shifting seven-speed automatic transmission, but both will return horrible fuel economy. EPA fuel economy ratings are not yet available, but a 17 percent increase from 12 mpg city/15 highway is still going to be awfully thirsty. Both engines will save a few gallons a fuel a year thanks to a standard Eco start/stop feature that shuts the engine down at stops. This system works seamlessly; the engine starts again very quickly and the restart is virtually undetectable.
A billy goat in a tuxedo
The G-Class was conceived as an off-roader, with a body-on-frame structure, short front and rear overhangs, and the most robust four-wheel-drive system available. It is the only vehicle offered today with front, center, and rear locking differentials. However, Mercedes has outfitted it with luxury appointments. It’s a billy goat in a tuxedo, a rock crawler in an evening gown, and it may be the most capable off-roader offered today. Unfortunately, the Beverly Hills wives and rap star wannabes who buy it will never know what it can really do.
As part of our rainy off-road drive, we tackled a muddy off-road course in G550s equipped with the optional Yokohama Geolandar A/T-S tires. While these on/off-road tires don't have the most aggressive off-road tread, they worked with the G’s various differential locks to ford deep water crossings, conquer steep uphill and downhill runs, and keep plowing forward through mud and over uneven terrain that often put one or two wheels off the ground. Unfortunately, many G-Class owners will never take their vehicles off road, but it would be cool to see a muddy G Wagon proudly displayed in a hedge fund manager's driveway.