Mercedes G 550 and AMG G 63: Boxy but badass
The mighty Mercedes G-Wagen rolled on for 39 years with a shape as boxy as a U-Haul moving truck and doors that slammed shut with the solidity of an escape hatch on a U-Boat. It was beyond ancient by automotive industry standards, where a new Honda Accord or Toyota Camry arrives every five years whether you want it or not. Mercedes admitted the G had “... the longest production of any single model generation.” But buyers didn’t care that the G was aging, they just kept buying the things. Sales went up 6 percent last year, to over 4,000. Not Ford Explorer or Lexus RX numbers, but buyers loyally soldiered on, paying six figures for something that annually got about 14 euros worth of R&D.
Now, finally, and with not much real demand for changes, the Gelandewagen is all-new anyway. How new is all-new? There are only three carryover parts: the door handles, the spare tire cover and the headlamp washers. Everything else ist neu. Except that right-angle protractor shape. When they say “two-box design” here, they mean it.
“The G is still the G,” said Bernie Glaser, head of product management for Mercedes USA. “It’s just a better G.”
For instance, when the first G rolled into nonmilitary customer hands in 1979 after various worldwide armies got first crack at it, it had a ground-pounding 71 hp in its weakest trim. The new 2019 AMG G63 has 577 hp. So it’s gotten better.
We in the U.S. will get two Gs. The G550 comes with a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 making 416 hp and 450 lb ft of torque and it launches from 0-60 in 5.6 seconds, two-tenths quicker than before. The all-conquering AMG G63 uses the same 4.0-liter V8 twin turbo but it’s tuned to produce those aforementioned 577 hp, along with 627 lb-ft of torque. It gets to 60 in 4.5 seconds. That’s almost a full second quicker than the G 63 it is replacing.
The engines send torque to the Mercedes 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic and from there through three differentials to all four wheels. Each of the three differentials -– front, rear and center -– locks via its own push-button on the dash.
Suspension is double wishbones in front and a rigid axle in the rear located by longitudinal links and a Panhard rod held up by coil springs or air bags. It sits on an all-new ladder frame that offers 9.5 inches of ground clearance and more than two feet of fording depth. All this offers capabilities far beyond what any owner will ever use.
“What you are going to do today, none of our customers are going to do ever,” said Glazer.
We did it anyway.
First drive was on twisty mountain roads, where the big G felt fine until you start to push it. Then it acted like your old boss on the way home from the Christmas party -- heavy and just a little tipsy, but still in charge of everything. In this environment the AMG G 63 version would be your first choice, with its extra power and more tied-down suspension settings.
Of the five driving modes available in Dynamic Select, obviously, Sport was best in this environment. It held gears, increased throttle response and steering ratio, and even opened the exhaust flap for a more rumbly sound. But the “Individual” setting allows you to set it up as you like, and you may find that you’ll want the gear hold but not the jumpy throttle and steering.
Off-road, meanwhile, the G was amazing. Mercedes took a bunch of us out to Anza Borrego State Park in the SoCal desert and ran us all through a prescribed course of off-road obstacles, with each obstacle highlighting a different aspect of the G’s dirt-dancing capabilities. For this we were assigned a G 550, since it’s not horsepower you need out here, but all that gearing. Most fun was trying to approach the vehicle’s claimed 35-degree side-angle limit. Watching the readout on the dash we only ever hit 29 degrees, which was pretty thrilling. Hard to imagine it’ll go six more degrees and come back to level.
With all three diffs fully locked the G 550 climbed up rock hills you’d have trouble hiking up without using your hands and knees. It also enjoyed steep downhills through deep sand, on which it slowed descent by low-range gearing alone. It seemed like it could do anything any hard-core off-road vehicle could do.
Inside, the new Gs are all new, too. Two 12.3-inch displays show the instrument cluster and infotainment features. Seat material is handsome, while every interior measurement has been increased, including almost six more inches of rear legroom.
What is also increased is the price. The G 550 starts at $125,495 and the AMG G 63 starts at $148,495. That’s about Range Rover territory, less than a Bentayga, more than a Cayenne. It’ll roll with those competitors in the brutal suburban soccer mom/dad and/or Real Housewives/Husbands of Wherever prestige battle, plus you get rock-solid Mercedes reliability and resale value. But you have to come to grips with your fear of boxes. If you can do that, it’s a winner -– boxed into this narrowest of market segments.