2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 Review

Can This Six-Figure Hunk of Off-Road Jewelry Tackle The Trail?

The original Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen had a reputation for off-road capability that was undeniable. The robust military-grade machine was launched in the late 1970s, and it’s been reliably taking adventurers into the rough stuff for decades. Here was one of the rare 4X4s that still had solid axles at both ends with electronic locking differentials, a coil-sprung suspension and tough-looking slab-sided sheet metal with exposed hardware. It was cool—like an upscale German Jeep.

But these Gs had their downsides too. The interior was totally dated and uncomfortable. They handled like the trucks they were and were hideously expensive. The high price was odd considering that their basic design was so old. The tooling for all the G-Wagen’s parts had been paid off long ago. So this was perhaps the most profitable vehicle in the Mercedes-Benz fleet.

At least part of that inflated pricetag came from its Hollywood reputation. Like it or not, G-Wagens found homes in the garages of many A-list celebrities including just about every Kardashian in the litter. So, yeah, the G-Wagen is both incredibly cool and completely repulsive at the same time.

Mercedes-Benz knew these things were a little absurd too. That’s why they made one with a 600-plus horsepower V12. And, it’s also why they built one that cost almost $250,000 with portal axles and 17-inches of ground clearance—the peculiarly named G550 4X4 Squared. We had a chance to review the G550 4×4 Squared and it was just as crazy as it sounds. If that wasn’t nutty enough, they even made a handful of 6X6 models (with a locker in each axle) that sold for over $500,000 to very weird and very wealthy people overseas.

Compared to those G-Wagens of the past, this all-new one is almost tame. Although it looks a lot like the old one, not a single body panel is the same. It also rides on an all-new chassis complete with an independent suspension up front. Would that adversely affect the G-Wagen’s legendary off-road status? We needed to find out. So, when Mercedes-Benz offered up a $141,545 Emerald Green Metallic G550, we pressed it into service on our 300-mile test route. That testing culminates with a half day spent four wheeling to get a feel for the Benz in the dirt. Here’s how the all-new G-Wagen stacks up.

The new-generation G-Wagen looks a lot like the previous version, but very little is shared between the two. One of the biggest differences between the two is a completely new interior. It is extremely luxurious and makes the G550 a very comfortable place to rack up the miles.

The Hardware

The casual observer might look at the boxy G-Wagen here and swear it’s the same old truck that dates to 1979. Yes, it does look similar. But although Mercedes-Benz kept the basic look, it’s an entirely fresh G-Class inside and out. It’s like Jeep moving from the JK to the JL. The look is close but unique in every way too. The new G is a little over 2-inches longer but almost 5-inches wider and the wheelbase is up by 1.6-inches to 113.8-inches. That growth is welcome, but it’s not over-the-top. The G550 is still 4.6-inches shorter than a Wrangler Unlimited.

The new frame is beefier with the rails pushed out closer to the edge of the bodywork. And, in the front there’s now an independent double-wishbone suspension with coil springs and adaptive dampers. The IFS is engineered for more wheel travel than a typical setup, and Mercedes is proud that the mounting points for the wishbones on the frame are located as high as possible. They wanted a clean underbelly for maximum clearance. They also added a strut tower brace across the motor to shore up the structure. In the rear, a live axle remains and still uses coil springs and adaptive dampers. But it’s now located by four trailing arms and a Panhard bar.

Benz says that axle has almost 9 inches of wheel travel. The stats are impressive as the angle of approach is maintained and both departure and break-over angles have increased by one degree. Plus, it can now ford deeper into the water, up to 27.6 inches. Oh, and there’s 10.6 inches of ground clearance under the front diff.

The 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 might be a carryover power plant from the last generation, but it’s no less potent, smooth, and sounds sweet. The boosted V8 delivers 416 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque through a 9-speed automatic. A positively nutty 577 horsepower V8 with 627 lb-ft of torque comes on the AMG model. And that drops the 0-60 mph times into the four-second range.

The axles come with 3.45:1 gears and electronic locking differentials. A new transfer case is still a full-time 4WD setup, but now has a default torque split of 40:60. The deep 2.93:1 low-range gears create a significant advantage over the old model’s 2.16:1 geared unit. Like before, the center differential along with the front and rear diffs, can be easily locked individually with three buttons mounted proudly in the center of the dash. And high- and low-range can be shifted (with buttons) on the fly. Just remember to hit Neutral in the transmission before attempting to go into low range.

Under that flat hood is perhaps the only part of the G that carries over from the last one: a potent 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8. It delivers 416 horsepower and generates 450 lb-ft of torque from 2,250 rpm to 4,750 rpm. It may be the same V8, but it’s now paired to a 9-speed automatic (replacing the old 7-speed unit). The new ‘box has a way low first gear of 5.35:1. So when the G550 is locked down in low range, it has a crawl ratio of 54:1. That’s not quite Jeep Wrangler Rubicon levels of slow-speed capability, but it’s better than just about any other stock 4X4 we can think of.

The G-Wagen may be all-new, but it’s still a robust, body-on-frame 4X4. It’s no lightweight weighing in at our local scales at 5,620 pounds—almost as much as a Chevrolet Tahoe. That’s about a 1,000 pounds less than the insane, seven-foot-tall, 36-inch tired and portal-axled G550 4X4 Squared we tested back in 2018. But compared to any “normal” 4X4 SUV, the G-Wagen is still very heavy. The last JL Rubicon Unlimited we tested weighed a full 1,100 pounds less. However, all that heft means the G can handle a stout payload of 1,014 pounds and can tow a substantial 7,700 pounds. That’s nearly full-size domestic SUV territory.

The G550 is a seriously expensive Mercedes-Benz so the materials are not only posh, but the switches and knobs feel heavy and expensive when you touch them. The optional 12.3-inch screen ($850) was amongst the best we’ve used. Four wheelers will appreciate that Benz located the diff lock switches up high in a prominent location on the dash.

On the Street

The old G-Wagen was perfect for slow-speed off-roaders because it was a simple, capable, solid-axle 4X4. But it had barely evolved in terms of its on-road drivability. Its owners more or less accepted the G-Wagen’s poor road manners. Well, the improvements made to this all-new one are nothing short of transformative.

Slide into the G-Wagen’s cabin and it’s clear that Mercedes-Benz has kept the tall-in-the-saddle seating position everyone liked in the old one. It still provides excellent visibility and a clear view out over the hood. But as soon as you look around, you can see the difference. This interior is much roomier for both front and rear occupants. For example, backseat legroom has increased by almost 6 inches. Everything you see and touch is totally upscale. The optional 12.3-inch display, rich materials, and completely nutty massaging front seats add to the luxury car clout. Not only do these thrones have five different types of massages available, but the side bolsters will electronically lean into your torso to help support your body when going around corners. It’s fun and certainly works well, but we turned it off after about 30 minutes. It can get annoying.

What will never get annoying is the response of that twin-turbo V8 as the G550 absolutely rips. Mercedes-Benz says it will hit 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds, and we believe it. The exhaust sounds fantastic too. Toggle from “Comfort” to “Sport,” and the noises get even better thanks to a throatier exhaust. At that point, heads on the sidewalk will turn and really notice the G. Some might mistake it for the hyper-potent AMG version.

Look closely and you will notice that the front solid axle has been ditched in favor of an independent front suspension. Thankfully, there are still front and rear lockers that help make up for a lack of flex in the front.

In “Comfort” mode the G-Wagen is one of the smoothest SUVs we’ve ever encountered. The ride is very supple and soft. And that’s impressive considering the G wears hefty (but low-profile) 275/50R20 Pirelli Scorpions. On the twisty roads outside LA, the G-Wagen holds onto gears in Sport mode as you weave through the canyons, making it quite a bit more fun than any G before it. But when you push the G into a corner hard, regardless of mode, it will understeer fairly quickly and easily compared to other mid-size SUVs. It’s got surprisingly low handling limits. So, this probably isn’t the truck we’d choose for a high-speed canyon drive. However, the new rack-and-pinion steering is light-years ahead of the old recirculating-ball setup. Although, the ratio is very slow and G550 still has an unusually wide turning circle. Whether you’re in the city or on the trail, that’s a big negative.

No matter the road, the G550’s V8 feels completely un-taxed. It’s got plenty of torque to thrust you around town under part throttle. And, on long freeway drives the revs stay between 1,800 rpm and 2,000 rpm on relatively level terrain at 70 mph. But even the steepest hill only needed one more downshift, and the big Benz just chuffed right up with 2,200 rpm showing on the tach.

Despite lazy revs on the freeway portion of our drive, the Benz delivered just 16.3 mpg throughout our 300-mile trip. To be fair, the EPA rates this rig at 13 mpg city and 17 mpg on the highway. And we’d guess the G550s brick-like shape has a lot to do with the fuel economy. This new one has a more slippery shape, but it’s also wider, so it ends up being about the same in terms of its aerodynamics.

The G550 may have an eye-watering price tag, but it works in the dirt with such ease that it instills great confidence in the driver. And, it wouldn’t take much to make it a bit more capable too. We’d lose those running boards and add some body-hugging rock rails. And, for sure, we’d ditch those fancy 20-inch wheels and tires and install a slightly taller, more aggressive tire with a thicker sidewall. While that would make the G550 better in the dirt, there is no getting around the fact that the IFS limits articulation compared to the previous solid axle. 

On the Trail

Crawl underneath the new G-Wagen and it’s apparent that engineers placed a priority on off-road clearance. All the major components down there are tucked up and out of the way. And that includes the exhaust. Instead of running the pipes out past the rear bumper like most 4X4s, Mercedes-Benz chose to dump them out just ahead of the rear tires and kept them protected under the bodywork. That’s one less thing to get crunched on the trail.

The G550 is a soft rider in the dirt as the suspension smooths out big ruts and bumps easily. There’s very little head toss or jarring as you traverse these rough sections. Because the G550 is full-time four-wheel drive, you can pull right off the pavement and into the dirt without shifting the transfer case at all. It has excellent clearance and approach and departure angles, so the G can tackle trail obstacles that would halt lesser SUVs even with all three diffs open in high range. In that regard, it’s very much like a Wrangler—the capability builds a ton of confidence.

What’s interesting about the G-Wagen is that Mercedes-Benz has engineered it with two four-wheeling personalities. Leave the diffs unlocked in low range and the traction control system will regulate wheelspin reasonably well. The experience is like most modern 4X4s with the electronics doing much of the work. But when you lock those diffs, the system disables the traction control. So, the G550 relies purely on the grip afforded by the locked axles. It’s like analog four-wheeling used to be back in the mid-1990s before traction control took over. And we like it.

After crawling around some mildly challenging ravines and ruts, we pointed the G-Wagen towards our gnarliest hill climb. We tried it first with just the rear locker engaged and it scrambled up to within a few feet of the top before the front wheels slipped. We backed down and locked the front. With traction split evenly to all four tires, the G550 walked right up. And because of its excellent break-over angle, nothing scraped underneath. The performance is especially impressive because the Benz’s Pirelli Scorpion tires have a very mild tread design. They really shouldn’t have worked as well as they did

In the deep sandy washes around the park, the G550 was a brilliant performer. The ride is cush and once you disable the stability control, the G is amazingly quick throwing roosts high into the sky. The four-wheel-drive system puts the power right to the tires in the sand and allows the driver to attack corners without the rear end sliding around. Sport mode is fun here too, if only for the aggressive transmission tuning and cannon-like exhaust sounds echoing off the canyon walls. This thing is point and shoot fun. It would no doubt be a lot of fun to blast around on some real sand dunes. Similarly, on the fire roads around the park, we were able to maintain 30 mph through the undulating terrain and over mild whoops. Incidentally, it’s about the same speed that a truck like a TRD Pro Tacoma can handle, but with much more comfort.

Most owners of the G550 will probably spend more time on the tarmac instead of the trail. They will appreciate the comfort of the new interior and much better ride of the revamped suspesion. But, if it was up to us, we would save some money with a used model and enjoy the front solid axle.

The Bottom Line

To be honest, there’s absolutely no way to justify the price tag of this thing. For the same $141,545 you could have three Wrangler Rubicons. Or a house in some parts of the country. Yes, for that price, it had better be an incredible vehicle. And in many ways, it is. But here’s the thing, if we really wanted a G-Wagen we’d shop used. Why not get the one that has a live front axle? Plus, now that the old one is finally out of production, prices on them should eventually drop. We’d shop for an early 2000s model that’s only seen highway miles. Then we’d hit the aftermarket for some cool steel wheels, a small lift, some slightly larger tires, and a winch. We might be tempted to swap in some portal axles too. But the point is, you’d have something that’s super capable and super original for less than the half of the cost of this new G550.