I recently learned that Kim Kardashian drives a Mercedes-Benz G-Class. It is, apparently, the "truck of her dreams." But for an off-road fan (and racer) like me, watching Kim K. drive her G-Wagen around Los Angeles, never venturing out to the beautiful desert just outside the city is, well, a travesty.
Yes, the G-Class has largely been co-opted by the mall-crawling set in recent years. But this thing was originally made for the dirt. Development of the road-going G-Class started in the 1970s after the Shah of Iran suggested Mercedes build a military vehicle. Testing was conducted in the desert, the arctic and everywhere in between. The result was the original 1979 Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, and the SUV has retained its off-road prowess ever since.
Folks who never off-road their G-Wagens don't know what they're missing.
New, yet classic
Despite striking a familiar pose, the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a brand-new vehicle. Only five parts are shared with its predecessor: the door handles, spare tire cover, headlight washers, sun visors and one small bracket under the hood. Everything else is different. The exposed door hinges are still there, but the lower corners are now rounded. The circular headlights remain, but they're now outlined with LED running lights.
The five-passenger G-Class comes in two flavors in the US: There's a base, $124,500or a much hotter (and much more expensive) $147,500 . Both use a twin-turbocharged, 4.0-liter V8 -- in the G550, you get 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, but the AMG G63 gets a massive 577 horsepower and 627 pound-feet. (The AMG-ified box on wheels can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds!) Regardless of engine tune, the G-Class uses a nine-speed automatic transmission, and comes standard with three locking differentials and an honest low range.
The G-Class uses a 2.91:1 low gear ratio, which is better than its predecessor, resulting in more torque multiplication at slow, off-road speeds. The G-Class can also shift from high to low range at speeds of up to 25 mph, and you can go back into high up to 43 mph. Yes, the transmission has to be in neutral when making this change, but most vehicles require you to go super slow, or even come to a complete stop, to execute this shift. Keeping momentum, even if it's just coasting, can really come in handy while driving in dunes or on soft-sand trails.
Three locking differentials give you the ultimate traction control. The center locker ensures that power is split equally between the front and rear axles; engage the front and rear lockers to then split that torque equally to each wheel. This helps the G-Class conquer slippery surfaces, making sure each wheel gets the same amount of power, regardless of traction.
The top-shelf AMG G63 gets an off-road driving program within its Dynamic Select drive modes, with settings for Trail, Sand or Rock. That said, it's the G550 that's better suited for actual off-roading straight from the showroom floor -- the G63 comes with Goodyear Eagle F1 summer tires on 21- or 22-inch wheels, but the G550 gets meatier Falken Wildpeak A/T3W rubber, wrapped around 18-inch wheels. Tires are super important when the going gets tough, remember.
Steep and sideways
That in mind, it's the G550 that I choose for a trip to Ocotillo Wells, California, just outside of San Diego. I remember wheeling out here in our dune buggy when I was a kid, and I'm anxious to get back out and relive my childhood -- this time, with massaging seats.
A Mercedes-Benz instructor rides shotgun to keep my actions in check. "Good luck, buddy," I think as he tells me to lock the center diff so the G550's scaled-down terrain management system engages. Called "G-Mode," in the G550, it automatically adjusts the shocks, steering and throttle parameters for maximum off-road performance.
G-Mode engaged, I tear off through the whoops, letting the new-for-2019 independent front suspension do its thing. No, the G550 no longer has a solid front axle -- the truth is, an independent front setup allows for a smoother ride, both on pavement and on rough trails. It also helps improve steering feedback, something the last-generation G-Class had exactly none of.
The independent front suspension also helps the G550 go faster off road. Mercedes-Benz says its engineers pushed the new G-Class over a 3.5-mile test circuit on themountain in under 8 minutes -- a full 26 seconds quicker than an outgoing G with the solid front axle. That's a huge improvement.
Adding the independent front axle allows for a number of other improvements, too. It means the G550 has 9.5 inches of ground clearance, which in turn improves the approach and breakover angles, up to 30 and 26 degrees respectively. Departure angle remains the same at 30 degrees. Approaching a seriously steep hill called Devil's Slide, the G550 doesn't even come close to scraping its front bumper. In fact, Mercedes says it can climb a 45-degree slope with ease.
On a series of S-curves at a section called Shell Reef, I bank the G550 up as high as possible to test the 35-degree side-hill capabilities. At this angle, I could stop and damn near touch the ground just by reaching out the side window.
King of trails and boulevards
Are there other luxury SUVs with this sort of off-road capability? The r puts up a good fight, with more water-fording capability thanks to its higher ground clearance, and equal or better suspension geometry all the way around. But the prowess is only possible thanks to its complicated air suspension system, while the G-Class uses a what-you-see-is-what-you-get setup -- no fancy electronic raising or lowering required.
Of course, the vast majority of G-Class buyers will never drive their vehicles to their full potential. Even on this off-road loop, I didn't come close to reaching the SUV's off-road limits. This is a vehicle that can climb over rocks and dunes, and then conquer the steepest driveways to the fanciest Beverly Hills homes, looking gorgeous and luxurious all the while.
Kim, if you ever want an off-road lesson, I'm here for you, sister.