2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 First Drive Review: A better G for all

The Mercedes-Benz G-Class is the automotive equivalent of, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The iconic Geländewagen has been around since 1979, with only evolutionary updates keeping it fresh over the past four decades. It's weird and wild, and there's nothing else quite like it.

With a pedigree so storied, Mercedes knows it'd be foolish to muck things up with the 2019 G-Class. Yet this brand-new model only shares five components with its predecessor. Five. Aside from the headlight washers, door handles, sun visors, spare tire cover and some random bracket found deep in the internal structure, everything else is different. For a part-relic, part-icon like the G-Class, that's a really big deal.

Driving through the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, between the cities of Perpignan and Carcassonne where the original G-Class was launched nearly 40 years ago, it all feels very... familiar. The steering is sort of vague. There's a wonderful burble from the side-mounted exhaust. An upright windshield sits not too far in front of me, providing a commanding view of the SUV's short, flat hood and chunky corner turn signals. It's an experience that's uniquely G-Wagen, and one that -- despite huge improvements in comfort, technology and drivability -- is still fully present.

Outside the box

Though its outward appearance is unmistakably G-Class, every single body panel is new. The doors, fenders and hood are now made from aluminum, which helps contribute to a 366-pound weight savings versus the outgoing G. It's even more aerodynamic, believe it or not. The windshield has a slightly steeper rake, and the side windows have the tiniest bit of curvature to their shape.

A lot of the G-Class' iconic design elements that would normally be scrubbed clean on a less recognizable model in the name of aerodynamics remain. The exposed door hinges, the prominent protective strip along the body sides, the blocky turn signals fixed atop the hood -- they're all completely on point. Even the roof cap carries over, albeit with a bit more swoop to its shape.

The biggest visual difference is undoubtedly up front, where the large, round headlights now have LED running lamp rings. And though the front brush guard is no longer standard equipment on US-spec G-Class models, you can option it for both the upper and lower fascias, in either the traditional chrome, or in black as part of a new Night Package.

Large, LED-outlined headlamps are the biggest visual change. Chunky turn signals, exposed door hinges and a prominent protective strip along the side are classic bits of G-Wagen design.

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More room, more lux

It starts with a "chunk!"

If you've ever heard a G-Class lock or unlock its doors, you know what I'm talking about -- that unmistakable, precise, German-bank-vault sound. The feeling of the handle in your grip. The staccato "click" as it opens. These sensory attributes are vital to the G-Class' willkommen. But once you've hoisted yourself inside the tall SUV, almost everything you're used to is different -- and for the better.

The first thing you notice is all the added space. The 2019 G-Class is 4.8 inches wider than its predecessor, directly resulting in increased elbow- and shoulder room for both front and rear passengers. The added width means larger, more comfortable seats are fitted up front, with myriad power adjustability, not to mention heating, cooling and, of course, massage. There's a proper center console between the seats, with real, honest-to-goodness cup holders (though I'll kind of miss the charmingly terrible flip-up, net-lined holders from the old model -- kind of). The G even gets a real glass moonroof for the first time, replacing the solid metal sunroof unit from before.

A pair of 12.3-inch displays, super fancy materials and, holy crap, real cup holders. The new G's interior is a massive upgrade over the outgoing model.

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Every touchable surface has the sort of look and feel you'd expect from a six-figure Mercedes-Benz (pricing is still TBD, but expect it to start around $125,000). The appropriately shallow dashboard is flanked by two metal Burmester speaker grilles, meant to mimic the way the turn signals proudly mark the corners of the hood. Below them, large air vents are said to evoke the G's headlight design. Two more vents in the middle of the center stack use the same, heavy stylized look, as do the three large buttons for the G-Class' all-important front, center and rear differential locks. The vast expanses of leather are broken up by natural wood and beautiful brushed metal accents. Taken as a whole, the G-Class boasts one of Mercedes' finest interiors, full stop. And that's before you get to the richer two-tone, AMG Line and Designo options.

There's more space for second-row riders, thanks to 2.1 additional inches of length and a rear bench that's positioned further back in the cabin. The 5.9 extra inches of legroom go a long way toward making the rear space a place you'd happily occupy for long distances, and moving the bench backward helps with overall ingress and egress. Cargo space suffers slightly, but swing open that rear door and you're still greeted with a wealth of usable cargo room.

It might not utilize Mercedes' great new MBUX system, but the G550's COMAND infotainment features a number of helpful off-road displays.

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Technology in COMAND

Every G-Class comes with a 12.3-inch infotainment display, front and center, set back in the dash. You can option two real speedometer and tachometer gauges directly in front of the driver, or you can go big and spec a dual-screen setup, just like what you find in Mercedes' CLS-, E- and S-Class models.

The infotainment tech housed within is the same COMAND system you'll find elsewhere -- not the updated MBUX system that'll first arrive in the new A-Class sedan and Sprinter van. You can control the system via the large dial or touchpad on the center console, or the two thumb pads on the steering wheel (left for the gauge screen, right for the center display), and while it mostly works well enough, I can't wait for MBUX to make its way into every single Mercedes model. The high-res, reconfigurable displays of COMAND are nice and all, but I'm hooked on the incredibly quick, touch-responsive interface of MBUX.

The G550's independent front suspension and electromechanical steering rack make it a lot easier to control at higher speeds.

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On-road charm

The G550 -- which will be known as the G500 outside the US -- uses Mercedes' now-ubiquitous 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 engine, tuned here to deliver 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. That's more than enough hustle to get this big, four-wheel-drive brute up and moving with a quickness. Mercedes estimates the 0-60 miles per hour time at under 6 seconds, and considering the Benz's shape, that's damned impressive.

There's a great rush of power from the moment you hit the throttle. The automatic transmission now has nine gears instead of seven, and it shifts with imperceptible immediacy. Ruthlessly powerful but utterly smooth, the Affalterbach-bred V8 has a low, rumbling exhaust note that'll make you think you're in a proper AMG model instead of the base G550. (The new AMG G63, by the way, is a rip-snorting riot.)

The roads between Perpignan and Carcassonne take you through some absolutely luscious French countryside. Around every new bend, there's a new vineyard to behold, set back behind knee-high stone walls older than your grandparents' grandparents. These are tight, technical roads -- the kind you'd love to have at your disposal for wringing out a brilliant driver's car. And while the G-Class doesn't come close to fitting that description, these roads show the incredible improvement in drivability, completely independent of the exquisite V8 onboard.

The AMG-bred 4.0-liter biturbo V8 is right at home in the G550, and the baritone grumble that emits from the side-mounted exhaust pipes is absolutely intoxicating. 

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Never in my life have I so willingly cheered the arrival of electromechanical steering. The old G's recirculating ball setup was horrible in day-to-day use -- heavy and cumbersome, and with exactly no tactile feedback from the road far below. The new steering system is not only more modern, but genuinely feels better to use; there's a really nice weight to the action of the wheel. It's still a bit vague in terms of overall feedback, and the ratio could arguably be a bit quicker in its default setting. But the key takeaway is that the G-Class is significantly easier and more stable to control, especially at higher speeds, and electronic steering means it's easier to fit driver assistance systems like lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control.

The new, independent front suspension plays a big role in on-road confidence, too, as does the G-Class' stiffer chassis structure. Torsional rigidity is up 55 percent over the outgoing model, and combined with its more sophisticated front suspension, the 2019 G-Class feels far less unwieldy in turns. It's not going to usurp a Range Rover or Porsche Cayenne in terms of great SUV handling, and really, it shouldn't. These improvements aren't about building a better sporty SUV, they're all about making a G-Class that's easier and more engaging to drive -- one that isn't unruly around town or fatiguing on longer drives.

No bridge? No problem. The G550 can ford depths of up to 27.6 inches.

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Off-road dominance

As far as off-road credentials are concerned, the 2019 G550 is a little bit better in a number of areas. Though it only has an extra 0.2 inches of ground clearance, it can ford 4 more inches of water -- 27.6, in case you've got a shallow river nearby. The 26-degree breakover angle is a 1-degree improvement over the old G550, and its 30-degree approach and 31-degree departure angles mean you won't risk scraping those precious fenders when the going suddenly gets steep. But the most wonderful thing about off-roading the G550 is how easy and effortlessly this Mercedes tackles everything in its path.

Mercedes uses an off-road park in the French countryside for G-Class development, and it's those very trails where I'm testing the 2019 G550 today. Three locking differentials mean you'll never, ever get stuck (if you're not rolling on summer tires, anyway), and the G550's new G-Mode off-road setting makes it easier to operate the SUV when you're in the thick of some rough stuff. G-Mode is activated as soon as you lock one of the differentials or put the car into low range, and it adjusts the damping of the chassis and lightens the response of the steering and throttle. It also puts the transmission into a specific off-road programming that avoids unnecessary gear shifts, though you can always select your own gears via manual mode and the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Come to a complete stop while on a 45-degree descent, put the G550 in reverse, and it'll back right up. Front, rear and 360-degree cameras show you what's nearby when sight lines are obscured. Use first gear in manual mode and low range to automatically activate a hill descent control. And by all means, enjoy a heated massage while doing so.

How many SUVs will give you a heated massage while you tackle a 45-degree descent?

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A better G for everyone

Let's be honest, the G-Class is as much a status symbol as it is anything else these days. For every G-Wagen climbing an Alpine slope, there are at least five street-parked in Beverly Hills. Good thing, then, that the 2019 G-Class has improvements that'll be appreciated by both types of buyers.

For those who seek its rugged capability, it's far easier to control off road without sacrificing anything in the way of outright prowess. For the on-road boulevard set, it's significantly nicer to drive at all speeds, not to mention far more luxurious, tech-forward and outright comfortable than before.

The G-Class' biggest update yet clearly positions it for future success. Here's to the next 40 years.

The G550 is as capable as it is comfortable.

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