WHISTLER, B.C.—In this highly competitive automotive world, when a vehicle doesn’t seem to change, that usually means the death of that model. However, there is a narrow slice of the market where change is actually viewed with suspicion, and the status quo is what buyers expect.
The Mercedes Benz G-Class is a truck that falls into that slice of the market, remaining virtually the same from its debut in 1979. Today this high-end SUV serves two masters: luxury; and stellar off-road performance. The people that buy it expect no less, and they are just fine with it not changing its look.
The G550 4matic is the 2017 version of that original G-Wagen, and the most popular model amongst Canadians. So while inside it has changed and been made attractive to please an urban buyer, the ability to crawl up a mountain-side still relies on the same basic 37-year-old setup.
The body remains virtually square, made up largely of multiple flat panels, and this speaks to the core mission of the G-Class—off-road prowess. Wheels on the truck are pulled close to the four corners of the design, giving it sharp approach and departure angles, again for climbing over obstacles without leaving its bumpers behind.
Flared wheel arches give the truck a muscular look and are practical, keeping flinging mud at bay. In between the wheels is a full-length aluminum running board set tight to the body. At the rear a stainless steel hardcover shrouds the full-size spare. This is a unique look for the G-Class, and also a space-saving measure.
The rear cargo area is accessed by a full-height and wide-swing-out door—that sort of good access and ample space for gear is just another side effect of a boxy design like this. New this year are vibrant body colours that can best be described as a rainbow of Skittles. If the shape wasn’t enough, these colours will scream your arrival.
The inside design, materials, and conveniences are where the G-Class really reflects its price tag. Remember that when you drive this truck, you are in a vehicle that is largely the same as the one used by the Canadian Armed Forces—though they don’t get leather upholstery and inlaid walnut wood grain.
This civilian version though does include these and much more, though. The features found in this truck grace many Mercedes-Benz products, in fact, including dual-zone HVAC; 10-way heated front seats with memory; heated rear seats; velour floor mats; illuminated door sills; sunroof; Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound system; Apple CarPlay; smartphone integration; nav system; privacy glass; luggage cover; leather dashboard; and the full host of power-assisted features you’d expect.
While the G-Class sports systems like Parktronic (Parking Assist) and Stability Control, at its heart are the mechanical systems that have made it famous—these are what set it apart. The G-Class uses three electronic lockers that send power to front and rear axles (50/50) and also lock up the rear and front differential, again forcing power to each wheel equally. That is true four-wheel-drive, and the three manually controlled lockers are set right at the top of the center stack. This is what gives the truck its awesome traction.
Also important is ground clearance and front approach angle and rear departure angle, which are both steep. Vital components, like the gas tank and transmission, have steel skid plates protecting them. The exhaust system is short, with the exit pipe popping out just in front of the rear wheels.
While there is a diesel-powered G-Class available in the much of the world, we only get gas engines in Canada. In the G550, that’s the 4.0-litre V8 that makes 416 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque.
Weighing in at 2,595 kg dry, the truck uses all of this muscle to get moving, yet it’s surprisingly fast, with a zero-to-100 km/h run-up of just 5.9 seconds. All that power is pushed through a 7Gtronic Plus automatic transmission and its operation is just as impressive off-road as it is on, so that neither environment is taxing for the owner.
In the coastal mountains near Whistler, B.C., I drove the G-Class up decommissioned logging roads that rose a couple of thousand meters in elevation over 30 or more kilometers. Making the drive that much more interesting was the rain that fell steadily though the day.
This kind of muddy environment is where a truck like the G-Class is most at home. A two-speed transfer case concentrates the engines power while the three electronic locker buttons let the driver choose the amount of traction necessary to get through whatever looms before the windshield.
Frankly, it’s this level of personal interaction that makes the G-Class such a great off-road ride. Mercedes certainly has the technology available to make the entire traction system automatic—however, they recognize that the G-Class buyer is someone that still wants to call their own shots.
Mounted high in the centre stack, those three buttons let the driver change settings as needed, and this ability just adds to the fun of conquering rugged terrain. With all three lockers engaged and in low range it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that this truck will climb a smooth wall.
On paved roads, the G-Class doesn’t beat up its occupants with a rough suspension setup. It’s well-balanced and planted even at highway speeds. A slight body lean in long curves is the only clue that this boxy truck is at home in the dirt as much or more than on pavement. And, being that like most off-roaders it will spend most of its life in the concrete jungle rather than the real one, that’s an important consideration.
As for power: the 4.0-litre V8 (with a great tuned exhaust note) will quietly cruise; or blow the doors off when passing. You choose.
The G550 is a truck that costs north of $130,000. For the majority of buyers, this is not an obstacle to ownership, as the special cache of this unique Mercedes is something they prize and is part of the price.
But keep in mind that you are also buying a low-volume, largely hand-built vehicle that, if cared for, should last a lifetime.
The G-Class, simply put, is already at the top of its game—it does rugged terrain so well that there is little left to improve. That’s why it changes so little. Remembering that, it’s fun to drive a truck that has been built in largely the same way, in the same factory, for the past 37 years.
And while civilian versions get a raft of creature comforts, electronics, and interior appointments, at its heart it is still the original truck meant to be a military/police vehicle only.
However, much like Jeep after the Second World War and the Hummer after Desert Storm, certain customers caught on to the impressive rough country abilities of these vehicles and started buying them for personal use. Manufacturers then woke up to the marketing possibilities, and the rest is history: G-Class trucks in vivid Skittles colours, available everywhere now.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.