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2020 Mercedes-Benz G-Class Test Drive Review
The brawny G-Wagen offers a unique combination of ruggedness and luxury.
The original Mercedes-Benz G-Class started out as a military vehicle in 1979 and remained in production until 2018 as a luxury chariot for civilians. The “G” in “G-Class” stands for Gelandewagen, or “terrain vehicle” in German. Fans call it the G-Wagen.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz G-Class looks almost identical to that original, army-surplus, off-roader, but in reality, it’s an entirely different vehicle. Mercedes gave the G-Class its first-ever redesign for the 2019 model year, but it tried to keep as much of the old G-Wagen’s character as possible.
That makes for a unique vehicle. The G-Class has all of the luxury and tech features of other Mercedes models, but with an anachronistic look and feel reminiscent of the Hummer H1. It’s also one of the last SUVs to boast true off-road capability.
Look and Feel
When it came to exterior styling, Mercedes kept changes to a minimum. Aside from subtle elements like a larger, more rounded front end and LED headlights, the current-generation G-Class looks very similar to its predecessor. It has the same boxy shape, with a nearly-vertical windshield and backlight.
Many details carried over from the previous G-Class, too, including the “protective strip” running around the belt line, turn signals perched on the fenders, and a side-hinged tailgate with spare wheel. All of this camouflages the fact that the 2020 G-Class is 2.1 inches longer and 4.8 inches wider than the original. As if the G-Class doesn’t look intimidating enough in stock form, you can also get an AMG Line option package with flared wheel arches, as well as a front push bar.
In stark contrast to the exterior, the interior is pure modern Mercedes. The G-Class may look like a tough truck on the outside, but on the inside it boasts niceties like standard leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats, three-zone automatic climate control, and 64-color ambient lighting. Nappa leather is available as an option, along with wood or carbon fiber trim, a heated steering wheel, and massaging front seats.
The dissonance is reinforced by the interior design, which echoes the look of other recent Mercedes models. The round air vents, thin shifter stalk, and delicate-looking speaker grilles for the Burmester audio system are all Mercedes trademarks. The G-Class may not look like any other Mercedes on the outside, but on the inside, it’s business as usual.
Aside from a few pieces of plastic trim, the quality of the materials and the overall design give the G-Class cabin an ambience worthy of this SUV’s six-figure price tag.
On-road performance generally isn’t a priority for off-road SUVs—see Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Land Cruiser, or the original Land Rover Defender. But the G-Class has a lot to offer drivers who stick to pavement.
The G-Class comes in two flavors. Our test car was the base G550, sporting a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine making 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. Four-wheel drive (4WD) and a nine-speed automatic transmission are standard on both G-Class models.
Mercedes also offers an AMG G63 model, with a souped-up version of the twin-turbo V8 making 577 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque. This is essentially the same powertrain used in most other Mercedes-AMG V8 models, including the AMG GT sports car. The G63 will do zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, according to Mercedes. Top speed is electronically limited to 130 mph in the G550 and 137 mph in the G63, but an optional Driver’s Package for the latter raises the limiter to 149 mph.
Mercedes doesn’t publish a zero to 60 mph estimate for the G550, but it felt pretty quick in a straight line. Add in the roar from the optional sport exhaust system (part of the AMG Line package), and the G550 felt like an old school American muscle car. Knowing that sound and accelerative force are being generated by a German luxury SUV was just plain hilarious.
Despite being a tall, heavy, vehicle designed for off-roading, the G550 also handled backroads and highways well. Maybe it was the result of low expectations, but the steering felt remarkably precise for a vehicle like this, and the optional adaptive suspension did a good job of taming body roll. In its recent redesign, Mercedes also gave the G-Class independent front suspension, which helps a lot with placing the car on the road. The G550 will never be confused with a sports car, but this should at least give drivers more confidence when piloting one down a narrow, twisty road.
The G550’s tallness and broad, flat, sides also seemed made for catching crosswinds on highways, but the G-Wagen felt rock solid. Ride quality was fairly comfortable, albeit with the occasional shudder over broken pavement. Those shudders are a reminder that the G-Class still uses body-on-frame construction, rather than the unibody design of most other current SUVs, including the equally off-road-focused Land Rover Defender. That gives the Land Rover a smoother ride, although the Mercedes still has the better steering.
If you decide to risk getting mud on your leather upholstery, the G550 has the tools for serious off-roading. It comes standard with low range and front, center, and rear locking differentials, with switches placed prominently on the dashboard. If you need to use all of that stuff, you are well off the beaten path.
Mercedes claims the G-Class can ford 27.6 inches of water, and the SUV’s 26-degree breakover angle is better than that of a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. The Jeep has better approach and departure angles, however, owing to its shorter front and rear overhangs. The G550 boasts 9.5 inches of maximum ground clearance, compared to 10.8 inches for the Jeep.
Form and Function
The G-Class offers an improbable combination of on-road and off-road performance, but this SUV falls short in the “utility” category. The interior feels fairly cramped for a vehicle this big, and the upright driving position feels van-like. This is likely a result of Mercedes’ decision to keep the same general body shape as the old G-Class, rather than starting over from scratch. That tall profile gives the G-Class plenty of headroom, at least.
Some of the other retro elements may also be an acquired taste. In an era where automakers brag about the quietness of their cabins, Mercedes touts the gunshot-like door-closing sound as a G-Class signature feature. The doors, as well as the side-hinged tailgate, are heavy and need to be slammed in order to close properly. Getting in requires hoisting oneself up into the cab without the aid of grab handles. These are things buyers of full-size pickup trucks might expect, but it’s unclear how the average Mercedes customer will feel living with a G-Class.
The two-row, five-seat G-Class comes standard with a 60/40 split-folding second-row bench. Mercedes doesn’t publish cargo space, but the tailgate opening is fairly narrow, with a tall lift-over height.
The driving position may be a bit awkward, but few other vehicles provide a better view of the road. Ride height puts you above the eye level of most other drivers, but the sloping hood provides good forward visibility. The fender-mounted turn signals also provide handy indicators of where the front corners of the G-Wagen are. This makes maneuvering in tight spaces remarkably easy, although our test car’s extended fender flares hindered side visibility somewhat.
The rear-mounted spare tire blocks visibility as well, but backup and side-view cameras help compensate. Still, it would be even better if Mercedes offered a video rearview mirror, or a surround-view camera system, as some other automakers do with other (cheaper) vehicles.
The G550 comes standard with a 12.3-inch infotainment display screen, along with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone connectivity, Bluetooth connectivity, and SiriusXM satellite radio with a six-month trial. For an extra $850, you can replace the standard analog instrument cluster with a second 12.3-inch screen, which is how our test car was equipped. The two screens are joined together in one long housing that stretches across the dashboard. Mercedes designers call it the “surfboard.”
While the two screens are physically joined, they still function independently. Graphics were impressive, with the exception of the maps for the standard navigation system, which looked straight out of the 1990s. It also would have been nice to see a more imaginative default setting for the digital instrument cluster, which essentially recreates an analog layout in pixels. That’s functional, yes, but then why pay the extra money to ditch analog gauges?
The displays may have been (mostly) nice to look at, but they weren’t very nice to use. The G-Class uses the same Comand infotainment controller as other Mercedes models, combining a click wheel and touchpad. There are no touchscreens here; the pad is touch-sensitive, and the wheel can be used to scroll through menus and click icons like a mouse.
In practice, this can be a bit confusing, as it’s sometimes hard to figure out which part of the controller to use. Mercedes did at least include some shortcut buttons to make things easier. The infotainment screen also lagged a bit when scrolling, and was a little slow on startup.
A 15-speaker, 590-watt Burmester audio system is standard equipment. It sounds good, but that should be the case for a branded audio system with those specifications.
The 2020 G-Class hasn’t received crash-test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That’s often the case with expensive, low-volume cars, which are a low priority for crash testing by these organizations.
The G-Class gets a long list of safety features, including adaptive cruise control (with stop-and-go), automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, parking assist, and a driver-attention monitor. If all of those features can’t prevent a collision, Mercedes’ Pre Safe system tightens the seatbelts, closes windows, and adjusts the front-passenger seat to keep occupants in place. It also has a Pre Safe Sound function that plays a “pink noise” designed to limit hearing damage.
The driver-assistance features generally performed well, with the exception of lane-keep assist, which had a few false alarms. Thinking the G550 was straying out of its lane, it would aggressively, and unexpectedly, wrench the steering wheel, in one case sending the car toward the opposite lane and a potential collision with a semi-truck.
The G-Class is not a value proposition. The G550 model starts at $131,895 (including the mandatory $995 destination charge), and our test car had options like adaptive suspension, 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, 20-inch wheels, and Nappa leather upholstery that drove the price up to $158,065. That’s just past the $157,445 base price of the AMG G63 performance model.
When it comes to fuel economy, the G-Class harkens back to the bad old days of gas-guzzling SUVs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates the G550 at 13 mpg city, 17 highway, 14 combined. The AMG G63 gets identical combined and city ratings, with 15 mpg highway.
Buyers willing to spend six figures on an SUV may not care about gas mileage, but every car buyer should consider what they really want out of their vehicle, and whether they’re really getting that for their money.
For a similar price, the Land Rover Range Rover is an all-around better luxury vehicle, with a more spacious interior and better road manners, while still boasting plenty of off-road capability. Conversely, if off-roading is really what you want to do, the Jeep Wrangler and Land Rover Defender are better tools for the job because of their simplicity. Do you really want to get that nice leather interior dirty?
What really sets the G-Class apart is its style. No other vehicle does luxury or off-road capability quite like this tank-like Mercedes. You don’t buy a G-Class because it makes sense; you buy it because there’s nothing else like it.
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Looking for a Used G-Class in your area?
CarGurus has 2,415 nationwide G-Class listings starting at $19,995.