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Mercedes-Benz G550 review: It may be a Mercedes, but the muscular, gas-guzzling G550 is fit for ‘Murica

It’s probably worth noting that the “Geländewagen,” also known as Mercedes’ G-Wagen, wasn’t really a German idea. Instead, it’s a competent off-roading machine that was developed at the request of the Shah of Iran, who wanted a Benz capable of climbing the dunes of his nation’s four deserts.

The G-Wagen made its debut on the market in 1979, and little about its exterior has changed in its three and a half decades of production, while its interior has grown progressively more luxurious over the years. If it ain’t broke, don’t’ fix it, right?

The G is the kind of Mercedes that doesn’t feel like a Mercedes at all. With its exterior hinges, heavy doors and side steps, this SUV looks and feels more like a military vehicle than a premium car. But for 2013, the innards of this flagship SUV received legitimately upscale options, turning it into a leather-wrapped diplomat’s SUV. So, we decided to line our wallets with Monopoly oil money, grab the keys to the 2013 G550 and see how many times we’d find ourselves at the fuel pump while we reviewed this bad boy.

What’s New

If you’re looking exclusively at the exterior of the G-Wagen, it’s hard to tell the models years apart. Sure, you’ll lose LED running lights on previous versions, and as you move closer to the early 2000’s, you’ll drop the xenon headlights, too. Aside from that, there have been nuances, but not overhauls. However, there is an updated AMG model, the G63 AMG, available this year with a twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V8 and 554 horsepower. The standard G550 comes with 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque. Both cars keep the brand’s seven-speed automatic gearbox.

… we can now officially say that dune crawling in the Middle East with a G550 has made it onto our list of dream vacations.

All 2013 G’s receive a significantly improved interior with Mercedes’ optional Designo leathers and the standard LCD display mounted above the console. With exception to Designo, there really aren’t any options available on these trucks; everything else pretty much comes standard.

In addition to the brand’s rugged four-wheel drive system that underpins the vehicle, many of Mercedes’ driver technologies and convenience features are built into the G550 and G63, too. Mercedes COMAND allows the driver to control navigation and infotainment functions from a dial near shift selector. Parking sensors, blind spot warnings, and radar cruise control with crash avoidance braking are intended to keep occupants safer on the road, and Mercedes’ ‘mbrace2’ system allows smart phone users to lock, unlock, and check the status of their vehicle remotely. While it requires an annual subscription, mbrace2 also includes concierge-like service that can send directions to you navigation system, alert an operator if the car is in an accident, and keep track of your car in case of an emergency.

Essentially a much plusher, higher-tech version of past G models, what used to look more Jeep-like and utilitarian now feels legitimately luxurious, offering passengers a ride more fitting of the $100,000+ price tag.

Wrangling, Roving 

We had the chance to take the G550 glamping. For those unfamiliar, that’s glamour-camping, which included a cabin, hot showers and air conditioning. Sure, it could’ve taken us over rocks, across deserts, through raging rivers and into the wilderness, but something tells us that most of these G-Wagens won’t see much off-pavement time here in the U.S. Instead, we decided to do a little bit of urban exploring, spending some time around Anderson, home of South Carolina’s textile mill ruins. There we had the chance to prove to ourselves that the G-Wagen was capable of kicking it into low gear to soldier through wet clay and climb over the occasional pile of demolished bricks. It’s a tough off-roading system, and we can now officially say that dune crawling in the Middle East with a G550 has made it onto our list of dream vacations.

We found that its front seats offered adjustments beyond the standard forward/back and reclining positions–including side bolsters and multiple lumbar and electronic headrest settings. The cargo area is also one of the larger spaces in the industry, offering not just depth, but also ample height due to the SUV’s box-like design. However, the rear legroom left much to be desired, and we think it might be worth Mercedes’ time to shave off a little cargo space in exchange for the comfort of rear passengers.

Around town, the G-Wagen received a mix of praises and jibes. The folks in our campsite complimented its exhaust note and masculine design, while a Prius driver blamed us for being the cause for Middle Eastern fuel dependency. We were only pulling 13 mpg after all. The general consensus was that the G wasn’t necessarily pretty, but its cool-factor made it a worthy alternative to more popular Range Rover models.

Behind the Wheel

Sitting in the G-Wagen takes some getting used to, and heck, even getting in and out requires a little bit of effort. It’s just really tall – taller than most other vehicles on the road, as we found ourselves looking down on other full-size trucks and SUVs. With that in mind, use the side steps; they’re there for more than just decoration. Once you’ve mounted the G, you’ll find yourself sitting nearly upright, and thanks to the slope of the hood, it feels like you’re leaning out over road, and you can see more from this perch than just about anything else on the road.

It’s kind of like manning the wheel of a flat nosed school bus, if that bus were ultra lavish and cooler to drive.

It’s kind of like manning the wheel of a flat-nosed school bus, if that bus were ultra-lavish and cooler to drive. The blend of excellent visibility and high torque make the G-Wagen an easy-to-manage off-roader, especially if you choose to engage the three independently locking differentials. Conveniently, there’s a button for each one.

For on-road use, the G550 and G63 use permanent all-wheel drive, designed to give the vehicles better footing on any surface, regardless of weather conditions. However, it’s the on-road driving that exposes the G’s only major flaw that we’ve noticed. While its height may provide clearer sight on the road, it also creates a much taller center of balance, and the G-Wagen isn’t necessarily confidence-inspiring at highway speeds. Its block-shaped exterior functions as a sail for crosswinds, and the tuned-soft off-roading suspension allows the car to lean enough to justify taking turns slowly. Otherwise, you may find yourself teeter-tottering into disaster in your mega-Benz. Just remember: while both available engines are plenty powerful and may encourage quick starts, this isn’t a sports car, it’s more of a tank, and it should be driven with the same kind of respect for the road and it’s weight.

By All Means

… If you have the means, that is. With a base price of $113,000 and the ability to exceed more than $134,000, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G550 and G63 models leave little on the table. The only true competitors are the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, but even those have different personalities. Where the Ranges feel like luxury SUVs that have been given the ability to climb, the G-Wagen feels like a military-grade machine that found its way into someone’s high-end upholstery shop. It’s a unique vehicle with interesting heritage, and we like that it feels just as comfortable in the woods as it does in the valet line.

Score: 7/10 – Both luxurious and rugged, this monster is fun to take off-road, but a little bit of work on the highway.

Highs

  • Excellent off-roading prowess
  • Visibility for miles
  • About as exotic as an SUV gets

Lows

  • Limited rear legroom
  • Poor fuel economy
  • A little too top-heavy for our taste