No ifs, ands, or buts about it, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a legend. Originally developed for military use at the Shah of Iran’s request, the “Geländewagen” was first offered to civilians in 1979. Its design has remained shockingly unchanged since then, but with the addition of modern tech over the years, the 2017 model is an unparalleled combination of ruggedness, luxury, and swagger.
That’s probably why it looks equally at home in the driveway of a Kardashian or a special forces operator — there’s simply nothing else like it.
Its basic architecture may have been in stasis for nearly four decades, but Mercedes has consistently incorporated new features to keep the G-Class relevant. For 2017, the updates include a new 8.0-inch display on the dashboard, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, Wi-Fi, and real-time traffic info along with connectivity options like USB ports and an SD card reader.
The G550 model is the entry-level option in the G-Class lineup (G63 AMG and G65 AMG variants sit above it), but with a starting price of $122,400, all of these features and more thankfully come standard. There’s really nothing entry-level about it.
Trim Levels & Features
$122,400 is a big chunk of change for something with antiquated bones, but you get a lot for your money with the G-Class. That’s evident the first time you look at it. The G550’s boxy silhouette somehow manages to be brawny and elegant at the same time, with wide fender flares, 9.2 inches of ground clearance, and a sturdy grill guard accented by tasteful LEDs and oodles of chrome. It’s not gaudy though.
The G-Class strikes that perfect aesthetic balance where it catches your eye but isn’t offensive.
The G-Class strikes the perfect aesthetic balance: It catches your eye, but it isn’t offensive to look at. And if you’re at all skeptical of the vehicle’s toughness, simply hit the top button on the key fob; the G550’s lock/unlock noise is beautifully tactile and metallic, not unlike a bank vault or a bolt-action sniper rifle. It’s a small detail, but it’s so cool it’s almost worth the price of admission. A great taste of things to come.
In terms of mechanicals, the G550 is powered by a raucous 4.0-liter biturbo V8 producing 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. That power is channeled to all four wheels via permanent all-wheel drive, and for maximum off-road traction, a two-speed transfer case and three independent differential locks are also standard. However, much of the vehicle’s worth lies inside the cabin.
Along with the infotainment additions listed above, the G550 includes technologies like hands-free Bluetooth, HD satellite radio, three power outlets, and a thumping 12-speaker stereo from Harman Kardon. All of this tech is wrapped up in Mercedes’ Comand infotainment system, which is controlled by a wheel on the center console. (And yes, it’s really called Comand and not Command. Go figure.) There’s a bit of a learning curve at first thanks to the automaker’s penchant for cascading menus, but overall, everything is where you expect it to be. That said, the tablet-style display screen does look a bit tacked on.
The inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are huge highlights for the 2017 model year, as both allow you to effectively bypass the in-house navigation system. That’s not a slight toward Comand — it’s perfectly capable, reacts quickly, and lists local points of interest. But plugging in your phone and having your destinations and contacts ready to go is incredibly convenient. Most drivers will likely opt for smartphone projection for this reason, but you’ll have to exit CarPlay to control the seats and climate control.
If you’re looking for even more tech, a rear-seat entertainment system is available as an option.
Interior Fit & Finish
The G550’s interior is all about luxury, but there are some noticeable drawbacks. Let’s start with the positives. The upholstery is finished in soft Nappa leather, and the front seats are 10-way adjustable, heated, and cooled. The rears can be heated as well, and each chair is comfortable and supportive. There’s also gobs of headroom even if you’re over 6’ tall, but if you store your height in your legs, you may run into problems. Legroom is lacking in both the front and the rear because of the G550’s stubby cabin, so much so that if you’re anywhere near 6’ you can forget about stretching out. For reference, rear legroom is officially rated at 41.9 inches. That’s just a hair more than you get in a mid-sized sedan.
There’s also gobs of headroom even if you’re over 6’ tall, but if you store your height in your legs, you may run into problems.
It’s also quite narrow inside, meaning you sit closer to your fellow passengers than you might like. The problem is exacerbated by the cup holder situation, because up front, there’s only one and it’s right next to the passenger’s left knee. That could make for some awkward reaching if you get thirsty, and the unit itself looks like a toy basketball hoop you’d find in a child’s bedroom. At this point, we’d like to remind you that the G550 costs $122,000.
The cargo situation is a mixed bag as well, because while it’s perfect for tall items and boxes, the available 40.3 cubic feet with the seats up isn’t packaged well. The wheel wells protrude into the cargo area making wide items a pain to load, but with the seats up, you do get a generous 75.1 cu. ft.
Despite its geometrical limitations, the interior is as well-appointed as you’d expect from a high-end Mercedes. There’s a nice mix of mechanical buttons (such as the metal differential switches) and sleek controls, and that speaks to the car’s inherent duality.
Driving Performance & MPG
Thought the G-Wagen’s door locks made a cool sound? Wait until you hear the engine.
Put simply, the 4.0-liter V8 sounds epic, with a lovely growl under heavy throttle accompanied by delicious pops and burbles from the exhaust. It’s a similar engine to the one in the AMG GT C sports car, and power delivery is expectedly sweet. It’s not just the noise either, because for an SUV tipping the scales at 5,724 pounds, the G550 can really move. 0 to 60 mph comes in just 5.8 seconds, and while that’s definitely quick for a normal car, it’s downright eye-opening in an enormous metal box such as this.
As good as the straight line performance is, the handling is quite clumsy. Nobody expects a big 4×4 to turn like an AMG GT, but the aging platform is quite noticeable when the car is pushed. Body roll is copious, the steering feels vague, and the ride quality is an odd combination of floaty and harsh. Clearly, the G550 is not suited for blasting through backroads, and although it was never designed to do so, it still feels outdated compared to modern full-size SUVs like Mercedes’ GLS. You might be able to spruce up the interior by adding technology, but at the end of the day, if you’re starting with an old chassis, the driving dynamics are going to feel old as well.
Fuel economy is about what you’d expect, because although it’s officially rated at 13 mpg city and 14 mpg highway, we consistently returned between 10 and 11 mpg combined.
Some of the drawbacks turn into positives when you take the vehicle off-road, however. The incredibly upright driving position may make the pilot feel uneasy when cornering quickly, but it offers incredible visibility when navigating tight trails or parking. Similarly, the soft suspension helps you crawl over obstacles without breaking a sweat. If all else fails, the G-Class features three differentials that can be locked independently to send torque to the wheels with the most traction, so getting stuck is relatively improbable. More likely is you’ll have to pull your friends out of the mud, and with a tow rating of 7,000 lbs, the G550 can help with that too.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have granted the 2017 G550 an official crash rating, but the vehicle does have plenty of safety features. A rearview camera, blind spot assist system, parking sensors, and electronic stability control come standard along with essentials like antilock brakes and airbags, but the G-Class has one more trick up its sleeve.
Adaptive cruise control—which Mercedes calls it Distronic—comes standard with the G550 and allows the driver to set the speed to his or her liking. Once the velocity is set, a radar sensor tracks the vehicles ahead and adjusts speed automatically to maintain safe distance. When the path is clear, the vehicle will return to its pre-set speed. If the car ahead stops, however, Distronic will do the same. All the driver needs to do to set off again is lightly tap the accelerator.
How DT Would Outfit This Car
Despite its failings, the 2017 G550 is undeniably a “cool” car from the factory. It has an iconic look, it can go anywhere, and if nothing else, it’s quick and sounds great. Mercedes offers a few options from the factory that are must-haves, but first let’s start with something you should avoid: adjustable suspension.
You aren’t going to dramatically improve the handling by slapping a Band-Aid on a 40-year-old chassis, and that’s not really what the G-Class is about.
Generally speaking, adjustable suspension is awesome. It allows you to tailor the damping rate of your shocks based on your mood, moving from a cushy Comfort setting to a more dynamic Sport setting with the touch of a button. In most cars it makes sense, but in the G-Class, it just doesn’t. Our test vehicle had the $1,400 option installed, and all it did was make the ride quality worse in Sport mode. You aren’t going to dramatically improve the handling by slapping a Band-Aid on a 40-year-old chassis, and that’s not really what the G-Class is about anyway. For our money, we’d use that $1,400 on prepaid maintenance. Boring? Maybe. Smart? Yes.
In terms of options you should spring for, we recommend the $2,950 AMG carbon fiber interior trim that adorns the center stack and shifter. Why? It looks slick, and if you’re throwing down $122,000 for a vehicle, an extra $3,000 or so won’t hurt. As far as paint and wheel options go, we’d go for Magnetite Black Metallic (shown above) and the $500 black AMG wheels to complete the sleek look. Want to embrace the G-Class’ military roots? Plop down an extra $6,500 for the Manufaktur Agate Green finish, it looks incredible
If the G550 seems like a car ripped from two eras, that’s because it is. It’s an old skeleton spruced up by the latest and greatest in automotive tech, and while that tech greatly improves the vehicle’s comfort and connectivity, these stopgaps can’t hide the car’s true age. Few SUVs can ferry you around in style like the G-Class can though, and if you like to venture off the beaten path, it’s nigh unstoppable.
Is there a better alternative?
The G-Wagen’s unique personality and price point leave it without a truly direct competitor. The closest thing would likely be a Range Rover Supercharged, but even that — a high-performance off-roader with a luxurious interior — is still a world away from the G-Wagen. It’s quite literally in a class of its own. So while vehicles like the Range Rover, Mercedes GLS, and Infiniti QX80 are “better” in terms of ride quality, handling, and efficiency, not one of them will offer the same driving experience as the G550. Not even close.
The DT Accessory Pack
How long will it last?
If the G-Class’ extended tenure has one advantage, it’s that it’s had almost 40 years to prove its toughness. The G550 is rock-solid, with rugged mechanical components that just won’t quit, and that’s backed up by a 4/5 predicted reliability score from J.D. Power. The G-Wagen has great resale value as well, and if you’re still on the fence, the G550 offers a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty from the factory.
Should you buy it?
The G550 is a difficult vehicle to recommend based on most standard metrics. It’s clearly at the top of the heap in terms of off-road ability and timeless style, but if you look at fuel economy, handling, ride quality, ergonomics, or price, there are better options out there. If those things are high-priority for you, we don’t recommend even considering the G550 as an option.
That being said, we don’t always buy cars because of logical reasons. Sometimes we buy cars because of the way they make us feel. With that in mind, nothing makes you feel like the G-Class does, because there’s nothing else on the road like it. It’s aged like a fine wine over the last 38 years, it just had a little leak in the cork. It’s a bit too acidic in the finish, and it’s too sharp when it’s supposed to be smooth, but for the right buyer, it tastes perfect.