Pros: Military chic styling stands out in a sea of SUV conformity; off-road chops to back up those mean looks; bank vault solidity ensures epic durability
Cons: Six-figure price; insatiable thirst for gasoline
With rugged military roots that span to the late 1970s and ongoing stints as official government transportation throughout the Third World, the Mercedes-Benz G550-also known as the Geländewagen, or overland vehicle-is surrounded by far more lore and mystique than the average sport-utility vehicle. Maybe it's the signature boxy shape or the way celebrities have aligned themselves to the G-Wagen, but for whatever reason, this imposing five-door inspires a serious cult following.
G-Wagens can be found gallivanting across the boulevards of some of the most glamorous metropolitan cities worldwide, yet they're perhaps more at home on remote jungle trails or uncharted desert dunes. Built in Austria at a snail's pace and based on mechanically rudimentary underpinnings, Mercedes-Benz's G-Wagen is a highly profitable model for the German manufacturer; its steep MSRP is countered by the fact that it seems to have enjoyed its last major update at some point during the Pleistocene era.
Base price for a 2012 Mercedes-Benz G550 is $107,100.
Comfort & Utility
The Mercedes-Benz G550 is heavy on utility but light on comfort. This beefy truck is, at its core, a pugnacious beast of burden capable of surviving extreme environments. Yes, the cabin is outfitted with burl walnut trim and plush leather (which gets even fancier with the designo package), but its functional intentions are dressed up in bodywork that happens to be timelessly fashionable.
The upright interior seats five, and the G550's off-road abilities are highlighted by the massive grab rail on the dashboard's passenger's side and toggle switches that activate the full-time four-wheel-drive system's three differential locks. That purposefulness is somewhat offset by 10-way heated and ventilated seats.
With the split rear bench folded down, the G550's side-hinged rear door opens to reveal 79.5 cubic feet of storage. When it digs its claws into tarmac, the G550 is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds; maximum total payload is up to 7,000 pounds.
Its flat body panels may lend it a modern air, but make no mistake: the G550 is old school through and through. Beneath that spare exterior lurk off-road-ready frame-on-body construction and solid front and rear axles.
That said, the usual government-mandated technology is present along with a few added niceties: electronic stability control, four-channel ABS with brake assist and electronic proportioning and the current-generation Mercedes COMAND head unit with Bluetooth, SiriusXM satellite radio and a hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic and Zagat ratings. Also standard is a 610-watt Harman Kardon Logic7 audio system.
Performance & Fuel Economy
Powered by a 5.5-liter V8 producing 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque, the G550's performance limitations are primarily due to its 5,622-pound curb weight. But despite its tonnage, the G550 is capable of hitting 60 mph in six seconds flat. Top speed is electronically limited to 125 mph, and while the current model year does not offer an AMG spinoff of the G-Class, expect to see a G63 powered by a 544-hp twin-turbo V8 in the future, while non-U.S. markets will receive an even brawnier G65 model.
The G550's heft doesn't do it any favors with fuel economy: expect 12 mpg in the city and 15 mpg on the highway.
If might makes right, the G550 should fare well in any battle royal against lesser vehicles. This truck's ramrod-like proportions and dense construction should give it plenty of momentum in the event of a collision.
In terms of active safety, front and curtain driver and passenger airbags are augmented with side curtains that cover front and rear occupants, for a total of eight airbags. But expect a large part of the G550's imperturbability to come from its stout crumple zones and weighty construction, two traditional approaches for protecting passengers.
It's an intimidatingly tall climb into the G550's cabin, but familiar Mercedes-Benz elements abound inside, from the analog instrumentation to the COMAND system and A/C controls. The wood and leather steering wheel and hide-wrapped shifter add more reassuring features.
The G550 accelerates with imperious sure-footedness as it rolls down the road. It's no sports car, but the G550's torquey V8 and relatively short gearing enable it to move along at a brisk pace when summoned to do so.
Solid front and rear axles allow for generous body roll in turns, but the upside of that is outstanding off-road capability. The G550 can climb or descend at up to 80 percent inclines, and short overhangs which keep the undercarriage generally clear from scraping. Eight inches of ground clearance and another eight inches of suspension travel ensure the G550 can traverse all but the toughest off-road obstacles.
Other Cars to Consider
Range Rover HSE - The Serengeti-ready Land Rover Defender 110 was once spiritual kin to the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, but today this next-best competitor will have to do. Starting at around $80,000, the HSE can easily creep into the $100,000 range. While surprisingly capable as an off-roader, the Range Rover boasts a more luxurious interior and supple styling details.
BMW X6 M - More competitive with the G550 because of its devil-may-care styling than for any other reason, the $92,900 BMW X6 M offers far punchier performance and on-road bias thanks to a twin-turbo V8 that produces 555 hp.
Lexus LX570 - Big, bold, and luxuriously appointed, Lexus's $80,930 LX570 may just be unwieldy enough to compete with Mercedes-Benz in all-wheel-drive audaciousness. At the very least, this pricey Japanese truck deserves note for the way it has attracted an equally narrow but passionate buyer base.
This is perhaps the least politically correct vehicle you can buy, but if it's what you want - or need - there are few alternatives for off-road capability teamed with in-your-face quirky styling. You might consider waiting, since a make-over is coming in August for the 2013 model year, but Mercedes has already promised changes will be "discreet."