The 2018 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is predominantly hand-built in Austria, a process that will continue when an all-new generation comes along for the 2019 model year. Yes, this is the last chance to buy a new luxury midsize SUV that’s changed little from its roots as a Cold War-era German military vehicle. Not that it really had to.
Tough and functional, the G-Class employs old-school body-on-frame construction while enjoying utilitarian squared-off styling, robust all-wheel-drive hardware, armed-forces chic, and some of the best engines Mercedes-Benz has to offer. These include the superb 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged 536-horsepower V8 that powers the G 63 AMG, and the mighty V12 in the G 65.
It’s sometimes known as the G-Wagen, because the G in the name refers to Geländewagen, which is German for cross-country vehicle. The first year of civilian production was 1979 and the current generation hit the streets in 1990. Equally at home in the Sahara Desert or the Arctic Circle, the G-Class has also pulled duty as protective transportation for a Pope (when it was nicknamed the Popemobile).
So buying a G-Class means dropping six figures on a glorified German Jeep that debuted during the Carter administration. However, that’s not necessarily a bad idea, since there’s nothing else quite like it. Also, this vehicle has gone beyond mere utility to become part of modern culture. Now it’s as famous as some of the selfie-obsessed reality TV stars who are owners.
What’s New for 2018?
The G 550 4×4² (the more dedicated off-road variant with longer suspension travel and portal axles for superior ground clearance, which debuted last year) is now known as just the G 550 4×4. Other than that, the only noteworthy details are a couple of cosmetic packages and two new paint colors — orange metallic and ocean blue metallic.
What We Like
World-class engines; go-anywhere skills; steeped in tradition; coolly brutal, brutally cool; plenty of modern technology
What We Don’t
Decades-old platform; not so great at cornering; unsophisticated ride quality; crazy expensive
All G-Wagens have a 7-speed automatic transmission, along with a sophisticated 4-wheel-drive system with low-range gearing and electronically locking front, center and rear differentials.
The G 550 employs a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 engine rated at 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. It has a stop/start feature to save a little gas, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still estimates fuel consumption at 13 miles per gallon city, 14 mpg highway and 13 mpg combined.
The G 550 4×4 has the same engine as the regular G 550, but the EPA adjusts fuel use to 11 mpg city/11 mpg hwy/11 mpg combined.
The G 63 AMG sports a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 developing a fearsome 536 hp and 560 lb-ft. Consumption is 12 mpg city/15 mpg hwy/13 mpg combined, despite also having an auto stop/start feature.
The G 65 AMG enjoys a monstrous 621 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque from its twin-turbo 6.0-liter V12. Predictably, fuel consumption struggles to reach double digits: 11 mpg city/13 mpg hwy/12 mpg combined.
Standard Features & Options
The 2018 Mercedes-Benz G-Class comes in G 550, G 550 4×4², G 63 AMG and G 65 AMG versions.
The G 550 ($124,595) comes with a rich list of standard items, including alloy wheels, xenon headlights, LED lighting accents, sunroof, front and rear parking sensors, rearview camera, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, keyless entry/start, heated/ventilated 10-way power front seats with driver’s-side memory settings, heated rear outer seats, leather upholstery, two 12-volt outlets in the cabin and one 115-volt outlet in the cargo area, dual-zone automatic climate control, Harman Kardon 12-speaker surround-sound system and the COMAND infotainment system with navigation, USB port, SD card slot, auxiliary audio input and a 7-inch central display.
The G 63 AMG ($143,795) adds 20-in wheels, AMG-tuned suspension, sport exhaust, special styling cues and Designo leather upholstery.
The G 65 AMG ($223,695) brings 21-in wheels and diamond-patterned stitching for the leather. As well as that huge engine.
The G 550 4×4 ($228,295) has the same engine as the regular G 550. And it comes with off-road hardware that’s even more serious, such as portal axles. These raise the G-Class above the level of the wheels’ hubs (military Humvees have the same kind of setup). The result is an impressive 17.2 inches of ground clearance, an approach angle of 51.6 degrees, a break-over angle of 47.4 degrees and a departure angle of 43.8 degrees. The suspension has dual springs and damper struts, and it can wade through more than three feet of water. It also has skid plates and 22-in alloy wheels.
Option highlights are a rear-passenger entertainment system, stainless steel brush guard, carbon fiber trim, faux-suede headliner and a heated steering wheel. The G 550 is eligible for an adjustable suspension.
Cargo space amounts to 45.2 cu ft. with the rear seats up, 79.5 when they’re folded down. And every G-Class has a towing capacity of 7,000 pounds.
The G-Class comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and just four airbags: two in the front and two full-length side curtain airbags.
Standard electronic safety aids include blind spot monitoring, rearview camera and the Mbrace2 telematics system that features automatic collision reporting, stolen vehicle locator, SOS button and remote door locking.
The G-Class has not been crash tested by any agencies in the United States.
Behind the Wheel
Believe it or not, the G-Class feels even higher than it looks. Its tall and narrow shape is amplified somehow once you’re behind the wheel. If there’s a tight corner ahead, take it slow.
People generally don’t buy a G-Class for the way it drives, but the fortunate few who do will be pleasantly surprised by its highway cruising talents, limited only by terrible aerodynamics and the subsequent wind noise — that’s the tradeoff for such generous headroom. It’s even more adept off the road, as long as 22-in chrome rims with low-profile street tires haven’t been installed (you wouldn’t do that, would you?).
Other Cars to Consider
2018 BMW X5 M — The high-performance 567-hp X5 M is crazy fast and super-capable.
2018 Infiniti QX80 — Based on the excellent overseas Nissan Patrol SUV, the QX is a legitimate off-roader and its styling rivals the G-Class for sheer audacity. It also costs tens of thousands less.
2018 Land Rover Range Rover — The current generation of Range Rover is much lighter than before, so it can run circles around the hefty G-Wagen.
2018 Land Rover Range Rover Sport SVR — As an alternative to an AMG G-Class, the RRS SVR is sumptuous, civilized, swift and spine-tingling. Now with 575 hp, a 25-hp boost from last year.
2018 Lexus LX 570 — Anyone with a penchant for old-school luxury SUVs should check out the LX. It’s based on the venerable Toyota Land Cruiser and also has dismal fuel economy.
Used Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen — Since the G-Class’s current platform dates back to 1990, you could pick up a used model and save a bundle while still enjoying the same styling and driving character.
The G 550 4×4 might appeal to a well-funded mountain rescue unit, but it’s overkill for anyone who sticks to regular roads. The V12-powered G 65 is gloriously, thunderously extravagant. Buyers at this level can afford whatever they want, of course, but they might like to wait until the 2019 version arrives later in 2018.