The Shah of Iran wanted a rugged off-roader in the 1970s, and Mercedes-Benz was happy to oblige. The German company partnered with an Austrian manufacturer to come up with a rugged 4x4, something like a Jeep, but wearing a large three-pointed Mercedes star. The resulting Gelaendewagen – “Cross-country vehicle” or G-Wagen – was born, but it arrived in 1979, too late for the Shah, who was overthrown that year.
Today, the G-Class, as it’s now known, is more popular than ever. There’s probably one in your local Whole Foods parking lot at this very moment. In Canada and the U.S., it had its best sales year on record in 2019, according to GoodCarBadCar data.
Ask a nearby teenager about the G-Wagen. Chances are they’ll not only know what it is but also that Drake had one. His was, or maybe still is, the convertible Landaulet version that sells for around $1.8-million, according to celebrity gossip sites.
The G-Class remains the only true body-on-frame luxury alternative to popular off-roaders like the Jeep Wrangler and upcoming Ford Bronco.
Over the last 41 years, Mercedes has updated the G-Class to meet modern regulations, add luxuries and improve comfort, although you’d never guess looking at it. Its silhouette is nearly identical to the original. That, of course, is core to its appeal. The G-Class is a classic you can buy right off the showroom floor, one that comes with a warranty and that won’t rattle your bones over bad roads. It’s still made in Austria too. Vintage 4x4s like original Toyota FJs and old Land Rovers are all highly sought-after; restored 1970s Ford Broncos go for over US$100,000 at auction.
While several militaries around the world still use the old-generation G-Wagen – the Canadian Armed Forces uses theirs for command and reconnaissance duty – the civilian G-Class received an overhaul in 2018. Since then, much like the Bronco and the latest Wrangler, the G-Class has had independent front suspension. It’s an important concession to road-going use, which makes the steering now feel connected to the front wheels, rather than more of a suggestion box for telling the car where to go, as it did on the old one.
To open the doors, you press a round, mechanical button and heave them ajar. They’re heavy, but the side-swinging trunk is like a bank vault’s door. It feels indestructible.
The driver’s seat is a time machine. The view out is just like it was in the ’80s, framed by a flat slab of rectangular glass that passes for a windshield. To your left is a flat slab of door, which feels claustrophobically close. The hood is an expanse of perfect white paint, bounded on each corner by a lumpen turn signal, which helps you keep tabs on where the front of this immense vehicle actually is.
In this context, modern touches like large swaths of carbon-fibre and an enormous widescreen display stretched across half the cabin seem almost incongruous.
The V8-powered, 416-horsepower Mercedes G 550 starts at nearly $150,000, but the Mercedes-AMG G 63 we’re driving has 577 horsepower and costs $195,000. Including options and the $3,300 green levy tax, the price comes to $221,050. It has the 11th-worst combined fuel economy rating of any 2020 SUV in Canada – 17.0 L/100 km – which, for context, makes it a smidgen better than the Bentley Bentayga but not quite as frugal as Lamborghini’s SUV. Driving back to Toronto on the highway from Muskoka, the G 63 managed 15.6 L/100 km, which is bad.
You want to hate it. Of course you do. It’s a gas-guzzling monument to decadence. It’s pointless, an off-roader stuffed with diamond-quilted leather and enough horsepower for three cars. And yet, until COVID-19 hit, the G-Class was selling better than ever. Despite myself, despite every instinct, I, too, fell for the G-Wagon. (Although ideally, Mercedes would offer the four-cylinder model just announced for the Chinese market here in Canada, but that seems unlikely.)
Consider the Ford Bronco for a moment, which also offers an old-school 4x4 experience, albeit without the luxury details or high price. The Bronco First Edition sold out online after it was unveiled in less than 24 hours; Ford doubled the production run of First Editions, and they sold out again.
The appeal is authenticity, a cleverly engineered illusion of simplicity and purity that’s hard to resist. Despite big screens and a relatively cushy ride, the physical experience of getting into and driving the G-Class is an incredible facsimile of a classic 4x4. It’s uncanny. The G-Wagon is, by far, the most decadent example of this popular breed of modern-classic SUVs, but it wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. Bring on that reborn Hummer and Jeep Wagoneer.
Mercedes-AMG G 63
- Base price: $195,900
- Engine: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8
- Transmissions: 9-speed automatic
- Fuel economy (L/100 km): 18.1 city / 15.6 highway
- Drive: All-wheel drive
- Alternatives: BMW Alpina XB7, Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus, Aston Martin DBX, Range Rover Autobiography
It still looks like the original, essentially a barn on wheels, only now it has big chrome wheels, LED headlights and nicer paint.
Extremely well built, as expected for the price. Not even the earth-shaking sub-bass coming from the Burmester stereo could turn up any rattles in this truck.
The G-Class rides more comfortably on rough gravel roads than some SUVs do on paved streets. The AMG motor is silly; even the G 550 is overkill.
The widescreen dash and infotainment displays are excellent, but the G-Class sadly doesn’t have the latest Mercedes MBUX infotainment system available in less expensive models.
For such a massive machine, rear-seat legroom is poor, but at least the flat, square cargo bay is massive.
Annoyingly fun to live with, even if you should know better.
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