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2019 Mercedes G-Class.Dieter Rebmann/Daimler AG

If you want to look famous or tough or rich, or all of the above, there are few better ways than to get yourself a G-Class.

Over its 39-year history, Mercedes’s flagship SUV has slowly become a status symbol, thanks in large part to its clientele of rappers, armies, princes, explorers, celebrities and the occasional pope.

Just in time for its 40th anniversary, Mercedes is rolling out the first truly new G-Class in its history. The biggest change for 2019 is that it now drives, finally, like you imagine a Mercedes-Benz would. More on that that later.

First, some history. The G-Class was born out of partnership in the early 1970s between Daimler-Benz and Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch (now part of Canadian firm Magna International). The resulting Gelaendewagen – or “Cross-Country Vehicle,” commonly known as the G-Wagen – debuted in 1979.

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Feeding a monkey in Tanzania from a Mercedes G-Class.Daimler AG

“It was launched as a kind of commercial vehicle for extreme conditions, and it turned more and more into a luxury car – but it kept all of its off-road capability,” said Gerhard Heidbrink, archivist at Mercedes-Benz Classic.

The G-Wagen was invented long before the terms “sport-utility vehicle” or “crossover” had been coined. The best sales year on record for the G-Class was 2017, which shows you just how far ahead of its time it was.

The original Gelaendewagen looks much like the new one: a shed on wheels. The driver sat bolt upright and very close to the flat front windshield. Shifting gears required leaning over and reaching down to a stubby gear lever. The steering felt totally vague, like the tiller on a yacht. The engines, ranging from 75 to 150 horsepower, would take you nowhere fast but, as long as you were patient, the 4x4 G-Class would take you just about anywhere in the world.

In 1975, the Shah of Iran placed an order for 20,000 as-yet-unreleased Gs for his army. The revolution effectively cancelled that order, but the G nevertheless found favour with regional German police forces and the Norwegian, Argentine and, later, Swiss militaries. The Canadian Armed Forces added the G-Wagen to its fleet as the Light Utility Vehicle Wheeled (LUVW). It’s currently used for command and reconnaissance work as well as military-police duty.

Incremental improvements over the next decades made the G progressively more appealing to civilians, eventually turning it into the luxury status symbol it is today.

“It was not our intention to produce a cool vehicle for an extracool audience,” said Andreas Hoeppel, a product manager for G-Class. “We were sticking to the basic concept, the off-road capability, and the world realized what a fantastic vehicle it is and jumped on.”

The development team operates with unusual freedom within Mercedes-Benz, like a company within a company, Hoeppel said.

“I believe the G-Class, in terms of Mercedes, is something else. It’s different. We know our customers are sort of different, too,” he added.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II was about to embark on a tour of Germany. For the journey, he used a white Mercedes 230 G with a Plexiglas phone booth on the back from which he could wave to congregants. After an assassination attempt in 1981, the glass booth was made bulletproof.

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Pope Benedict XVI favoured the eight-cylinder G 500.Daimler AG

From 2007, Pope Benedict XVI favoured the more powerful eight-cylinder G 500 as his official Popemobile. It was painted “mystic white.”

The G-Class took Jacky Ickx and co-driver Claude Brasseur to victory in the gruelling and often deadly Paris-Dakar Rally in 1983. Their 280 GE short-wheelbase van was specially modified with lightweight aluminum body panels and aerodynamic add-ons for the race. The 2.8-litre, straight-six engine only produced 220 hp, but the vehicle’s dogged reliability saw them beat plenty of faster, more powerful machinery.

Arnold Schwarzenegger recently had his G-Class converted to run on electricity. Ecofriendliness was never the Gelaendewagen’s forte. As of 2018, Natural Resources Canada ranks the 12-cylinder AMG G 65 as the second-least fuel-efficient vehicle in Canada. The first is the Bugatti Chiron.

The Crown Prince of Dubai reportedly bought 30 or 40 white G-Classes for himself and his entourage. Since then, the G-Class became an almost patriotic choice in Dubai, one Saudi Arabian car critic explained.

In recent years, the G-Class has new reached new heights of price and absurdity. The limited edition 4x4 Squared, which is taller than a bungalow, carried a price tag of $295,000 in Canada. The 6x6 had six driven wheels on three axles. And then there’s the Landaulet. Officially called the Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet, it’s an open-top SUV with reclining rear seats from an S-Class, portal axles from the 4x4 Squared and a twin-turbo V-12 engine from AMG. Priced at well over half a million dollars, all 99 Landaulets nevertheless quickly sold out.

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The 6x6 had six driven wheels on three axles.Daimler AG

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The Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet was priced at well over half a million dollars.Daimler AG

The greatest G-Class of all though didn’t belong to a celebrity or a prince or a pope; it belonged to Gunther Holtorf and his wife, Christine. The couple took off in their long-wheelbase 300 GD on a journey to see the world, hoping to visit as many countries as possible. The trip lasted 26 years, covered nearly 900,000 kilometres, 250,000 of which was off-road, and passed through 215 countries. That distance is equivalent to driving from Earth to the moon and back, and then twice around the Earth.

Much like a Louis Vuitton trunk or a Rolex Daytona wristwatch, the G-Class has withstood the test of time largely unchanged. It looks the same as it did nearly four decades ago.

“The existing G-Class, from a production point of view, is based on the construction and concept dating back to 1979,” Hoeppel said.

“It was most important to us, to our designers and engineers, to keep the iconic shape of the vehicle,” he said. The goal was to improve on-road performance and future-proof it for years to come.

A new model, he said, was the only way to keep the G-Class in production for the long term. Future regulations on crash testing, pedestrian safety and fuel economy necessitated the redesign.

The 2019 G-Class is longer, wider and has a completely new front suspension design. Double wishbones replace a crude solid axle. The new model is 170 kilograms lighter than the outgoing one, which tipped the scales at a porky 2,700 kg.

A pair of 4.0-litre, twin-turbo V-8s reside under the hood, making 416 hp in the G 550 or 577 hp in the AMG G 63.

In the cabin, you’ll now find all the latest infotainment tech, including a pair of widescreen displays. Advanced driver-assistance features are now present, too, including automatic emergency braking.

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The cabin in the 2019 Gelaendewagen features a pair of widescreen displays.Daimler AG

Sit in the driver’s seat and the 2019 Gelaendewagen is immediately reminiscent of the 1980s version. You still sit fairly upright, behind a wide expanse of flat windshield, looking down on a square hood. You can still see turn signals, which sit on top of the hood as before. The doors clack shut with a familiar sound. Once inside, it feels like a vault. Build quality is as good as it gets; the new G feels like it could survive the apocalypse.

It only takes a few minutes of driving to realize what the biggest improvement has been. The G-Class now drives like a Mercedes should. Thanks to the new suspension design, the steering feels connected to the wheels. Turning into a corner is no longer a guessing game. Driving it on a daily basis would be a much more comfortable prospect than before.

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The G-Class now drives like a Mercedes should.Daimler AG

There are compromises, however. The military roots of this truck still show through despite acres of fine leather. Because of those barn-door aerodynamics, there’s significant wind noise at highway speed, albeit less than before. Ride quality for this body-on-frame truck is not especially smooth – not like in, say, a GLE, for example.

Off-road performance, though, is better than ever. The three fully locking differentials remain. All key measures for climbing and rock crawling are slightly improved. Even the backup camera was made waterproof because it’s under the waterline at the G-Class’s maximum wading depth.

Over the past 39 years, so many other SUVs have come and gone. But the G-Class remains, its reputation only growing stronger.

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