2013 Mercedes-Benz G 550 Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

While Mercedes-Benz is best known in North America for its range of luxury cars and crossovers, one of its most iconic and longest-running models is the rugged G-Class SUV. The "G" in G-Class stands for "Geländewagen," which means cross-country vehicle, and its roots go back to 1972 when development work got underway together with Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Prototype testing commenced in 1974 and construction of the G-Class assembly plant began in 1975, with production of the first-generation models - both civilian and military - starting in 1979.

Thirty-four years later the G-Class still looks much as it did when first introduced, with the same stout, boxy bodywork and upright profile. The familiar looks are hardly surprising: Mercedes-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch got the design right the first time, and despite various minor updates along the way it has only been significantly revised once, when the second-generation version was introduced back in 1990.

For 2013 Mercedes-Benz decided it was time to refresh the G-Class, though as the designers are quick to point out it's a "tactful" refresh that honours the vehicle's iconic status by avoiding radical change.

So on the outside the new G-Class gets a minor facelift with LED running lights, streamlined new exterior mirrors, and slightly revised bumpers and grille, but otherwise retains its cheerfully square-cornered look. Inside however, Mercedes-Benz has pulled out the stops and finally given the G-Class a cabin worthy of a modern luxury vehicle. The somewhat plain, dated-looking dash from the 2012 G-Class is gone and so is the rubbery-looking steering wheel, and in their place there's a sleek modern dash and a sophisticated four-spoke steering wheel, both trimmed with rich woodgrain and brushed metal accents. A big centre stack houses most of the necessary controls (including prominent lock buttons for the front, centre and rear differentials), and all the expected technological goodies are accounted for: dual-zone automatic air conditioning, voice-controlled navigation system, 600-watt Harman/Kardon audio system with satellite radio, Bluetooth phone connectivity, 10gb of onboard music storage - basically, everything you could possibly want and more.

In order to demonstrate that the newly luxurious G-Class hasn't lost any of its legendary off-road prowess, Mercedes-Benz invited an argument of automotive journalists to visit an imposing off-road proving ground and try the G-Class out (I figure if crows congregate in murders, automotive journalists must gather in arguments).

The route started out tamely enough - a bit rough and muddy, but nothing that required engaging any of the three differential locks (the G-Class uses a 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive system that offers low-range gearing and on-the-fly differential locking for tough terrain). Things quickly became more interesting however, with the first obstacle being a remarkably steep hill featuring a sharp ridge at the top and a precipitous off-camber descent. Before ascending this hill we were instructed to lock the centre and rear differentials (a simple matter of pressing the associated buttons on the centre stack), and the big SUV made easy work of both the ascent (it can scale slopes of up to 45 degrees) and the descent, where the low-range gearing negates the need to touch the brakes (instead you creep down in first gear, letting the engine do the braking).

Next up was a man-made rock crawl, which actually consisted of broken-up concrete and reminded me of driving across the ruins of a demolished building (not that I've ever actually done that, mind you), then there was a long V-shaped ditch that had the G 550 driving along at a severe sideways angle. The G-Class may be tall but it has a reasonably low centre of gravity, so it stayed securely planted even as it attempted to tip me out the window.

After a few more obstacles, it was finally time to lock the front differential (not something you do until absolutely necessary because it makes the G 550 push a wide circle around corners) and tackle the most intimidating obstacles: a bluff, mud-slicked embankment that would certainly stop most any other vehicle, and then the "elephant tracks." These consisted of a series of offset moguls each about a metre tall, and impossible to traverse with all the wheels on the ground, even with the G 550's generous suspension travel.

At low speeds the G 550 handled the elephant tracks with surprising aplomb, clambering up the first of the offset moguls, teetering from one set of diagonally-opposed wheels to the other, and gently riding down to the next valley. One over-enthusiastic journalist then proved that higher speeds are limited not so much by the toughness of the G-Class as by the limits of the human body. Having watched those ahead, he apparently decided the slow approach was too tame and instead came barreling through the moguls at an astounding clip, ignoring the instructors barking at him via radio to slow down. The charging SUV bounded up the first mogul, bounced into the air and slammed back down before rearing up sideways and getting the front end almost entirely airborne over the next mogul, landing with a mighty thud and pitching the driver and passenger violently forward. They looked somewhat shaken, but the G 550 shrugged it off without a scratch.

When it's not making light work of tough terrain - though let's face its, few buyers are likely to do any serious off-roading in a vehicle that starts at $120,900 - the G 550 makes a powerful and luxurious statement on the asphalt. You sit high in the G-Class, with a commanding view, and the richly upholstered heated leather front seats are almost infinitely adjustable (you can even change how tightly the bolsters grip you) so getting comfortable is a cinch. The split-folding rear bench has plenty of room for three across, and a commodious 1,280 litres of cargo space behind it (which increases to 2,250 litres with the rear seats folded).

Driving the G 550 on the road gives you a commanding view of traffic, and there's enough power underfoot to slice-and-dice with the best of them: The big 5.5-litre V8 generates 382 horsepower and a whopping 391 lb-ft of torque, and it'll push the 2,530 kg SUV from 0-100 km/h in about 6.5 seconds if you don't mind paying the fuel bills (rated consumption is 18.1 / 13.6 L/100km city/highway and no, there's no diesel version available in North America, though you can get a more powerful 536-horsepower G63 AMG version).

Driven with a bit of restraint the engine murmurs along with a pleasing guttural rumble, and the suspension does an excellent job smoothing out rough pavement, although big bumps can get it pitching back and forth somewhat. Handling is about what you'd expect for an off-road ready SUV, with rather truck-like steering and a fair amount of body roll in corners, but thanks to a full suite of stability control, skid control, ABS brakes and other assistive technologies the G 550 is predictable near the limits and easy to drive.

For buyers of the G 550, however, what matters is that it goes where you point it (even if you point it towards seemingly impassable terrain), gets you there in comfort and luxury, and looks ruggedly good doing it. Really, what more do you want?

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: SUV, Mercedes-Benz, 2013, G550, $99,999+, Full-size,

Organizations: Mercedes-Benz

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page