Did you ever drive a car you knew wasn’t good for you, but you just couldn’t keep your hands off it? A car so compelling you had to turn around and give it one more look, every single time? A vehicle you wanted to drive so much, you couldn’t wait to start it up the next day? Well, I give you the 2023 Mercedes-Benz G550.
Now, I hear you say, a G-Wagen? Really, that thing’s been around for 40 years now. Forty-three to be exact, as the very first version had its press launch in Toulouse, France in February, 1979. And while the uninitiated would say it’s been unchanged for all these years, hardcore fans know that the most recent iteration – still called 463 – is all-new. Yes, an all-new G-Wagen sounds like the 1970s “all-new VW Beetle,” but it’s true. To find out how true, we took the most recent version from Stuttgart to its birthplace, which isn’t Stuttgart.
When Mercedes called and offered a G550 (badged the G500 in Europe) I couldn’t say no. I wanted it even if it wasn’t the Über-G63 from AMG and it also wasn’t the diesel version. I didn't know how much I would come to regret that in the days ahead. But there it was, so I went.
What's in a G550?
The G550 features a 4.0-liter biturbo V8 with 416 horsepower. More importantly, it offers 416 pound-feet of torque. It's an old school drivetrain in a decidedly old school vehicle. The reason I love the G550 more than the AMG versions is that it combines luxury and performance with a somewhat restrained appearance and the best possible comfort. I hadn’t been in a G since I penned my very first feature for the late Gary Anderson here at The Star more than ten years ago. So, even I was thinking, it’s gonna be the same SUV, just with a gas engine, right?
In short, yes and no.
Everything we love about the G has been retained. Its design first and foremost, with that upright windscreen, the boxy utilitarian shape, the compact layout, the sideways swinging rear door, and its unstoppable off-road capabilities. But what’s been added in the newest version is everything we had been missing.
At only 189.7 inches long, the G-Wagen is almost five inches shorter than an E-Class. But at 86.1 inches wide, it's also almost five inches wider, something you will remember when entering a car wash. At 77.5 inches tall, the G-Wagen cuts an impressive figure. The G can seat a maximum of five people, with no seven-seat option available because of its outside length. The remaining space behind the rear seats is much smaller than we're used to in most SUVs. And despite its compact length, all the diff locks and the permanent AWD mean you have to live with a turning circle of 44.6 ft.
The inside is where the changes are most visible for the upcoming year. A 12.3-inch touchscreen in typical MB fashion stretches to the right of the instrument panel. The small steering wheel is wrapped in contrasting brown leather and there are grey leather seating surfaces with a diamond pattern. The air vents are brushed aluminum, with dark brown wood trim. It all looks very modern, in a surprising contrast to the conservative outside. There is a glovebox with a rather flimsy lid, but the center armrest is so cavernous, it swallowed my largish camera whole with room to spare.
G as in Geschichte (History)
When development started for Mercedes’ first off-road vehicle, the original focus was not on a luxury boulevardier but mainly on commercial and military use. Internal documents from the early 1970s indicate “forest rangers, fire departments and mountain rescue organizations” as well as other municipal and trade users as the main targets for the “all-terrain station wagon.”
Over the last four decades development of the G has split into two major branches, with the type 461 catering for the professional end of business, while the type 463 developed into the jack-of-all-trades for private use that it is today.
Early-on, Daimler-Benz, as it was then called, pulled Austrian development experts Steyr-Daimler-Puch into the project. The company has roots back to the earliest days of Mercedes-Benz, when it was an importer of Daimler products. Steyr had established themselves as a producer of hardcore off-road vehicles and a center of excellence on 4x4 technology. After joint development, production was set to happen in the company’s facility in Graz, Austria, where all G-Wagens have been made since.
G as in Grand Tourer
We decided to take the G back to where it came from. Together with my journalist friend Alexander Brunner, we headed to the quaint Austrian city where the G plant is located.
Entering the G is still an experience. Once you climb into the snug interior, it takes some real heft to shut the door; heavy rubber door gaskets ensure that the cabin is sealed airtight. The seating position is much more upright than in any Mercedes-Benz car, but the small 14-inch steering wheel is perfectly positioned for me. Starting the V-8 engine with the silver starter button awakens a visceral burble that goes straight up one's spine.
Once on the road, I noticed the biggest difference to any previous G-Wagen: ride comfort. You wouldn’t think it with this SUV rolling on massive 275/50 R20 Pirelli Scorpions, but I would classify the ride as a 9 out of 10 for its class and weight. A special shout-out to Pirelli for making these 20-inchers one of the quietest SUV tires I’ve ever come across.
Recent fuel price hikes have a tight grip on the the G's motherlands – Super 98 gasoline had gone from around $5 to more like $9 per gallon – so on our way to Graz we were keeping it civil, letting the biturbo leisurely push us along with traffic at about 100 mph. One of the best new additions to the G-Wagen is ZF’s fabulous 9-speed automatic gearbox. The ZF box was putting us in top gear whenever possible and keeping revs at about 2000 where the torque is at its highest.
G as in Graz
Once we arrived in Graz, we noticed there is no longer a Steyr-Daimler-Puch logo on the factory. The plant in Graz’ Liebenau quarter is part of the Canadian automotive conglomerate Magna International’s Austrian subsidiary, Magna Steyr. The company sub-contracts everything from parts and subassemblies to electric powertrains and complete vehicles for manufacturers ranging from BMW and Jaguar to Toyota and Fisker.
In 2021, G-Class production here was at an all-time high, with 41,174 units produced mainly by hand. After a tour of the town, Alexander and I took pictures of our jade green metallic G-Wagen in front of the plant and witnessed dozens of G models whisking in and out of the factory gates. Quite a few of them were factory mules loaded with test equipment.
As we headed back over the German border, we were looking to fill up our tank one more time in Austria. Our navigation map displayed not only our route but also the current pricing of gas stations along the way. And while not always 100 percent accurate, those that we identified as the cheapest were still cheapest when we got there. That's a clever feature!
G as in Go!
Once back in Germany, I left Alexander behind and started my long trek north to the Danish border, where my family lives. I had no time to lose so I let the G-Wagen fly up to its limited speed of about 130 mph. This is not a restriction of the G-Wagen, but of the tires. Getting a 5,500-pound behemoth like this to higher speeds requires some serious – and even more expensive – rubber. Over all my various trips, fuel consumption was a mediocre 16 mpg, right in between the factory-rated 15 city and 17 highway. This is not great at $9 a gallon, but then it is a 416-hp biturbo V-8.
On the long stretches of the Autobahn, the seats turn out to be extremely comfortable. Heated and cooled with a myriad of massage functions, which I generally ignore, I found them a very welcome interruption of the usual boring highway drive. Another welcome distraction was the excellent Burmester sound system which has plenty of adjustment options, but could have been a little more powerful.
G as in Generations
On the road performance for a vehicle of this size and weight is impressive, with 0 to 60 taking just 5.9 seconds. Now, to put that in perspective, I had just come out of a stint in a fully electric Porsche Taycan, which managed the same task in 5.1 seconds. But this was to be expected, being both a Porsche and an EV. The G-Wagen, on the other hand, is a prehistoric beast. It huffs and puffs, snorts and burbles, and when it races, it goes. So it feels much faster.
Once up in the north, I took my 89 year old mom with me on a photoshoot over the border into Denmark. She loved the way the G-Wagen rode, and while I demonstrated – with her permission – the “G forces,” two boys about 10 years old got off their bikes to watch us as they heard the mechanical commotion. Once we slowed down to the permitted speed, both boys gave us a big thumbs-up.
Whatever else happens in this fast-changing world, the next generation of G-Wagen enthusiasts is safe.