Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 Mercedes-Benz G550

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This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

When the Carthaginian army crossed the Alps into Italy, taking the fight to the Romans on their own turf, it would become one of the ancient world's most famous military achievements. Hannibal's use of armoured elephants as shock troops to send the well-disciplined Roman forces into disarray should have been a masterstroke, but the charismatic general forgot one important thing.

“Look at me!” says the G-wagen, “I can not only afford to buy one of these things, I can afford to keep it fuelled!”

Heated leather seats.

Happily, here we are twenty-two centuries later and Mercedes has got everything nicely sorted out. Care for a pachyderm-sized machine capable of crossing a snow-capped mountain without freezing its trunk off? That'll be the Geländewagen then.

The G-wagen is, it has to be said, a slightly embarrassing vehicle to drive at first. The elephant analogy works here too – any normal person would buy a dog or a cat, but if you're keeping an unnecessarily huge heffalump at home as a pet, then you're making a statement through conspicuous consumption. “Look at me!” says the G-wagen, “I can not only afford to buy one of these things, I can afford to keep it fuelled!”

The AMG versions are particularly grotesque, especially the G65 with its twin-turbocharged V12. How much? Somewhere north of a quarter-million dollars. Yeesh.

And that, my friends, is completely ridiculous. It's an erosion of the go-anywhere ideals that created the G-wagen in the first place. I can see why Mercedes-Benz does it, of course: if loons are willing to throw fat stacks of money at you, you don't build a wall, you run and fetch your biggest butterfly net. M-B doesn't even bother putting up a proper online configurator for the G; this thing sells itself.

So, rumbling around in a thirty-seven-year-old garden shed with an MSRP starting at $127,200 requires a bit of a mental readjustment. If ostentation isn't your thing, then buy something less showy, like a Ford Raptor or a decommissioned main-line battle tank. However, if you like your vehicles big, boxy and Ge-landular, then here's the first rung on the ladder towards your eventual membership in some kind of European crime syndicate.

Mercedes updates the G-wagen with extreme care, making sure not to gloss over the beast's quasi-military feel with too much luxury content. Thus, we've got light LED stripping out front and a few very mild tweaks to the exterior shapes, as well as light improvements to the interior. The infotainment screen looks modern; the grab bar in front of the passenger does not.

On the one hand, there's something likeable about just how goofy this thing is. The huge doors clack open like the hatch on a Panzer; the rear door is absurdly heavy to move with that tire bolted onto it. All the seats require a bit of climb to get into, and the rear seats are reasonably cramped.

Form and function: The (Real) History of the Mercedes Geländewagen

The front windscreen is nearly completely vertical, and visibility is pretty good for all passengers. The view out the back isn't so good, what with that giant rear tire, but at least you get a backup camera. However, the glare from the stainless steel casing of the tire surround washed out the camera a bit. I had to just hope people would hear the rumbling of the mountain and move out of the way.

For such an agricultural machine, the G-wagen has this oddly stubby little shifter, and there's a button just below it that has an option for Sport. Come again? You might as well have a Sport button on the Reichstag.

However, off we rumble into the summer sunshine, on the hunt for a bit of gravel to roam around in. After all, the G-wagen was created as a machine that could handle any terrain you could throw at it, so despite the urban warrior look, it'd be up to the challenge.

The G550 represents the entry level into the G-class, and is powered by a 4.0 L V8 making 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. Mercedes claims this level of power is good enough to prod the G to 100 km/h in a hair under six seconds, and that feels accurate. The G65 has 200 additional horses, but still only manages to get there six-tenths faster.

Only by contrast will you notice the improvements that Mercedes' engineers have been working on under the G's skin. If you've had a go in an earlier G 55 or similar, the sensation is like being in a howdah aboard one of Hannibal's elephants when it suddenly gets stabbed in the arse with a spear. The acceleration is furious and barely controlled, and the gas gauge drops so fast you can see the needle spin.

The new one handles power inputs far better, and never feels like it's going to fall over and roll around on its back. Well, hardly ever. Not that frequently. Only sometimes.

The Merc's new 4.0 L V8 still sounds burbly and wonderful, with the exhaust pipes exiting below the car and letting driver and passenger hear the rumble. It is, however, considerably more fuel-efficient than the old supercharged V8. Aided by the seven-speed automatic, which shifts up so quickly as to be in fourth gear by just over 40 km/h, the posted figures are 19.0 L/100km in the city and 16.5 L/100km on the highway. I saw a bit over 20 L/100km when ascending Mt Seymour's trails, but mixed-use seemed to hit mixed mileage right on the nose.

Part of the reason for the hemi-demi-semi-reasonable fuel economy is in the way the G-wagen drives. You don't want to rush this thing, no matter what driving mode you're in. It enjoys charging straight, ears flapping and trunk flailing, but it doesn't like to turn. The steering is very light, and offers the communication quality of an early Marconi radio.

In short, the G is heavy but quick, comfortable but cramped, substantial-feeling but deeply old-fashioned. It feels like a vehicle built to a very high standard, though a standard that was set decades ago.

I was unable to find a proper route to exercise the G550's  triple-locking differentials and ground clearance, nor to engage its low-range gearbox and really let the mud have it. Happily, I've had one of these on an off-road course before, and can report that all the legends are true; it really can handle any off-road use its owners will care to throw at it.

Which, for the most part, will be no off-road use at all. The AMG versions of the G-wagen outsell the G 550 something like 2-to-1, because sheer capability is not what this thing is about. It's about the appearance of capability. Just as your average Lamborghini owner likely spends more time preening in front of a mirror than sweating into their firesuit, a shiny G-class is built to pose.

Actually, that's not true: it's bought to pose in an urban setting. It's built to perform elsewhere, and that it does. If I owned one of these, I'd get it completely muddy and never wash it. Not ever. Otherwise, like Hannibal's frost-bitten elephants, sometimes tremendous might deployed in the wrong region can look a bit like showing off.

4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

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Model Tested 2016 Mercedes-Benz G 550
Base Price $127,200
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $700, Green Levy: $3,000
Price as Tested $135,500
Optional Equipment
$4,500 (19” AMG 5-spoke wheels - $500; Titan Pearl leather - $2,200; adjustable dampers - $1,850)