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Photo: Mercedes-Benz

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The 2019 Mercedes G-Wagen is where past and present meet under the hood

Steep hills, narrow roads, and even some two-wheeled action in the German automaker’s new spin on a classic

We were never supposed to want the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, but we do. How can we resist its talents? On a recent trip to southern Europe, I drove it on its side, hovering on two wheels at one point as I dangled above a steep incline. Gravel spit, rocks flew from my wheels, and my adrenaline rushed. I am happy to report that I didn’t flip the vehicle on this precarious adventure.

Mercedes is betting that the well-to-do will continue to prefer these mini luxury tanks for the foreseeable future, even if most of its customers will buy into the idea of its powers rather than executing its moves in reality. We saw the G-Wagen, as it’s also known, make its swaggering entrance at the North American International Auto Show in January.

This fall, two redesigned models will go on sale: the G550 and even more powerful G63 AMG. Mercedes found a way to revive its old-school essence, and it doubled down on making a more complex, practical, and technically savvy ride.

Photo: Mercedes-Benz
Photo: Mercedes-Benz

I spent a few days tooling around southern Europe in the production G-Class this spring to get a sense of how past and present converge. I began in Languedoc-Roussillon deep in the French countryside and wound my way west into the Pyrenees Mountains that serve as the natural border between Spain and France, named for the Greek mythological princess Pyrene, the lover of Heracles. I passed quaint cottages nestled in the valley and forlorn hitchhikers who stared me down. (It was an uncomfortable reminder of what it means to flaunt a six-figure super vehicle.)

Was is it my imagination, or did the G-Class receive a few low-level whistles when I drove down cobblestone streets through misty Catalonian towns over the Spanish border? I ended up in the bustling Barcelona city center, a few blocks from where Mobile World Congress is held, blasting me from mythology back into the modern day.

Though the G-Class preserves its classic looks, it feels modern inside. Climbing up into the cabin of G-Wagen is an emboldening experience. It has always required a hoist of the body and is not for the out-of-shape or petite. Mercedes has made its interior changes overt.

A few staple cues have been modernized, like round air vents that mirror the front headlights and a grab-bar in front of the passenger seat that’s made from a substantial wood. It also added comfy seats with the option for a body-hugging massage. It has several USB ports, and a slick Burmester sound system. It shed its campy, rugged feel for a high-gloss treatment that includes an option for a slick digital dual-screen, similar to other new Mercedes models, and it uses the Mercedes-branded Comand infotainment system. The screen layout is adaptable in three different views — classic, sport, and progressive — which tells you a lot about how Mercedes thinks about the people who drive this vehicle.

The biggest issue with the horizontal wide-screen panel is its placement on the dash. The steering wheel blocks much of the wide-screen view, where Comand functions are housed. I found myself ducking in search of information. And no matter how I positioned the wheel, I couldn’t find a clear line of sight. It’s a problem dictated by the G’s inherent proportions.

To maneuver around this system, there’s a choice between thumb-clicking the pads on the side of the wheel or using the touchpad above the arm rest that’s wired with “haptic impulses.” The electrical functions change the screen setting as you hover your hand over the joystick. When the car was in park, I leaned directly over the console to take photos and promptly confused the system as it started scrolling through screen options at a delirious rate. The purpose of this setup is to prevent the driver from looking down while driving. And while it’s the right move to prevent distraction, it could use further refinement on execution. There’s a sense of disconnect in this process. Using this system is never quite intuitive. A heads-up display seems like it would be more useful, especially in off-roading mode. An in-car hologram would be even better.

Photo: Mercedes-Benz
Photo: Mercedes-Benz

In lieu of the massive screen, there’s also an option for traditional gauges paired with the 12.3-inch screen that’s housed in the center console. What the G-Wagen lacks so far is the new MBUX system. (Mercedes designers told me there wasn’t time to incorporate it.) The rollout of MBUX, which The Verge tested at CES, debuts in the A-Class and the Sprinter van this summer. When it eventually makes its way to G-Wagen, it will be interesting to see how this improved system changes the way the driver interacts with a car that sits high up and is equipped to do so much more than cruise.

The most noticeable shift in the G-Wagen is the way it drives. Mercedes changed the internal architecture and added new front suspension with an independent double wishbone front axle that works in tandem with its rear. This engineering move is a performance game-changer, and it makes the G-Class a much smoother handler.

During my excursion, I gave the G-Class a whirl in the backcountry. I drove it up sharp hills that made my stomach turn. I maneuvered the vehicle to hug along a narrow shoulder and ignored my fear of heights and the sharp drop at my side. Somewhere in this stretch, I maneuvered onto two wheels, aided by a few subtle cues from a co-driver. Back down in the valley, I coasted through a spring filled with high, muddy waters that licked at my windows. To accomplish these feats, three differential locks positioned on the center console— full front, center, and rear differential — adapt to the way the vehicle tackles its task.

Part of the reason I was able to execute these risky moves is the additional “G-Mode,” a system that adjusts the way the vehicle responds to steering, gear changes, and acceleration. It makes you feel like a better off-road driver than you are when you take on the rough landscape. In G-Mode, you can alter the screen to get more information about what’s happening outside of the car, including a 360-degree camera that allows you to see beyond the sightline of the wheel. I even backed up a steep incline that made me dizzy. Most drivers will never attempt this foolishness, but bragging rights are part of G’s backstory. It doesn’t just look like an army toy; it behaves like an all-terrain Star Wars vehicle sidekick.

Photo: Mercedes-Benz

On the exterior, its proportions, square physique, and substantial size make it instantly identifiable (though most of those have been altered slightly). It’s both longer and wider. Only a handful of design cues remain from recent model years, including the door handles, spare tire cover, and part of the headlights. Aluminum is used on the side panels, which lightens up the overall weight and improves efficiency.

The biggest difference between the G550 and the G63 models are performance bragging rights. The G63 has a bigger engine, which produces 577 horsepower, bigger wheels, and AMG badging as part of its offering. What all the Gs lack, of course, is a cap on the use of petrol. To maintain its classic form, it relinquishes aerodynamics, and all that power, so far, doesn’t translate to a comparable electric powertrain. But since the average G-Class driver owns several other cars, they can balance out their carbon footprint with something more fuel-conscious, if they so choose.

Who drives the funky G-Wagen? It’s still an anomaly to see one on the road, which is part of its decadent fun. It takes considerable cash to play in this field. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but it’s likely to start around at least $125,000 for the G550 and in the $150,000 range for the G63 AMG.

From the beginning, G-Wagen’s ascent to a showy American status symbol was a fluke. In the mid-1970s, the Shah of Iran was among those that spurred its development process, and preordered a small fleet. By the time partners Steyr, Daimler, and Puch brought the first Geländewagen to market in 1979, the Shah was no longer in power. G became the iconic Popemobile of choice in 1980. It has always been boxy and brash but also beguiling. Early models featured chunky plaid seats intended for both military and agricultural purposes, and it only made 71 horsepower.

G-Wagens were made into firetrucks and ambulances. There was even a convertible model still coveted by car collectors. Its distinction drove demand, and soon, third-party importers brought the G-Wagen Stateside. It grew into the ultimate symbol for bling when it was officially introduced to the US market in 2003 as the G-Class in official Mercedes-Benz lineup. It became a movie star, ubiquitous with badass, featured in Die Hard, Jurassic World, and The Bourne Supremacy. The G-Wagen was the leading figure throughout the stars and cars era, as demonstrated through the lens of Kardashian GoPros, and more recently, on Logan Paul’s YouTube channel.

But driving the G as an everyday car had its cons. It was so loud that you could barely have a conversation; it had heavy, awkward doors that were hard to shut; and its rigid, rickety handling was unforgiving on public roads. The interior felt downright dated, in a not-cool way that bordered on tacky tech, and the high-backed seats could be punishing on long excursions. With this model, that legacy could be left in the past.

It’s clear from all of the careful changes that Mercedes is recasting the new G as a more viable super-fancy SUV. The timing for this vision appears to be right. SUVs have locked down the markets as the go-to choice for most buyers. Ford, excluding the Mustang and upcoming Focus, will cease production on passenger cars. But the question is: do we have our version of the future all wrong? The G-Wagen might not sell as well as the more compact GLE made by Mercedes, but that’s because the G-Wagen is meant to stay exclusive. It’s not for everyone because of the cost and the sheer audacity it takes to helm such a statement-maker. But what it does do is instill desire. People still do love sitting up high in their SUVs and packing in extra storage options. Perhaps the self-driving future will be led — or inspired — by big, badass-looking toy think tanks.

If not, at least in the present moment for both stylists and survivalists, the G-Wagen makes its case for storming the streets with swagger.

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