2019 Mercedes-Benz G-class First Drive: the G-Wagen is as Capable as Ever

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Forget the obvious contradiction for a minute — the realization that one of the best off-road vehicles you can buy off the rack is far more likely to be profiling on Las Vegas Boulevard than rock crawling in the Las Vegas Dunes recreation area. Or that in ultra-flat, fair-weathered South Florida, long one of its strongest markets, the only series-production passenger vehicle with three standard locking differentials will do its most important duty during shopping excursions from Coral Gables to Bal Harbour.

Mercedes-Benz is fine with that. The marketing wizards at M-B understand the G-Class is not necessarily a rational choice, but changes to the next Geländewagen recognize its evolving customer base. Most are geared toward improved ride and road handling, comfort and the luxury appointments that have drawn high-dollar customers since the G-Class was officially offered for sale in the United States in 2001.

The most profound change is a new front suspension with independent double wishbones, in place of the 39-year-old stick axle. The 2019 G550 and G63 AMG also add electrically assisted power steering, more interior volume, a new instrument panel and a wiring network that accommodates Mercedes’ latest gizmos and safety systems. The new G-Class uses just a handful of carryover parts, including the standard engine, the rear-mounted spare tire cover, headlight washer nozzles, sun visors and the exterior door handles and locks. The 2019 G represents the most extensive update in the four-decade history of an over-engineered, fundamentally simple status symbol that defies contemporary standards of personal transportation.
It looks pretty much the same, yeah, but the G-Class body is new. Freed from constraints that long determined its width — what would fit inside German military helicopters — the new G-Class has grown dimensionally. It’s still designated internally as model 463 (as civilian Gs have been since 1990), but it’s 2.1 inches longer and a substantial 4.8 inches wider than a 2018, on a wheelbase that increases 1.6 inches to 113.8.

Its bodyshell is now made from a variety of high- and ultra-high-strength steels, and the roof is laser-welded rather than spot-welded. The fenders, hood and doors are aluminum, and for the first time the fixed windows are bonded with adhesive to the metal, rather than held by gaskets. The 2019 G is still essentially hand-built at Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, but its gaps are tighter and its panels more precisely placed than ever.

Underneath, the familiar ladder frame remains, modified for new dimensions and suspension with new steel alloys, but still fully boxed–including the cross beams. The frame remains the bottom layer of G-Class assembly, which helps lower the center of gravity and protects the major mechanical components, fuel tank and exhaust in the event of ground contact. Engineers say the new body/frame package trims 375 pounds from the G’s substantial mass, yet still improves torsional rigidity from 4,821 to 7,495 lb-ft/degree, or 55 percent.
The new front suspension bolts directly to the frame, no subframe allowed. Its wishbones are stacked nearly 3 feet apart, and the strut towers are now connected with a massive brace visible in the G’s engine bay. The old four-link solid rear axle is also revised, with a fifth, lateral link — essentially a Panhard rod — intended to maintain better wheel alignment on pavement under higher lateral g loads. The steel coil springs remain, but new electronically adaptive shocks are optional on the G550 and standard on the G63.

Motor-assisted steering replaces the previous hydraulic system. Mercedes notes it’s slightly more efficient, measured by parasitic loss of engine power, but the real driver is obvious: The electric boost enables semiautonomous features like park assist and lane keeping. The G550 comes standard with 19-inch wheels, and the G63 with 20-inchers, though options range from 18 to 22 inches according to the buyer’s intent.

To anyone concerned that the new suspension somehow diminishes the G-Class’ off-road cred, we offer a few figures. Front axle clearance actually increases slightly to 10.6 inches, and overall ground clearance is up a quarter-inch to 9.5. The approach angle remains 30 degrees. Breakover and departure angles increase 1 degree, to 26 and 31. For good measure, the new G’s fording depth increases 4 inches to 27.6.
The 2019 G550 continues with the same engine — Mercedes’ “hot inside vee,” 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, tuned to 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, as it was for 2018. Mercedes’ new 9G-Tronic nine-speed torque converter automatic replaces the older seven-speed in the previous G-Class. The AWD is changed a bit, too, starting with one fewer prop shaft. The transfer case is now flange-mounted at the end of the transmission, rather than separately downstream. The ratio for low range also increases 40 percent (to 2.93:1) for even greater torque multiplication.

The 2019 G63 AMG gets a new engine, though it’s the same one used in the G550. Here it’s tuned and assembled by AMG, and output increases to 577 hp and 627 lb-ft — 14 hp and 64 lb-ft more than the older, heavier 5.5-liter turbocharged V8 in the 2018 G63. Mercedes says it drops the G63’s 0-60-mph time 0.9 second to 4.4, while the governed top speed increases from 130 to 149 mph.

The AMG engine is also equipped with cylinder deactivation to ease your social conscience, and the G63 gets the usual AMG sort of spiffs, including a unique grille, flared wheel arches and side exhaust with a driver-adjusted flap to manage decibel levels. Every rock-crushing SUV needs side pipes and a drag-strip roar, wouldn’t you agree?

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