2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 and AMG G63 first drive review: flying bricks and off-road tricks
We’re far off charted roads, somewhere in France’s L’Occitanie region, on some family estate where wine and off-roading are baronial hobbies, when I first take a peek in the rearview mirror.
As I crash a 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 through trashcan-sized holes and muddy slip-n-slides for a good 10 minutes at AMG-appropriate speeds, I see something trapped in a spiderweb of belts and handles.
Behind me, my co-driver has each limb hooked on a headrest or braced against a panel. He tries to stabilize himself as we careen—at our AMG driving instructor’s request—over rocky trails that would challenge a burro’s sense of self-worth.
You doing OK back there?
I’m fine, he says, which is not true, but is kind to say anyway.
I lift a few fingers on my left hand and shut all the windows, because I’m a people person. It’s time to slam into two and a half feet of muddy water. Nothing makes a G-Class look better than a fresh coat of mud. My co-driver might not come through it so pretty.
This is how one rolls in the Merovingian hamlet of Carcassonne, France. Climb in, buckle up, dig in a trio of locking differentials, and find out what makes the new G-Class a better G-Class all around.
Clean sheet, same shape
A typical car gets redesigned every few years. The 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is not a typical car. Not by a long shot.
The Gelaendewagen made its debut in the year President Jimmy Carter wore a tour jacket given to him by the Bee Gees. It’s been mostly the same since then. The G-Wagen, not the White House.
For the first time since 1979, the G-Class wears all-new sheetmetal. Don’t worry, it’s not just you. It’s not easy to spot from the old one, and that’s something to cheer. The lines are a little cleaner, but how do you make it more angular? Correct, you can’t, and don’t. The new G-Class has all its boxy charm intact, from the upright windshield to the rub strips down the doors, to the exposed hinges and the spare tire carrier in back.
AMG-Gs get a distinct grille, badging, deeper wheel flares, running boards, and can ride on 22-inch wheels.
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The 21st-century flourishes are discreet: tighter body panels, better integrated cladding, siped high-mounted driving lamps to guide a line of sight off-road and to refract LED lighting so pedestrians are visible and not blinded.
It’s still a flying brick, no matter what aero tricks have been deployed. The 2019 G-Class’ 0.55 drag coefficient would nourish a whole season of RuPaul’s “Drag Race.” The letdown: this G’s a four-door only, no cabriolets, no landaulets, no two-doors, no 6x6s. Not yet, anyway.
The cockpit’s learned some high-tech moves, however. A widescreen digital display takes the place of gauges, while a second screen blends in to turn the dash into something straight out of the USS Enterprise. Take your pick of brushed metal or carbon fiber woven with red, or even open-pore walnut wood trim: you can mix it all up inside the G-Class depending on the fording ability of your wallet.
The striking contrast is driven home to me on the second day of our drive, as I peek into the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire. It’s a G-Class, I think, a mix of impervious Romanesque strength outside and light Gothic froth inside. Having successfully wed my art history degree with a first drive for the first time ever, I decide cold medicine is in order.
G-Class performance begins at the contact patch, not necessarily under the hood. The G’s extravagant off-road hardware gives it credibility that parallels the S-Class’ luxury standing.
The 2019 G-Class sports a stronger ladder frame, a huge tower brace that straps across the front suspension, and a Panhard rod that reinforces the rear axle. Though the G-Class loses its solid front axle and gains an independent front suspension, its off-road abilities have grown more impressive.
Each one gets four-wheel drive, three locking differentials, and 9.5 inches of ground clearance between the axles and at the rear differential, which proves useful as we needle through a wind farm at the top of a hill in a part of France closer to Barcelona than to Paris.
There’s a new, dedicated off-pavement G Mode on the G550. Really four modes, G mode engages when any differential locks or when Low range activates (its crawl ratio is down to a smart 2.93). In G mode, the 2019 G550 alters damping, steering, and throttle uptake to permit more careful and more precise inputs. No one wants or needs an upshift, or a zap of throttle when descending a hill.
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On the AMG G63, the off-road mode expands to a trio: Sand, Trail, and Rock, which remap throttle, shift, and steering the help this beast cope better with its copious power.
The G-Class’ athletic specs can better the prior G. It can lean into angled paths at a 35-degree tilt. It’s blessed with 27.6 inches fording depth, breakover angle of 26 degrees, 30- and 31-degree front and rear departure angles.
The combination gives any G-Class the talent to wade through more than two feet of water, blast through mud bogs, paddle through sandy dunes, or crawl around on craggy rocks with a better, more planted feel than the taller, narrower O.G. It’s ludicrous, in a way, that the more complex the G-Class gets, the easier it is to point and shoot off-road. That scrapey boulder erupting from a 30-degree bank to the right? You can see it, aim at it, set all three locks and choose Low, and keep a light but steady foot on the gas.
We ran both the G550 and G63 through the most challenging traps. We even posted up on the medieval fortress walls at Carcassonne in formation and waited for someone to fling pox-ridden corpses at us. We waited…and nothing. Some people just don’t get how stagecraft works.