First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2013 Mercedes-Benz G 550. Click image to enlarge

First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz G-Class

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Used Mercedes-Benz G-Class

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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2013 Mercedes-Benz G 550

It’s not often you get to drive a $120,000 Mercedes SUV through a muddy, tire-swallowing, chassis-thrashing, gut-wrenching off-road course, but that’s what a group of automotive writers were asked to do earlier this month at an off-road course near Vancouver.

It’s a dirty job, but dammit man, somebody’s got to do it!

The SUV in question was the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G 550, the company’s top-of-the-line luxury sport utility vehicle which has an MSRP of $120,900. (Okay, you can also buy the outrageous G 63 AMG for $149,900 but there were none on hand for this event). That sounds like a lot of money for what looks like a truck that got stuck in a 70s time-warp, but the G is one of those unique specialty vehicles that appeals to a small, loyal group of well-to-do buyers who want a go-anywhere, luxury-laden SUV with the added prestige of the Mercedes three-pointed star front and centre in the grille.

First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2013 Mercedes-Benz G 550. Click image to enlarge

The G’s boxy styling dates back to 1979 when it was introduced as the Geländewagen, a civilian version of a military vehicle. Like the Jeep Wrangler, the G-Class’ design is considered by its enthusiast owners to be a classic shape that shouldn’t be messed with. Its tall, narrow body and angular shape are also very practical allowing the G 550 to navigate narrow trails without scratching the paint, and providing the driver with excellent visibility through its large, vertical flat windows. I particularly like the fact that it’s easy to see where the hood ends, something that’s not possible in most modern SUVs. And its angular shape provides the maximum amount of interior space, particularly headroom, for a vehicle of this size.

The exterior styling hasn’t changed much for the 2013 model year – there are revised bumpers, new side mirrors and LED daytime running lights – but the interior is where the big changes are. A new instrument panel features a leather-covered dashboard with a prominent iPad-like screen suspended in the centre (not a touch-screen) with functions operated by the COMAND dial on the centre console; navigation system and DVD player, new four-spoke steering wheel with 12 multi-function buttons, new gear shift lever, new instruments, and new climate controls. In a nod to tradition, the G 550 retains the grab handle on the front passenger dashboard (for panicky passengers) and the three (revised) buttons for the differential locks on the centre IP. With its leather upholstery, burl walnut trim, and combination chrome and silver highlights, it’s a richer, more contemporary-looking interior, but the relatively narrow cabin and upright sides still seem old-fashioned when compared to modern SUVs like the Mercedes GL-Class, Audi Q7 and Range Rover. And I was never quite sure whether to step on or over the narrow running boards under the doors; they just seem to get in the way.

Also new for 2013 are safety features such as Blind Spot Assist which provides warnings when other vehicles enter the right or left blind spots; Parktronic rear parking sensors and a rearview camera for to help avoid hidden obstacles behind the vehicle, such as concrete curbs or large rocks; and Distronic Plus adapative cruise control for maintaining a safe cruising distance on the freeway.

The G 550 is motivated by a 382-hp 5.5-litre V8 that offers generous torque of 391 lb-ft between 2,800 and 4,800 rpm, and is mated to a standard 7-speed automatic transmission. 4Matic all-wheel drive is standard. Despite the G 550’s brick-like aerodynamics and hefty curb weight of 2,530 kg (5,180 lbs), the G550 sprints from 0 to 100 km/h in just 6.1 seconds – but as expected its fuel consumption is abominable: its combined city/hwy rating is 16.1 L/100 km (18 mpg Imperial) and it uses Premium grade gasoline. But as they say, if you can afford the G 550’s asking price…

First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2013 Mercedes-Benz G 550. Click image to enlarge

Because it was originally developed as a military vehicle, the G 550’s body and frame are designed for rugged use. With a sturdy ladder-type frame that includes sheet metal up to 4 mm in thickness, solid front and rear axles, offset front and rear differentials, long spring travel, protective underbody shields, multi-differential four-wheel drive system, standard 265/60R-18-inch tires and a 21 cm (8.2 in.) ground clearance, the G can ford streams up to 60 cm (23.6 in.) in depth, climb slopes of 80 percent, and remain upright on inclined angles of 54 percent. Generous ground clearance under the front bumper and tail enables it approach and depart steep hills with ease; its angle of approach is 36 degrees and angle of departure is 27 degrees. The G 550’s frame, floor and body are specially treated to resist water, snow, road salt and sand and underbody pans protect the powertrain, fuel tank and exhaust system from ground impacts.

The purpose-built off-road course we navigated included obstacles and challenges that you might meet in the wilds of Canada: boulders, tree trunks, pools of water, thick mud, slippery gravel, deep holes, and steep inclines. The thing that impressed me the most about the G 550 was the ability of the suspension to withstand serious impacts without transmitting bone-jarring jolts into the passenger compartment. Sudden impacts were absorbed in a forgiving manner as though the G 550 dared not upset the expectations of an owner who had paid over $120,000 for a comfortable ride. Thanks to the G 550’s generous wheel articulation and three driver-selectable differentials – front, centre and rear – the G 550 was always able to find a wheel with traction, even if two of the four wheels were off the ground. And despite being a fairly tall and narrow vehicle, the G 550 exhibited excellent stability on steep side slopes. Scary looking obstacles and steep hills could be negotiated with such ease that a complacent driver might easily overlook the dangers.

It’s a credit to the G 550’s engineering (and the advice of some experienced off-road driving instructors) that none of the assembled G 550s that day needed to be towed out of a mud bog, rolled back onto their tires, or otherwise suffer any unintended dents.

First Drive: 2013 Mercedes Benz G 550 reviews mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2013 Mercedes-Benz G 550. Click image to enlarge

The G 550’s coup de grace is that it can be driven everyday on city streets and freeways without feeling like a 4X4 that’s out of its element. The cabin is roomy enough for four adults, the ride is comfortable, handling is surprising stable for such a tall vehicle, there’s plenty of power, and the cabin isn’t particularly noisy. However, its turning circle of 13.6 metres (44.6 ft.) is quite wide, and the G-Class is probably the only Mercedes-Benz still using the old re-circulating ball steering system.

Luxuries abound: leather upholstery, standard climate controlled front seats and rear heated seats, 450-watt 14-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth audio and telephone, voice-activated navigation, dual-zone automatic climate control, power tilt-telescopic steering wheel, and available options like a rear seat DVD entertainment system, heated steering wheel, and customized Designo upholstery.

Who would buy the G 550? Perhaps an executive who needs a competent, safe and luxurious vehicle to reach the ski lodge or cabin; or perhaps a wealthy socialite who wants the most expensive and unique Mercedes SUV they can find. The G 550 is certainly a unique vehicle, ironically in part, because it hasn’t changed much in 34 years. Built in limited numbers in Graz, Austria, G-Class models must be ordered as a special order from your Mercedes dealer.

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