Mercedes-Benz made no secret that it was bringing its all-new G-Class to the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In fact, you couldn’t even enter the front door of Cobo Hall without craning your neck up toward a monumental amber block encasing a 1979 280 GE, Jurassic Park-style. So when the cover finally came off the latest iteration of this legendary luxury off-roader, the crowd wasn’t surprised as much as relieved. Relieved that Mercedes didn’t screw it up, that is.
Yes, this newly minted G-Wagen stylistically remains the boxy behemoth we know and love. And most of the car’s characteristic touches, including the tall front indicators, chunky door handles, spare tire on the rear, and interior passenger-side “oh-shit” handle, survived the redesign intact. You’d be wrong, though, to judge based on its looks that Mercedes hasn’t given the G the complete overhaul it desperately needed.
Lovable as it was, the G-Wagen was in dire need of modernization. It continued to sell because of its iconic shape and status as the official utility vehicle of the rich and famous, but it handled like a St. Bernard on a steady diet of Baconators and Frosties, suffered from ghastly fuel economy, was poorly packaged, and lacked now-ubiquitous luxury features like driver assistance and advanced infotainment systems.
Mercedes was fully aware of these issues, and it sought to address each of them for the 2019 G-Wagen. For starters, the new model is 2.1 inches longer and 4.8 inches wider, yielding considerable packaging improvements—most notably with almost six additional inches of rear legroom. Interior appointments are now fully in the realm of a luxury car in the G-Wagen’s lofty price range, including a fully digital instrument cluster, touch-sensitive steering wheel controls like on the E-Class, as well as improved seat design with higher-quality materials.
EPA numbers will come later, but even with the G550’s carryover 4.0-liter, 416-hp twin-turbo V-8 we expect the new model to be more efficient. Don’t expect it to win any green car trophies, but the roughly 375-pound weight loss and new nine-speed automatic transmission (replacing the old seven-speed) should certainly help. The diet comes largely courtesy of new aluminum (rather than steel) doors, fenders, and hood.
"Enhancing an icon such as the G-Class in technological terms was both a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. Each part and every bolt came under close scrutiny," Dr. Gunnar Güthenke, Head of the Off-Road Product Group at Mercedes-Benz, said in a statement. "With the body, our main focus was on increasing the vehicle rigidity and the connections between the suspension and drivetrain with the ladder-type frame."
While that all sounds well and good, here’s where it gets controversial—the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class will for the first time employ an independent front suspension, which was co-developed with AMG. While the rear will retain its solid axle (albeit with an updated design), some off-roaders are crying foul already. The new front suspension no doubt improves on-road driving, but Mercedes also claims that the switch improves the G’s off-road abilities to boot, thanks to high attachment points and generous ground clearance, as well as increased frame rigidity as a result of the suspension mounted directly to the frame without a subframe. And, as ever, the G-Wagen benefits from three fully-locking differentials.
Mercedes knows full well how important the G-Class is to its history, heritage, and bottom line. From the older two-doors to rugged open-top off-roaders, unforgettable Popemobiles, and fire-breathing AMG models, it’s hard to think of the G-Wagen and not grin. That understanding was on display at the auto show stand, where the brand showcased historic G-Class models, including the 1983 Paris-Dakar Rally-winning 280 GE. For nearly four decades the G-Class has been the ultimate in factory off-road monsters, and it appears that Mercedes wants to keep that tradition alive.
And for those many, wealthy buyers who will never take theirs anywhere near a mud bog or snowy mountain, they’ll be able to enjoy it a bit more comfortably. Their loss.