FRANKFURT, Germany -- One of these things is not like the other. There’s a lifesize poster of “The new Mercedes-Benz SUVs,” the updated G-Class leading a formation of GLA-, GLC-, GLE-Class, GLE-Class coupe and GL-Class (soon to be GLS, with a facelift), at the entrance to an ADAC off-road training center here. We’ve been tooling around the outskirts of Frankfurt this rainy September day, on somewhat twisty two-lanes and parts of the autobahn, in the 2016 Mercedes-Benz G550 (badged “G500” in Europe), with its new 4.0-liter biturbo V-8 and a minor facelift.
The ADAC course serves up enough water, rocks, and chassis-twisting terrain to drown or beat up any of those Benz sport/utilities except the Gelendawagen. The G500 acquits itself quite well, of course, as only a handful of surviving SUVs -- not CUVs -- can, these days. We’re thinking most Land Rovers and most Jeeps, and a few aged body-on-frame models from various brands.
The ladder-framed Mercedes G-Class was launched in 1979 at the request, rather infamously, of the Shah of Iran. And, as Benz points out, it was the brand’s sole sport/utility for 18 years. That’s when the preternaturally crossover-ish M-Class (now GLE) joined the fray. Another nine years or so later, in 2006, the GL-Class entered the picture. It was designed to replace the G-Class, but apparently there are enough rich people in the market who like to get filthy rich, or at least like to convey that appearance to their fellow yacht club members, to make Mercedes reconsider the G’s fate.
Before you consider your first G-Class, be aware that while Mercedes has managed to update it sufficiently to meet modern safety and emissions standards in North America as well as Europe (something Land Rover could not achieve with its Discovery), it does not combine with its supreme off-roadability the on-road manners of an S-Class, or even a GL-Class.
Your first clue will be when you pull the door handle. You can’t; it’s fixed to the door. Push the button with your thumb, instead. How long has it been since an S-Class had such door handles? Probably goes back to the late ’70s or early ’80s.
The seats are covered in a quality of leather appropriate for a sport/utility that starts at $120,825, though the driver’s seat lacks the comfort of the brand’s cars and other SUVs, which have some of the best, most sumptuous seats in the world, even before you turn on the power massage. This Benz does not offer massages, either.
Fortunately, the car engines fit easily into the G-wagen. The new 4.0-liter biturbo V-8 is smooth and more than adequately powerful, at 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet, up 34 hp and 59 lb-ft over the 2015 G550’s naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V-8. Mercedes quotes an estimated 0-60 mph time of 5.7-seconds, which is 0.3 seconds quicker than the estimate with the old engine. This new V-8 is as quiet and smooth, with unobtrusive turbo lag, as any engine comes, adding to the proverbial bank vault feeling of this off-road Q-ship.
That smaller biturbo V-8 is moving 5,724 pounds, so we’re not talking rocket-ship thrust here. If you want rocket power, the G63 AMG, with its 563-hp 5.5-liter biturbo V-8 (0-60 in 5.2 seconds) and G65 AMG, with its 6.0-liter turbo V-12 (5.1 seconds) are available for 2016, at base prices of $140,825 and $218,825, respectively. The G550 starts at just $120,825.
In our experience, the AMG-wagens aren’t worth it unless you like the driving dynamics of a runaway freight train, given the G-Class’s height (76.9 inches, or 76.3 for either AMG), width (80.9 inches) and blocky sheetmetal. We drove only the G550 and not the AMGs, nor the G500 4x4-squared; the outrageously tall model that Mercedes USA says has not been approved for import. Yet.
On paved streets and highways the 2016 Mercedes-Benz G550 is no hair shirt. It actually drives a bit smaller than it is. It doesn’t feel like it’s taking up any more space in its lane than modern crossover/utility vehicles. The electronically assisted power steering feels heavy while pulling out of a downtown Frankfurt hotel parking lot, though the mildly offroad Pirelli Scorpions do nothing to mask the granular steering feel. Steering in the G550 is appropriately slow, though precise, considering the size of this SUV.
On the autobahn, the steering actually feels a bit too light. The steering feel remains constant, which led us to panic that we had entered a mild, rain-soaked autobahn left-hander too hot at barely the speed limit. Unlike any of the Mercedes crossovers, the G-Class demands a bit of reorientation from driving a car. On the few s-curves we sample, the G550 yaws reassuringly. It’s not too soft, but far from harsh considering the off-road tires and suspension. Full disclosure: We did not play with the newly added optional adjustable suspension, though on the wet roads, we wouldn’t have pushed it hard enough to tell the difference.
Other changes in the 2016 facelift are a new instrument cluster, with cleaner graphics in the dials, and a new lower front fascia, with a central air intake replacing the foglamps, plus an under-guard and rounded corners. The fender side arches also are wider.
On the ADAC offroad course, the 2016 Mercedes-Benz G550 is in its element, fording through muddy water nearly up to its three-pointed star, demonstrating amazing wheel articulation and no slip with the three differentials locked, pushing equal torque into the four wheels.
What’s the difference between the Mercedes G-Class and those other models? If Benz insists on calling the GLA-, GLE-, GLC- and GLS-Class sport -- not crossover -- utility vehicles, then let’s go back to calling the G-Class what it is: a truck. A smooth, quiet, and reassuring truck.
2016 MERCEDES-BENZ G550 SPECIFICATIONS
On Sale: October 2015
Price: $120,825 (base)
Engine: 4.0L turbo DOHC 48-valve V-8, 303 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger front-engine, 4WD SUV
EPA Mileage: N/A
Suspension F/R: Rigid axles with longitudinal and transverse links, coil springs, anti-roll bar/rigid axles with longitudinal and transverse links, coil springs.
Tires F/R: 275/55R-19/275/55R-19 Pirelli Scorpion
L x W x H: 187.6 x 80.9 x 76.9 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Headroom F/R: 42.2/40.0 in
Legroom F/R: 52.5/41.9 in
Shoulder Room F/R: 53.7/56.3 in
Cargo Room: 75.1/40.3 cu ft (second-row folded/second-row up)
Weight: 5,724 lb
Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
0-60 MPH: 5.7 sec.
Ľ mile: N/A
Top Speed: 130 mph