2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 test drive: It looks old, but is very new

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A year ago, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class was the oldest new vehicle you could buy, with roots that stretched back to the 1970s. Now it just looks ancient.

The G-Class has been fully redesigned for 2019, but like the latest Jeep Wrangler hasn’t strayed too far from tradition. At least not on the outside.

It’s a little larger than the truck it replaces, but with its boxy body, huge windows, round headlights hood-mounted turn signals, body molding and rain gutters, it’s tough to tell the difference between them if they’re not parked side-by-side.

More significant changes can be found under the skin. There’s a fully-modern cabin that can be equipped with niceties like twin 12.3-inch digital displays, massaging seats and an air perfumer. It’s also roomier than before, though perhaps not as much as the SUV’s exterior dimensions would suggest. That said, the G-Class appears to be longer than it is thanks to a standard chrome push bar and tailgate-mounted spare tire that juts out so far that parking radar takes it into account.

The G-Class remains a body-on-frame truck that’s mostly hand-built in Austria, but now features an independent front suspension, rather than a live axle, for improved comfort and handling. It does still have a stick axle in the rear, along with front, rear and center locking differentials and over nine inches of ground clearance that give it serious off-road capability.

There’s also a standard full-time all-wheel-drive system and an optional adaptive suspension that are aimed more at on-road use. That’s because at starting price of $125,495 for the G550 that I tested — about four times more than a four-door Wrangler Unlimited – you’re much more likely to find one in paved parking lots than national parks.

The G550 is powered by a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 with 416 hp that contributes to its 7,700-pound tow rating. Without anything hooked up to it, the 5,500-pound brick can accelerate to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds as it shifts through the first couple of gears in its 9-speed automatic transmission.

With a lofty seating position and low beltline, the view out of the flat windows is panoramic, but the spinnaker-like profile the G550 presents to the air doesn’t do it any favors on the fuel economy charts. It’s rated at a dismal 17 mpg highway and 14 mpg combined. But the wind doesn’t ruffle its feathers. It’s as quiet as you’d expect a Mercedes-Benz to be, save for the rumble that comes out of its side-exit exhaust when you step on it.

You won’t find a true truck that rides better than the G550, and it manages curves as well as expected for something tall enough to play small forward in the NBA. It leans into them, but nothing like the old one, which felt like its stability control system was active 100 percent of the time to keep it from tipping over. The 2019 model’s wider wheelbase pays dividends here.

Mercedes-Benz opted against fitting the G550 with it latest semi-autonomous driver assist technology, which can self-steer on the highway and change lanes at a flick of the turn signal, but did give it automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.

While I didn’t try any overlanding in it, I did venture off the beaten path up a rocky ridge where it stepped lively over rather large rocks and offered plenty of confidence that it could handle much more. Mud posed no problems for its 4×4 system, either, even on street tires, but I didn’t try too much that would put the paint in peril, as I don’t expect most owners will.

Regardless of where you’re driving it, the G550 is as much of a novelty as it is a luxury SUV and unlike just about anything you can buy today. Except maybe for that Jeep, but you’ll have to get your own massages if you drive one of those.

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2019 Mercedes-Benz G550

Base price: $125,495

As tested: $140,195

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger, all-wheel-drive SUV

Engine: 4.0-liter turbocharged V8

Power: 416 hp, 450 lb-ft

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

MPG: 13 city, 17 hwy

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