What's New for 2008
Entering its 29th year of production, the boxiest Mercedes-Benz returns for 2008 with minimal changes. Both G-Class models gain a rearview camera, TeleAid emergency communication system and a hands-free phone interface.
For whatever reason, a certain segment of the population is attracted to vehicles that defy logic, practicality and/or modern aesthetics. Shaped like a 5,500-pound Mosler bank vault and originally designed during the waning hours of disco, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is one of those vehicles. Like its Hummer H2 classmate, the G-Class will attract those who consider on-road driving dynamics secondary to pulling up to the valet stand in a blinged-out, off-road vehicle dripping with Rambo levels of testosterone. As a legitimate luxury sport-utility, though, the G-Class cannot compete with other full-size luxury models like the Lexus LX 570, Range Rover or even Mercedes' own GL-Class.
The G-Class first went on sale in 1979 as the Gelaendewagen (ga-lin-di-va-gon), which means "tough terrain vehicle." The G-wagen, as it was nicknamed, was primarily designed for military purposes, with numerous body styles used by armed forces around the world – including the United States Marine Corps. Up until recently, the G-wagen even underpinned the Popemobile (now a retrofitted M-Class SUV). Throughout the 1980s and '90s, G-wagens were brought to the United States by a few import companies that outfitted them to meet American emissions and safety regulations. Available in two- and four-door models (including a Jeep Wrangler-like convertible), G-wagens would routinely sell for $130,000. Mercedes-Benz finally officially brought them to the United States in 2002 as the G-Class, offering only the four-door version.
Aside from its two thoroughly modern V8 engines, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz G-Class maintains close ties to its roots as an off-road-capable military vehicle with body-on-frame construction, four-wheel drive and three locking differentials. While this may attract off-road enthusiasts, it's hard to imagine crawling through a gorge or fording a stream in a $110,000 G55 AMG with 18-inch rims. And on pavement, the G-Class is a chore. The steering and gas pedal efforts are unpleasantly heavy, and the truck suspension sends road imperfections quivering through the cabin. Not surprisingly, the tall, boxy G-Class also exhibits plenty of body roll around turns.
Mercedes has done its best to snazz up the dated interior, but the company's efforts ultimately come off as if one tried to dress R. Lee Ermey in Dolce & Gabbana. Premium leather and wood cover most surfaces, and buttons and switches are typical of those found in other Mercedes-Benz cars and SUVs, but the upright dashboard and seating position are more Jeep Wrangler than $80,000-plus luxury SUV. Step-in height is rather lofty -- requiring standard running boards -- and it combines with smallish doors to make climbing aboard the G-Class a tight squeeze. Those doors also close with an unsubstantial "click" rather than the typical, reassuring Mercedes "thud."
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz G500 and G55 AMG can't escape their heritage. Compared to the Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, the boxy old G is thoroughly outgunned in every area except sheer power and machismo. Nevertheless, those are the attributes that will attract the 1,000 or so buyers to the G-Class this year. Sure it may look like a bank vault on wheels, but for some, that's the ironic beauty of it.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a five-passenger luxury SUV available in G500 and G55 AMG trim levels. They both come fully loaded with similar standard equipment, including bi-xenon headlamps, corner-illuminating foglamps, running boards, rear park assist, a sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power tilt/telescoping heated steering wheel, a navigation system with the COMAND interface, a rearview camera, a hands-free phone interface, front and rear heated leather seats, 10-way power front seats with memory, and a nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound system with satellite radio and a cargo-compartment-mounted six-CD changer. The G55 AMG adds wider tires, larger brakes, front and rear light guards, dual side-exit chrome exhausts and premium "designo" leather and wood trim.
Powertrains and Performance
The Mercedes G500 is motivated by a 5.0-liter V8 that produces 292 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque. The G55 AMG has a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 capable of 493 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, and it's enough to propel the heavy SUV from zero to 60 mph in an estimated 5.4 seconds. The G500 comes with a seven-speed automatic transmission, while the G55 AMG retains a five-speed auto. Both G-Class models come standard with four-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case controlled by a console-mounted switch. With a 50/50 torque split and electromechanically locking center, rear and front differentials, the G-Class is Mercedes-Benz's most capable off-road vehicle. Properly equipped, the G is capable of towing 7,000 pounds.
Both 2008 Mercedes G-Class models come standard with antilock brakes, traction and stability control, full-length side curtain airbags and rear parking sensors. Side torso airbags are not available, and the rear center seating position has only a lap belt.
Interior Design and Special Features
The G-Class interior received a mild refresh last year. Buttons and dials on the center console have been updated to more current Mercedes-Benz standards, although the often-confusing last-generation COMAND interface system remains. The lengthy standard features list bestows a luxurious environment, but the truckish, upright driving position may be a turn-off for those used to today's more carlike SUV cabins. Rear cargo capacity falls short of full-size sport utilities at 80 cubic feet, while the swinging cargo door is heavy because of its full-size spare tire and its stainless steel cover.
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a truck-based SUV originally designed for military activities, and it drives like it. Although the two modern V8 engines move the G-wagen with impressive force, on-road handling and ride leave much to be desired. With its tall, boxy body, the G exhibits significant body roll, while its front and rear solid-axle suspension is better suited for tackling rugged off-road hills than it is for cruising through Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, the old-school recirculating-ball steering offers limited feedback at higher speeds, and the stiff gas pedal requires too much effort, making cruise control a frequent friend on highway journeys. On the bright side, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is surprisingly quiet on such journeys despite having the aerodynamic attributes of a shipping crate.