What's New for 2011
For 2011, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class sees no changes apart from a few new wheel styles.
Suppose you're the generalissimo of a military junta, or a prominent rap mogul. Maybe you own a remote cabin tucked away in the Rocky Mountains. Under any of these circumstances, you'll likely want an unapologetically brash, monumentally powerful, impenetrably built, endlessly capable and opulently luxurious vehicle that is like nothing else on the road. In other words, you'll want a 2011 Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
Debuting back in 1979, the Gelaendewagen ("tough terrain vehicle"), or "G-wagen" for short, quickly found favor with various military outfits as well as safari enthusiasts. As the decades passed, the G-Class morphed from a serious, stripped-down, go-anywhere rig to a serious, loaded-up, go-anywhere rig. Yet despite its current S-Class-style interior furnishings, the underlying utilitarian nature is still a large part of this 5,600-pound truck's charm.
The oft-used cliché of Mercedes-Benz vehicles being built like a bank vault is no more apt than it is here, and for reasons other than the fact that the G-Class resembles a bank vault. The doors shut with such a solid, reassuring "clack" that we're surprised there isn't a combination lock affixed to the rear cargo portal. If the G-Class strikes you as being over-engineered and virtually indestructible, that's only because it is.
All romantic notions of saving Third World countries and/or running with the wildebeests on the Serengeti plains aside, the reality is that the very tall and very heavy G-wagen handles poorly in urban environments. Corners are best not rushed, the steering and throttle have a slow, leaden feel and some of the cabin's controls are down low and hard to reach. Other real-world demerits include the high step-in height, the voracious fuel consumption and the question of whether the towering G will fit in parking garages (including your own). On the upside, the ride is surprisingly compliant and the interior is certainly luxurious, if not as space-efficient as the boxy body promises.
Looking at the big picture, the 2011 Mercedes G550 and its supercharged G55 AMG stablemate make little sense as practical vehicle choices. As such, the G-Class is a quintessential third (or 13th) vehicle -- incredibly impractical but incredibly capable, with eye-catching styling to boot. If you like what the G has to offer and it won't be serving daily-driver duty, it could be a worthy addition to your fleet. But for regular transportation, a Lexus LX 570, Porsche Cayenne, Range Rover or even a Mercedes-Benz GL-Class would make a lot more sense -- even for a retired generalissimo.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a five-passenger SUV available in G550 and G55 AMG trim levels. The G550 comes standard with 18-inch wheels, automatic bi-xenon headlamps, automatic wipers, a rearview camera, rear parking sensors, auto-dimming driver and interior mirrors, a sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, eight-way power front seats with power lumbar and driver memory functions, leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel.
Also standard are the COMAND electronics interface, Bluetooth, a hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic updates, voice controls, and a Harman Kardon surround-sound stereo with a six-CD/DVD changer, satellite radio and an iPod interface. The G55 AMG adds a supercharged V8, 19-inch wheels, upgraded paint and interior wood trim, additional chrome body guards, an AMG instrument cluster and a faux suede headliner. There are no options on either model.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz G550 is powered by a 5.5-liter V8 that produces 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. It has a full-time four-wheel-drive system with lockable front, center and rear differentials. A seven-speed automatic transmission is standard. In Edmunds performance testing, the G550 went from zero to 60 in 6.6 seconds. EPA estimated fuel economy is 11 mpg city/15 mpg highway and 13 mpg combined.
The G55 AMG gets a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 that pumps out 500 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. It gets the same four-wheel-drive system, but has a five-speed automatic. Mercedes estimates a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds. Fuel economy is estimated to be 11/15/12 mpg.
The G-Class comes standard with antilock brakes, traction and stability control and side curtain airbags. Side torso airbags are not available. In Edmunds brake testing, the G550 posted a 127-foot stop from 60 mph, an exceptional performance for such a heavy vehicle.
Interior Design and Special Features
Although modern Benz electronics and climate controls are fitted to the G550, there's no getting around the utilitarian truck architecture. The navigation system and its fussy COMAND interface (which mostly relies on a four-button directional pad) are located at knee level; the simple climate controls are at your shins. Some features can be operated with steering-wheel controls, but in general, all other high-end luxury SUVs are more ergonomically friendly. In front, there is a single cupholder that clumsily plugs into the center armrest and another located in the passenger footwell that resembles a mesh athletic supporter.
Interior quality is excellent, but space is a different matter. Front-seat legroom is insufficient for taller drivers, and the backseat could use some more legroom. A center armrest in the back would be nice, too. On the upside (literally), there is no shortage of headroom, and the range of height adjustment for the power front seats is astounding. Flipping the rear seats forward provides 79.5 cubic feet of cargo space, but large humps on each side of the trunk (which resemble rear benches for seating troops) make fitting wider items like golf clubs difficult.
With either V8, acceleration in the 2011 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is always a laugh-inducing experience -- something this huge simply should not be moving so quickly. Thankfully, it does, and it's a riot. The ride is comfortable on the highway, and only the nastiest potholes will send unpleasant impacts into the cabin. In terms of handling, the tall and narrow G doesn't inspire confidence through turns, and it enjoys the dubious distinction of being the slowest vehicle on record in the Edmunds slalom test, thanks in part to a highly intrusive stability control system. Moreover, the steering is slow and doesn't return to center easily or quickly since this vehicle is set up for off-roading.
The slow steering is a benefit in the dirt, though, as the G-Class can be guided through just about anything nature throws at it and the steering wheel rarely registers the impacts. With its full-time four-wheel-drive system with front, center and rear locking differentials, the G goes about its trail bashing (if one is so inclined in a $100,000 vehicle) with a more back-to-basics approach than what you'll get from a high-tech Land Rover or Lexus.