Absurd handling, atrocious fuel economy, limited front legroom.
For 30 years, the Mercedes G-Class has been a go-to vehicle for the world's military powers. It was originally designed for the Shah of Iran, and after he was exiled, the first batch of Gelaendewagens (as the G-Class was then called) passed to Argentina's armed forces. Military versions are still ordered and owned by many nations (including the United States), and VIPs everywhere use them for security reasons. Even the Popemobile is a modified G-wagen.
There are other imposing-looking SUVs on the market, but compared to the G, they're like wimpy Noriegas who run away at the first whisper of Metallica. Whether visiting rural hunting grounds or fleeing the country over undeveloped land, the 2009 Mercedes-Benz G550 can tackle virtually any terrain.
The G550's off-road tires make use of a full-time four-wheel-drive system that includes electronically locking front, center and rear differentials, and front skid plates and a standard brush guard stand ready to clear away jungle foliage. Also, the G weighs 5,600 pounds and is built like a bank vault. You'll hear the latter said about other Mercedes-Benz models, but only the G-wagen actually looks like a bank vault.
Unlike the departed Hummer H1, the G550 is a go-anywhere, military-sourced SUV that is truly luxurious without being preposterously huge. The cabin features the same supple leather surfaces and high-tech luxury features found in other wimpier Mercedes models. The G is monolithically tall (it may not fit in your garage), but it isn't particularly wide or long, making city visits to the adoring masses possible. It's also wickedly fast and stops like a protester at the point of a fire hose.
No truck is as desirable for its sheer presence, indestructible quality and go-anywhere capability. In a way, the 2009 Mercedes-Benz G550 makes just as much sense as a third car as a Porsche or Aston Martin — incredibly capable and impractical with eye-catching styling. As an everyday car, however, the G550 doesn't make much sense. The awkward around-town handling, enormous step-up height, passenger space issues and naval fuel consumption make a GL-Class or even a GLK-Class more suburban-friendly choices.
Moving all 5,624 pounds of luxury off-road box is a 5.5-liter V8 that produces 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. A seven-speed automatic transmission is standard. At our test track, the 2009 Mercedes-Benz G550 blitzkrieged up to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. Fuel economy is 11 mpg city/15 mpg highway and 12 mpg combined. We averaged 13.7, but your boss probably owns a few oil fields, so who really cares?
When it's time to stop, the G is equally jaw-dropping. From 60 mph, it comes to a halt in a relatively short 127 feet with the sort of perfectly flat body attitude normally reserved for sport cars. By contrast, a braking Hummer looks like a DC-10 landing without nose gear. Pedal travel is long to allow for better modulation over tricky terrain, but it can get old on regular pavement.
Even though its undefeatable stability control keeps it upright and planted, taking turns will likely remind you of yachting. Taller than most village huts, the G feels tippy, and as a result your pace on alpine roads will hardly be brisk. Yet it was capable enough to keep up with traffic (and pass many) on a mountain road trip up to Southern California ski country.
Since this is an off-road-oriented vehicle, the steering is incredibly slow and doesn't automatically whip back to center like a normal car's. Some editors actually appreciated this back-to-basics approach, while most found it irritating. Nevertheless, it gives you enough confidence and feedback to know what the tires are doing.
The 2009 Mercedes-Benz G550 boasts a lot of muscle, and it takes a lot of muscle to get in. Many will struggle to close the doors that require a mighty slam. The step up into the tall cabin will also create problems for the short-statured. Once inside, you're welcomed by supple gathered leather and comfortable, high-mounted seats with plenty of leg support. Drivers will be greeted by an upright driving position and a power driver seat (with adjustable bolsters) that doesn't move far back enough if you're tall.
The VIP in back will certainly complain, as rear legroom is limited and sadly, there's no rear center armrest. He may also express grievances about the excessive wind noise, but that's unavoidable given the G's giant-brick shape (which nevertheless aids with visibility and parking). The ride, though, is surprisingly comfortable on the highway and only the nastiest city craters will send unpleasant impacts into the cabin.
Although modern Benz electronics and climate controls are fitted to the G550, there's no getting around the 30-year-old truck architecture. The navigation system and its fussy COMAND controls are located at knee level; the simple climate controls are at your shins. Some features can be operated via steering-wheel controls, but in general, most other 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 an athletic supporter.
Cracking open the rear cargo door, you'll find a huge, blocky space with humps on each side that make laterally stowing golf clubs difficult. The rear seats fold down and flip forward, although the latter is impossible without moving the front seats far forward. In total, there are 79.5 cubic feet of available cargo space.
Any forward-facing car seat will easily fit in the G's aft quarters. Rear-facing baby seats require the front passenger to scoot far forward.
Design/Fit and Finish
We've often heard it said that Mercedes are built like vaults. Well, closing the G's side-swinging rear cargo door with its attached full-size wheel/tire feels like sealing the gold-plated portal to Fort Knox. Each side door is also quite heavy, as if constructed of solid steel, while the loud "clack" sound they emit when locking can be heard from 80 yards away. Although originally designed in the days of polyester leisure suits, the 2009 Mercedes-Benz G550 seems meticulously over-engineered and indestructible. Interior quality is also impressive, but more in line with Mercedes' lower-end and midrange products.
Who should consider this vehicle
Someone who has multiple cars and needs the ultimate SUV for their collection. It's ridiculous as a daily driver.