Luxist Drives the 2009 Mercedes-Benz G550, and it Makes Us Glücklich
The Mercedes G550 is an unlikely niche vehicle. As with perhaps every other military-derived civilian 4x4, it's a box on wheels, all straight lines and fender flares. Yet unlike most other military-derived civilian off-roaders, it comes standard with solid axles front and rear, three electronically locking differentials front, center, and rear, and, get this, heated rear seats. Celebs, trendsters, and the generally rich keep it in the public consciousness. When Mercedes decided to kill it, a general uproar caused them to belay the order. It costs $100,250, and has no options. Before we drove it, we didn't know why people dug it. After driving it, now we do: it is colossally fun.
There is little about the Geländewagen that one could call attractive. There are no "lines" of the variety that make aesthetes coo. The fender-mounted turn signals strike us like carbuncles. From the front, the Xenon headlights framed by the chromed bumper guard make it look studious, like a warthog wearing glasses. Without even the rounded lines of the Range Rover – another tall and stupendously upright vehicle – the G550 looks like it is always at attention and will never be at ease. If anything, the attempt at sleek in the rake of the windshield (which does form a nice bodyline that runs all the way to the front wheel arch) only stands out as an absurdity against the perpendicularity of the rest of the vehicle. If we were a product planner looking at the rear of the vehicle, our first question would be, "We're going to sell that? To civilians?"
Still – and we'll be the first to admit that this is this blogger's personal view – the G550 is not unattractive. In fact, it actually seems to transcend the idea of attraction at all; it is simply the ultimate in pragmatism. Crampons aren't beautiful, but they are wonderfully useful. Tubas aren't beautiful, but they can make wonderful noises. A Porsche key fob isn't beautiful, but it can make wonderful events happen on any given night.
Likewise, the G550 isn't exactly beautiful, but it can do wonderful things. Number one among them: it's nothing but fun to drive.
As soon as we got in, we were all smiles. Why? Because -- and Mercedes might shoot us with a Heckler & Koch for this – the seating position takes us back to being behind the wheel of our favorite old pickup truck. The G550 is bolt upright and close; there's plenty of room, but the cabin isn't spaced out like it is even in current trucks. Everything is a flick away: you roll down the giant windows and slide back the giant sunroof, rest your left elbow on the door, rest your right wrist on the steering wheel, and cruise the streets like an urban cowboy with in a leather-lined chariot with 610 watts of 5.1-channel audio gold pumping out the latest T.I.... or Rhinestone Cowboy, if that's how you roll. We had fun, fun, fun, until Mercedes took the G550 away.
What's wrong with it? Well, technically, nothing, since the G550 is a niche vehicle that sells not even 3,000 units a year. It's like asking 'what's wrong with the Bugatti Veyron?' If you have the dosh to throw $100,250 at an eight-cylinder brick, then you've got at least four other cars that can check off all the necessary luxury boxes. And that's not including the rides stored at your villa in Mallorca.
But if we must compare, we'll say that the design of the G550 is all over the place. It's best not to think of the G550 as a dated military-derived SUV but as a dated military vehicle with some consumer concessions. It's silly tall, but the door handles are way down low. It has a giant windshield, but tiny windshield wipers, like the arms on a Tyrannosaurus Rex. If you want to hear the sound of small-caliber gunshots, close the doors; it's an undamped explosion of metal-on-metal. Mercedes' typical Rube Goldberg multiple cupholder contraptions are replaced by a single cupholder and a bunch of netting elsewhere.
Other than the windshield, the vehicle is utterly vertical and this leads to a woeful degree of reflections. Given the cover of night to play with, light bounces so freely around the cabin that when we had our Blackberry in the center console behind the gearshift, buried deep between the front seats, we were distracted by the flashing light of the phone on the driver's side window because it was bouncing off the windshield.
None of that matters, however, and for the same reason that you don't nitpick the foibles in a K10 Chevrolet Blazer or an International Harvester Scout: it's a hoot to drive. The steering wheel is meaty and the steering is direct enough, even at highway speeds. The 5.5-liter V8 has gumption aplenty: 382-horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque – this is a 5,510-pound vehicle that can lope to 60 mph in six seconds. The seven-speed auto kicks down quickly, and a massive lump of torque is available from just 1,000 rpm which keeps hunting and lugging in check. The suspension compromise – on-road civility forced to share a bunk with massive off-road prowess – is just as refined as you'd get on the Land Rover Range Rover or Lexus LX570. We wouldn't recommend an autocross, but the G-Wagen will take the occasionally surprising highway curve at speeds that get your attention and the attention of the people in the next lane.
And when you're finished with all that practicality, there's the backup camera (black & white, though) and reversing radar, the heated windshield, the heated and cooled front seats, the heated rear bench with two settings and a ton of room in the back for what doesn't appear to be a large vehicle, the iPod integration, the COMAND control system, 12-volt outlets everywhere, and all that Mercedes-ness. And there's that Harmon/Kardon stereo assisted by the fact that the G550 is nothing less than a big sound box.
We didn't get a chance to take the G550 off-road, but with proper four-wheel-drive and a 30-year pedigree of German military service we'd be given to thinking it can do the business. YouTube videos seem to point in that direction. However, we do hope to correct the omission ourselves, perhaps with a trip to Bolivia... or the center of the Earth.
If, for some reason, you "need" more, step up to the G55 AMG. With 500 horsepower and 515 lb-ft, it shaves 0.6-seconds off the run to 60 mph. That's about the only difference, and it will cost you $19,000, but again, if you're hunting this kind of game, the last thing you're worried about is having to bring a little more ammo.
But for the "rest" of you, the G550 should be a thoroughly satisfying. Buckets of fun and go anywhere goodness, it is also the only way we can think of to channel Johnny Paycheck, the plutocrat, the paramilitary, and the Pope all at one time. And if that's not worth $100K, then what is?