2023 Mercedes-Benz G 550 Road Test Review: Should you cave to the crave?
When you find yourself with a craving for something, maybe a favorite junk food or movie, only that specific thing will do the trick. No remake, update or substitute will do. It has to be that thing. And it’s for that reason that the Mercedes-Benz G-Class exists and continues to thrive. There’s literally nothing else that comes close. Mercedes itself knew that when it did its first ground-up redesign of the SUV for the 2019 model year, making sure that quintessential G-Class things were maintained, from the overall brick-like design to the old door latches that clacked. Without them, it just wouldn’t be a G. Like many things we crave, though, they’re not always the best for us, and depending on your needs, you could be regretting caving to the crave.
Our test machine is the “lowly,” “humble” G 550. This entry-level G-Class starts around $140,000. And for the money, you are getting one of the rare vehicles that can unironically be called iconic. Even though every body panel was changed with the redesign, it still looks just like the SUV that was introduced in the 1970s. The real giveaways are the LED headlights, the integrated brush guard and more elegantly integrated reflectors.
Thankfully, the interior is actually very different from the past models. This is most evident in the packaging. There’s so much more legroom than the previous generation, in which your knees tended to be jammed up in the dash and center stack. Your tallest hats will also fit under the sky-high roof, regardless of your own prodigious (or not-so-prodigious) height. The more spacious area also means the steering wheel isn’t placed awkwardly. The rear seat is also more accommodating, though it still has less legroom than other SUVs of the G’s price tag and exterior dimensions. Even with the better driving position, the G continues to have its trademark high seating position with low sills and the ability to see every corner of the vehicle. Many people tout a “commanding view of the road” as a key reason they purchased an SUV, and it’s hard to get more commanding than the G. The front seats themselves are well sculpted and have lots of adjustment, but they are oddly firm, which can get a little tiresome on long drives. Cargo space is copious, too, particularly in height, though it’s frustrating that the rear seats don’t fold flat with the cargo floor, and there’s nowhere to put the privacy cover when removed.
Besides the packaging, the interior showcases superb materials at every corner. It’s all leather and real wood trim, even on the dash’s signature grab handle. The look is still modern with the large dual screens for instruments and infotainment. And of course oodles of comfort features are on offer such as massaging seats.
Now, while this may be the “new G,” it’s still four years old, which in normal car terms, would be on the back end of its lifecycle. In that way, it’s starting to show its age. It still uses an infotainment system and controller that’s a generation old, one operated mainly by a control knob in the center console, with infotainment graphics at least a generation older. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but it runs a bit slow compared to the latest model, and with such layered menus, it can take a while to navigate with the knob. On the plus side, Mercedes hasn’t replaced the handy physical controls for climate and sound system. Even more appreciated is the fact that the old steering wheel with physical controls is still here, and not the new one with touch-sensitive buttons. Occasionally, being behind the times can be better.
As for the driving experience, the clear highlight is the standard twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8. It makes 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, and is paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive. They’re good numbers, though acceleration is … well, it’s not bad, but it’s not exciting, either, apart from the low, rumbly, intimidating exhaust note. It feels pretty par for the luxury SUV course. It sounds insane, but, yes, the AMG does make a case for itself if you want something that will hustle harder, at least in a straight line. Though, if you actually plan to use a G for off-roading, the 550 doesn’t have the AMG’s side pipes and lower-profile tires that counteract the monster capabilities provided by every G’s low-range gearing, and front, center and rear differential locks.
Handling, although dramatically improved over the previous generation, is still unimpressive by modern standards. Instead of feeling a little sketchy in corners at around 30 mph, it starts feeling sketchy in corners around 50 mph. It’s just so tall and top-heavy, it will scare you for all the wrong reasons. Or maybe it’s a safety feature. It’ll warn you before you do something horribly stupid. Related, the steering is remarkably heavy, which is fitting for such a heavy truck, but it does mean that driving around town requires a lot more effort than you’re likely used to. After a few dozen parking lot battles, it might get old. Although you may have some lovely new muscle tone.
So too might the ride quality, which isn’t cushy-soft in exchange for that mediocre handling. It’s actually fairly stiff. You’ll be bumped around more than in just about any Mercedes this side of a hardcore AMG sports car. Thankfully the body is superbly well built and prevents rattles and creaks from ruining the ambiance. Wind noise does start to creep in at highway speeds, which can’t be surprising when you’re driving something with the aerodynamic profile of a brick wall.
But the thing is, these drawbacks are part of the appeal for G-Class fans. It’s like the sugar in a cake or the grease in a burger. It’s not necessarily “good,” but it wouldn’t be the same without it. These “issues” keep the G-Class feeling like an old-school pickup truck, even with massive improvements. And no other automaker offers anything with the same combination of posh interior, robust build quality, and vintage looks and feel. You have to look at commissioning restomods to come close, and the G-Class comes with a dealer network. There are vehicles that are objectively better and honestly, it would be smarter to buy one of those. But if what you crave is a G-Class, nothing else will do.