CIRCUIT DU CHATEAU DE LASTOURS, France — The road ahead is unpaved, rock-strewn and rut-rich. Deep puddles blast murky water across the windshield. Colossal three-blade windmills tower overhead, perilously sprouting like whitewashed redwoods at the outer edges of corners. The urge is to play it safe, to tackle this rally proving ground with the sort of caution you’d normally take off road. But, this is the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class, and to dawdle would be to miss out on the massive capabilities it possesses, which the majority of its buyers will waste on cart-strewn acres of posh parking lots.
So, the foot goes to the floor, the twin side pipes of this Mercedes-AMG G 63 rumble and bark, and we’re doing 45 mph. If you’re not Sébastien Loeb, driving along seemingly 9 feet in the air while careening across rocks, 45 is damned fast. From the passenger seat, it feels like a ride, which suddenly makes the decision to keep the old G-Wagen’s dash-mounted grab handle a sensibly functional feature rather than a vestigial nod to the past. One tends to grab it instinctually as if about to plummet down Splash Mountain.
On this actual mountain in southern France, the new G-Class demonstrates astonishing control. Frankly, the old G could’ve tackled this same course — literally, as it was used for the original, luxury-lined 500 GE’s press launch back in 1990. The G-Wagens produced in the past decade (or the three prior to that) wouldn’t remotely encourage the same confidence as the new 2019 G-Class. Its recirculating ball hydraulically assisted steering was heavy at slow speeds, sloppy at higher ones, and the speedometer was vaguer than a questioned politician. The old solid front axle, which was rightly hailed for its rock-crawling ability, has been replaced by a fully independent, double-wishbone suspension that does an exponentially better job at placing the front wheels, maintaining control, and increasing confidence.
Plus, with a strut tower brace that snakes around the V8 under the hood, front rigidity has been improved. Overall, the all-new G-Class is a whopping 55 percent stiffer than its predecessor, which didn’t just look like a bank vault but felt like one too. Massive impacts that would send cringe-worthy shudders through nearly any other vehicle are met with an impregnable solidity. There’s no other way to describe it besides “astonishing.”
OK, so what about the slower, rock-crawling, go-literally-anywhere capability the G has been known for since the Carter administration? Well, engineers managed to mount that double wishbone front suspension as high as possible to the ladder frame, ultimately increasing ground clearance (9.5 inches, up by a quarter inch), maximum fording depth (27.6 inches, up by nearly 4 inches), breakover angle and approach angle (both by 1 degree). Departure angle stays the same.
A solid rear axle has been maintained, but four trailing arms contribute to improved ride and handling on road (more on that later). Low range also makes its return, as do the locking center, rear and front differentials, which are now electrically rather than pneumatically controlled. The 2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550 does get a new “G” driving mode that adapts the steering, prevents unnecessary gear shifts and manages the throttle to be more appropriate off-road. The G 550 is still an off-road vehicle for off-roading enthusiasts who’ll know what all of the above means, and how, when and why to use it. Keen newbie owners should really consider an off-roading course.