A Four Decade Classic
The Mercedes G-Class seems to be living a double life. On one hand, it is a case study in off-road prowess and rock-solid engineering. The G-Class (formerly known as the “G-Wagon”) is designed to get the job done, whatever that job may be. On the surface, the G-Class has changed very little in the last 37 years.
And yet, with each passing model year the G-Class is ever more known as something of a celebrity magnet. Tabloid regulars are seen by the paparazzi around Los Angeles hopping in and out of one. Rappers name check the G-Class in innumerable songs. The G-Class is preceded by its reputation. But exactly how does such a no-nonsense utility vehicle become the de facto ride of Hollywood starlets who don’t know their independent suspension from their locking differential? Do they know how beastly that SUV they’re using for a latte run truly is? We’re not quite sure. But one thing is for certain, the G-Class has a history that predates the birth of every single Kardashian sister.
The Birth of a Giant.
In the early 1970’s, the Shah of Iran was a large shareholder in the Mercedes company. At his suggestion, the first G-Class was designed as a military vehicle to increase the comfort of this military-style ride. An automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a cable winch were some of the earliest strides toward taming this mammoth for mass appeal. More upgrades the following year, like fuel injection and more comfortable seats, set a tone for refinement that would continue for the entirety of the 1980’s.
The G-Wagon/G-Wagen (short for Gelandewagen, meaning “cross country vehicle”) was treated to a full revamp to kick off 1990, which truly begins the generation of the Hollywood beasts that we know today. Larger and boxier than the first iteration, this was the first G-Wagon with an available V-8 engine. A revised chassis (G-463), full time four-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, and three locking differentials all improved the new offering. The interior was vastly restyled, with luxury in mind, far removed from the farm and military vehicles we’d known early G-Wagons to be. AMG, Mercedes’ top notch tuning division, got involved in the 90’s, and high-end models got even more high end. A V-12 in an off-road vehicle?! Why not?!
Continued Evolution of G-Class
Though the G-Class (officially no longer called the G-Wagon since 1998) found its way into the United States through a series of semi-legal maneuvers (what some call “The Gray Market”), it was finally available for sale stateside in 2002. Sold as the G500, the focus was on luxury: no-frills versions were not for the American marketplace. This G500 packs a 5.0 liter V8 engine and a five-speed automatic transmission. By 2009, the G500 became the G550, now equipped with a seven-speed automatic transmission and an even stronger 5.5-liter V8. The 550 was soon treated to an AMG restyling, known as the G63.
In 2016, the 5.5 liter V8 was finally swapped out of the 550, replaced by a twin-turbo 4.0 liter V8. Of course, if that’s not enough firepower for you, there’s always the AMG G65 model. This German-born monster is packing a 6.0 liter biturbo V-12 that makes 621 horsepower that can get to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, and can take off vertically and drive directly through the troposphere and into space*.
Here to Stay
Through it all, the G-Class has shown very little change at its core, and that seems to be fine with consumers. Mercedes even had a plan to retire it, replacing it with the newfangled GL in 2007. But the iconic G-Class was too successful to be put out to pasture, and thrived in the face of self-imposed obsolescence. It has, in fact, broken its own American sales record the past four years running. And if that weren’t impressive enough, it is the Mercedes vehicle most often sold in AMG trim, also no small feat. More than half of all U.S. buyers opt for the AMG magic to be worked on their G-Class. And there appears to be no limit to the decadence. Get this: there is now a Mercedes-Maybach collaboration G650 that fetches a cool half-million dollars.
So why, exactly, is this boxy wartime holdover doing so damned well? Perhaps it was the difficulty in finding one for so long. G-Class has been a coveted name in the states for far longer than they’ve officially been available. The cost of importing one pre-2002 drove prices into the six figures long before they retailed for that much. (A new G550, incidentally, now retails for a shade under $120,000.)
A Timeless Ride
How does something with the engine of an Italian sports car and the off-roading credentials of a Wrangler Rubicon find its way onto the smooth pavement of Rodeo Drive? The Mercedes emblem certainly doesn’t hurt matters. Land Rover’s Range Rover is a similarly-upscaled SUV. But the Land Rover name doesn’t have the same cache in the states that Mercedes has accrued over the last century.
Perhaps the most succinct answer is that celebrities with enough money to drive whatever they please want to drive something that stands out. And the Mercedes G-Class, with its oddball shape and superior specs, certainly stands out. Top quality will never go out of style. And there will always be people who are willing to pay for it, regardless of whether they can use it to its fullest potential. (Most automotive experts do not classify the aforementioned latte runs as “fullest potential”, FYI)
The G-Class has seen some changes, but it is one of the truly timeless designs of the last 40 years. And Timelessness is, well, it’s… timeless. And timeless will always sell.