2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550 and AMG G63 first drive: leGendary

You pick up a few names in the space of forty years, but whether you call it the Mercedes Geländewagen, the G-Wagen or, its most modern moniker, the 2019 G-Class is still legendary in every sense, whether you're on or off the road. Mercedes-Benz's unwavering commitment – some might say obsession – to maintaining the G's core essence is instrumental in making it so successful over the past four decades. Even so, it's strange to think that the late model G-Class from 2018 is now considered a "classic," courtesy of this all-new model just around the corner.

There are only four visible parts carried over from the old SUV, along with one that's buried out of sight. They're worth mentioning, too – the door handle, rear air outtake, the headlamp cleaning system, and the sun visors – because, to a pair of untrained eyes, the all-new G-Class looks remarkably similar to its predecessor. No, it's not that Mercedes-Benz's designers are lazy; on the contrary, it's been done purposely and painstakingly to preserve the SUV's unique exterior design language. I for one don't mind it one iota.

Several design elements stand out. I got behind the wheel of both the Mercedes-Benz G500 – which will be known as the 2019 G550 when it arrives in the 'States – and the tuned Mercedes-AMG G63, both on and off-road in France. Each of which has their own visual character. When you see the circular daytime running lamps in your rearview mirror, there's no mistaking it for anything else on the road. Per Lilia Chernaeva, interior designer for the G-Class, the headlamps, and front turn signal indicators are so iconic, in fact, it was considered only right and proper that hints of them be brought inside the car, too. So, the far left and right air vents mimic the headlamps, while the dash-mounted speakers borrow the shape of the turn signals.

leGendary substance, not just style

The G-Class is known for its go-anywhere capabilities, and to prove it, everyone must conquer Schöckl. It's a 4,740-foot-high mountain near the Austrian city of Graz, and home to the mother of all off-road test tracks. Across 3.24 miles of torturous terrain, SUVs face gradients of up to 60-percent and lateral inclines of up to 40-percent. Over the course of the G-Wagon's development, it had to endure a full 1,242.74 miles of this extremely challenging course.

Experiencing the new G-Class up and down the famous Schöckl is now on my bucket list – they give you, I'm told, a special badge if you manage it – but for now I've settled for the next best thing. What's that you might ask? Mercedes invited us to Perpignan, France, where the SUVs were waiting for an off-road adventure at Circuit Du Chateau De Lastours in the G 500, followed by a much higher speed around a trail in the G63 to test out all the different drive modes.

Being slow on the trail is not really an option. It's the same course that's used to test out rally cars, and it gave me a rare opportunity to test both the go-anywhere and the go-fast sides of the performance SUV, at the same time. There's some G-Class history here, too; according to Ian Hadley James, Marketing for the truck, it was, in fact, the very same location that Mercedes-Benz held the 463-series G-Class press drive, 28 years ago.

Now, it's a fact of life that 99.99% of G-Class owners will never come close to this level of off-road driving – and no, curb-checking at the local supermarket doesn't count. Still, it's reassuring to know that this beast can survive just about anything you throw at it.

Spoiler alert: the G 550 and the G63 tackled every foot of the challenging terrain with ease, while still delivering a ridiculously smooth and comfortable ride inside.

You can, indeed, stop there if you like, though I've got plenty more details for you. Common to both the G550 and G63 are the three 100-percent differential locks and LOW RANGE off-road ratio. They share the same ladder frame, with a new suspension system developed by Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG. Altogether, that's enough to take on intimidating off-road courses without breaking a sweat – for the G-Class, at least. My drive partner was first to take on the course, and as I sat in the back seat behind our instructor, I thought to myself, "man, Eric is kicking ass." He – or the SUV -made the course look easy.

I confess, prior to jumping into the back seat, I was a little leery of getting tossed around. Certainly, I was preparing myself for a drive experience that was less than pleasant. Consider me seriously surprised, then, at just how comfortable it turned out to be. I'm sure that a Jeep, Land Rover, or indeed the outgoing G-Class could very well take on the same course, but I suspect that being a passenger in any of them wouldn't be a whole lot of fun.

Mercedes' secret sauce is a fairly complicated recipe. The simplest explanation is that components of the double-wishbone front axle are directly fixed to the ladder frame, without a suspension subframe. That's then paired with a rigid rear axle, held together and controlled by four trailing arms on each side, and a Panhard rod. This is key to a smooth on-road experience. Omitting the subframes maintains the ground clearance at the front, with a new strut brace providing the rigidity.

Meanwhile, the lower wishbone's attachment points on the frame in the Z-axis are positioned as high up as possible. It's not a simple engineering structure, but it satisfies Mercedes' demands that the G-Class has both the robustness required for off-road success and the smooth on-road experience you'd expect from the three-pointed star. "With the G-Class, "Kurt Tomberger, Strategic Project Management for the SUV told me, "you can take it off-road during the day and to the opera at night."

I avoided any singing, and instead focused on climbing up, over, and down inclines I'd struggle to make it across on foot, then powered through the hip-high water. When we finished, there wasn't a scratch on it. The 2019 G-Class simply instills confidence. Maximum fording depth is up almost four inches, to 27.6 inches when driving through water and mud; the breakover angle is 26-degrees while the angles of departure and approach are 30- and 31-degrees, respectively. Each has improved by 1-degree over the old car. The tilt angle, finally, has increased to 35-degrees.

They're not the only improvements. There's an increase of 6 mm in the ground clearance between axles, which is now as much as 9.5 inches for the rear axle, allowing for an increase of overall suspension travel. In rough terrain, the rear spring jounce is now 3.2 inches, with a rebound of 5.6 inches. Meanwhile, the front axle offers 3.35 inches of jounce and 3.95 inches of rebound. Newly implemented high-strength materials increase the overall stiffness by 55-percent, compared to the existing G-Wagon.

Unsurprisingly, both models come standard with 4MATIC all-wheel drive, which now defaults to a 40/60 front/rear torque split, versus the 50/50 of the old model. There's a new 9G-TRONIC automatic transmission, too, with a torque converter. Mercedes gives you paddle-shifters, and they're made of some beautifully finished aluminum, but out on the road I rarely found myself reaching for them. Regardless of drive mode, the G550 did a fine job picking the right gear but itself. Adding two extra ratios over the old transmission has also cut down on shift response times.

The G550's 4.0-liter V8 biturbo engine, mated with the AMG SPEEDSHIFT TCT 9G transmission, is good for 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 to 4,750 RPM, and an electronically-limited max speed of 130 mph. Mercedes-AMG dropped the previous 5.5-liter V8 biturbo, in favor of a handcrafted AMG 4.0-liter V8 biturbo with 577 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 to 3,500 RPM. That's an increase of 14 hp and 66 lb-ft of torque over the previous SUV. Once again, whether on or off the road, shifting gears is smooth as melted butter. It doesn't seem to matter whether you're crawling over a bunch of boulders or pushing hard through winding roads, the G-Class just chomps right through.

My favorite feature of the new drivetrain, I think, is the dual-clutch function which shows up in Sport and Sport Plus modes. Put your right foot down and the SUV drops down to the lowest possible gear, unlocking an instant burst of torque. It's perfect when you're trying to pass a slow-moving vehicle on a narrow stretch of road.

Straight line speed is an odd thing to care about for an SUV, I suppose, but the 2019 G-Class isn't shown up there. Zero to 60 mph takes a mere 4.4 seconds, a full 0.9 seconds faster than the outgoing G63. The new AMG version is also electronically limited to a top speed of 137 mph, though check the box for the Driver's Package on the order form and that's nudged up to 149 mph.

The exhaust note on the G550 isn't too shabby and, to be honest, it sounded much, much better than I'd expected when compared to the AMG's engine. That being said, listening to the G63's sonata in Sport+ mode is a whole different level of aural enjoyment.

The performance holds up to the soundtrack. During some spirited driving around the rally course in the G63, you can instantly feel just how capable the AMG suspension with adaptive adjustable damping is. Happily, it's fitted as standard, as it really helps make the ride more comfortable and cuts down on body roll. Each wheel is independently adjusted according to the current conditions, and that's carried over to the road, too. Mercedes offers Comfort, Slippery, Sport and Sport+ drive modes, or you can remain in Comfort but opt for stiffer suspension based in the Individual mode. The AMG DYNAMICS SELECT drive programs, meanwhile, also impact other parameters such as engine response, the transmission behavior, and steering input.

The latter introduces electromechanical speed-sensitive steering with variable ratio to the G63 for the first time. In Comfort mode, the steering is much more relaxed; in Sport, it's a lot more precise, for more direct feedback. Out on tight and twisting roads, I was able to sense the difference between the two modes; still, it wasn't until I was blazing through the trails until the G-Wagon's combination of talents really came together for me.

The AMG model gets three off-road modes: Sand, Trail and Rock. I spent most of my time in Trail mode because it offers a more balanced configuration for conditions such as soft, muddy, or slippery surfaces. You get the best grip in Trail mode. Letting loose, you want to be in Sand mode, and things definitely get more fun. The steering loosens up enough for you to slip and slide around. I swear, the G63 felt like a rally car. Mercedes has shod the G63 with 20-inch tires which, according to my drive instructor, were more suited for the terrain. Finally, Rock mode is used for rocky terrain, and allows for maximum axle articulation and even lifting one or more of the wheels.

The G 550 gets the new "G" driving mode, and it's basically responsible for all the heavy lifting when you're off-road. That means managing the steering input, handling the gear shifts, and figuring out the right throttle control. It automatically activates as soon as one of the three locking differentials are switched, or when the G-Class is in low range.

There's plenty of technology for when your human talents aren't quite up to the challenge, too. I was particularly thankful for the 360-degree camera, for instance, when I found myself on a 45-degree descent with an instructor telling me to reverse. I couldn't see a thing, but the bird's-eye camera could. Hill Descent Control kicks in automatically in first gear in manual mode, too. There's a lot going on behind the scenes to soak up some of the more stressful elements typically associated with off-roading.

On the road, despite their size, both G-Wagon versions are right up there with the best SUVs of Porsche and Range Rover. If there's a compromise involved for the styling, it's wind noise. Mercedes' designers curved the windows of this new model, so as to maintain the same drag coefficient of the outgoing model even though the overall size increased, but there's no escaping some of the wind-noise sneaking into the cabin.

Then again, perhaps it would be a step too far to get rid of all the G-Wagon's foibles. The 2019 G-Class is still, essentially, a "G" inside and out, only massaged for the modern world and its drivers. Part S-Class, part off-road star, part icon, and – in AMG form – part rocket, there's nothing quite like it.