Meet the all-new 2019 G-Class: A Mercedes icon reinvented

Having an icon in your line-up can be a blessing and a curse, something Mercedes-Benz knows all about when it comes to refreshing fan-loved stalwarts like the G-Wagon. Newly redesigned, the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is only ready to show off its updated interior right now, but I'm happy to report that the automaker walked that fine line between adding new features to bring the G-Class into the modern era, while still preserving those all-important elements enthusiasts demand.

There's really no mistaking the G-Wagon for anything else when you see it on the road, so maintaining parity inside the cabin is just as important. Since its introduction in 1979, and with over 300,000 vehicles roaming the roads, the SUV has gone through minor facelift changes, but nothing to the extent of the updates for the 2019 model year. Are all these changes for the better or worse?

Something old, something new, something borrowed

The G-Wagon faithful will be happy to know that Mercedes-Benz has kept the distinctive door handles, not to mention the unique way the door sounds when it's closed. Then there's the lovely, rifle-bolt ker-chunk that the power locks make, there's no losing that. The door itself is thicker now, though, for better reinforcement; that was required for passing the FMVSS 214 side-impact pole test.

Often it's the detailing that bears the most improvement. "The interior design is 100-percent new for the second-gen G-Class, according to Oliver Metzger, Mercedes-Benz Design Engineer, "with no carry-over parts from the old car, not even the power lock bolt." The sturdy, aluminum door handles are excellent examples, for instance, along with the frameless rear-view mirror which Metzger is particularly proud of.

The easy-to-reach grab handle on the passenger side, along with the familiar differential locks positioned front and center are also carried over: the latter is unchanged right down to the notification colors, which have gone untouched over the last four generations. Outside, the robust exterior protective strip, the exposed spare tire on the rear door, and the indicator lights remain unmodified. Other than that, though, Metzger tells me that we'll need to wait for the auto show in Detroit in mid-January 2018 to see the full unveiling.

Differential lock switches are one thing, but most modern drivers aren't going to be willing to give up the digital instrumentation and advanced infotainment systems modern luxury cars have adopted. As a result, gone are the G-Wagon's analog gauges, replaced with more futuristic screens that are infinitely reconfigurable. It's effectively what you'd find in the S-Class, right down to the steering wheel with its multifunctional buttons, switches, and capacitive touchpads. As for the rest of the center stack – including the infotainment system and HVAC controls – they switchgear is all borrowed from the E-Class. It looks and works well.

There are four materials options for the steering wheel and optional heating. Its also where you'll find all the semi-autonomous driving functions: the G-Class is, after all, a capable long-distance cruiser, so having all the Mercedes DISTRONIC features at your fingertips is hugely convenient. The left capacitive touch control navigates the instrument cluster, while the right operates the center stack display for navigation, phone, and multimedia. The 2019 G Class' full off-road abilities will be shared at its NAIAS 2018 unveiling, but for now, Metzer shared with me that you'll get haptic feedback on key functions if you're tackling tough terrain.

During Metzger's thorough walkthrough of the changes, one thing became clear: the new G-Wagon is particularly focused on usability. Effective legroom in the front has increased by 38 mm (1.5 inches), shoulder width by 38 mm, and elbow width by 68 mm. It's almost like sitting in an S-Class sedan, only much higher up. With the current model, getting a foot in to climb into the rear seat isn't the easiest maneuver, so Metzger and his team reworked things in the MY2019 SUV to make entry and egress much easier for rear passengers. Primarily, the door opening has changed: it's a little longer in length, creating more space to pass through.

I can attest that, being 6'2", I was able to comfortably position the driver's seat to my liking and then hop in the back and still have plenty of leg room. That's a clear improvement over the current model. Indeed, with three full-grown adults in the back, there were no complaints from the middle seat. According to Metzger, the "effective legroom" in the rear has increased by 150 mm (5.91 inches).

Rear accommodation also benefits from 27 mm more shoulder room, while elbow space has increased by 58 mm. Adding a third climate zone for rear-seat passengers helps too. The rear bench can be angled up to 90-degrees for storage and has nine different positions it can be locked in. It's worth noting that it also sits higher than before, improving the visibility out of the windshield.

That glass is another link to the outgoing SUV. Metzger says Mercedes-Benz purposefully kept it "steep and flat, [with] almost straight A-pillars, which you don't find from any other car in the world." The fact that all those straight lines now set the G-Wagon apart from its more curvaceous competition is something the designers have capitalized on the inside, too. The cabin has "really clear straight areas and the designers tried to bring a little bit of the exterior impressions into the interior with the headlamps, front grille, indicator around the fender," the design engineer explained to me.

As for comfort, the gear lever is moved away from the center console while the handbrake is eliminated in favor of an e-brake. That increases the overall roominess of the center console and frees up space for, you guessed it, cup holders! Metzer reminded me that it's only the US drivers that want cupholders in their G-Wagon; the majority of European buyers don't care for them. This is monumental folks: in 40-years, this is the first G Class to get cupholders built in.

It's not the only concession to modern life. There are other storage spots for your phone and the key since the G-Wagon now supports push-button start. The glovebox holds 5.2-liters and has changed to a top loader. That makes it easier to put things in, and more convenient to peer into without having to bend over. There's even a wireless charger for your phone.

Overall, there's plenty to like about the new 2019 G Class cabin. What I liked about the old SUV – the way it telegraphs its sturdiness and matter-of-fact abilities – has been translated for the 21st century, where technological capabilities are just as important as how much you can drive over or wade through. It's a promising sign of how the new SUV will accommodate things like tougher fuel economy demands while maintaining what makes it distinctive, too. Metzger wouldn't go into specifics, for example, but shared that the aero performance almost the same as the existing model, even though things like the overall width have increased. All big concerns when you're trying to bring a modern classic up to date, and we'll be at the North American International Auto Show in January to find out exactly how Mercedes-Benz has done it.