"This is pretty sketchy," my wife announced from the passenger seat. As we descended the mountain in near-whiteout conditions, my seat massager fastidiously worked out the kinks I'd generated out on the slopes earlier in the day. I let out a small sigh. "Nah... I think we're good," I replied.
Originally serving as something of a response to the Land Rover Series III, the body-on-frame G-Class has always had an earnest design focus on tackling inhospitable terrain. But every time we passed by another over-zealous motorist wedged in a snow bank, it eroded my confidence little by little.
The G-Class has changed a lot since the 460-series debuted in 1979. Back then it was a fairly utilitarian machine—simple and sturdy, with little concern for on-road civility. Forty years later the G-wagon is now as much an S-Class as it is an off-roader—a Burmeister surround sound audio system, three-zone climate control, and a 12.3-inch widescreen infotainment display all come as standard on this particular model, which carries a base price of $124,500.
Part of the rationale behind the G-Class's luxury-focused evolution has to do with the adoption of burly trucks by the celebrity set—a move that resulted in vehicles like the Hummer H2. That re-bodied Suburban was a far cry from the military-spec HMMWV that AM General put into production back in 1983, so when Mercedes handed me the keys to this G550, I couldn't help but wonder if the modern G-Class had suffered a similar fate.
Anxious to see if the all-new W463-generation Gelandewägen still had the goods, we planned a wintery trip to the San Bernardino Mountains during my stint with the sport-utility to put it through its paces in less-than-ideal conditions. We got a little more than we bargained for.
UTILITY FOR A MODERN WORLD
For decades the G-Class has been an anachronism in the Mercedes-Benz portfolio. Often derided as an unruly brute on-road and not particularly comfortable to be in, the appeal of the G-Class originates from its distinctive, Jeep-like style—exposed hinges, clamshell hood, and brick-inspired bodywork. While the three-pointed star on the grille might suggest otherwise, the G-Class—which is built for Mercedes by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, rather than alongside the mainstream models being produced in MB's factories—has always been a no-nonsense truck at its core, for better and for worse.
But over the years Mercedes has put some admirable effort into smoothing the rough edges of the G-Class, and the W463 is perhaps the biggest generational leap thus far. A revised frame and additional structural bracing bring significant increases in torsional rigidity, while the live-axle front suspension of its predecessor has now been replaced by a double wishbone setup. It's also 375 pounds lighter than the outgoing generation G-Class as well, due in part to the use of aluminum for the hood and doors, and that's despite the fact that the new model is 2.1 inches longer and 2.5 inches wider. A traditional rack-and-pinion steering rack also replaces the Wrangler-like recirculating-ball setup of the outgoing truck.
Under the hood of the new G550 is Mercedes' twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8. Variations of this engine can be found throughout the current crop of AMG models (as well as a few Aston Martins), and its ability to generate copious amounts low-end grunt with very little turbo lag make it a natural fit for the G-Class. Here, it's tuned to 416 horsepower and 450lbs ft. of torque, which is sent to all four wheels through a 9-speed automatic gearbox and, if selected, a combination of the three locking differentials that are equipped to the G-class as standard.
The revised proportions pay dividends in the cabin, where front occupants gain 1.5 inches of legroom while rear passengers score an additional 5.9 inches. New seats are part of the mix as well—heated both front and rear—while the massage functions of the Active Multicontour Seat package are optional.
It's clear that creating a better-behaved G-Class was a top priority for Mercedes engineers this time around. But striking an agreeable balance between on-road manners and off-road capability is a tricky proposition; especially for a model that has a reputation like the G-Class. To see how successful they were in that mission, I spent a few days with the G550 on the pockmarked streets of Los Angeles before heading to the hills.
It doesn't take long to understand the charm of the G-wagon. There's a heft to the vault-like doors, which require a bit of muscle to shut properly, and lock with the pronounced thunk of a bolt-action rifle. The sense of security is military grade.
Press the ignition button and the boosted V8 springs to life with authority. Hitting the Auto Stop/Start toggle next to it immediately afterward will likely become muscle memory for most G-Class owners—it certainly did for me, since it reverts to its default "On" setting every time the vehicle is started or the drive mode is changed over to Eco. This isn't a particularly eco-friendly vehicle to begin with though, and I get the sense that G-Class buyers would be willing give up a small percentage of fuel efficiency rather than deal with the slight annoyance of an engine that unceremoniously takes a nap at every stop light.
Speaking of drive modes, the G550 has four of them—Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Individual. Sport mode, as you'd expect, provides livelier throttle response, holds lower gears longer, and stiffens up the optional adaptive dampers, if equipped. Around town I stuck to Comfort, though, as the G550 still uses a live rear axle and that means there's still plenty of feedback from the road through the rear suspension - whether you want it or not.
The truck's heft (which is still north of 5500 pounds, despite the weight loss), along with the high center of gravity necessitates patient, deliberate inputs. While the engine is more than up to the task of giving this brute some straight-line hustle, the relatively slow steering rack and comfort-focused suspension tuning dash any fantasies of corner carving. But that's a task better suited to the G63 anyway, and I had a feeling that the G550 would fare better in Big Bear's conditions than the AMG-tuned model would.
As a native Southern Californian, my exposure to genuinely bad driving conditions is pretty rare. Just look at the chaos that unfolds on LA's freeways any time we get a hint of rain and you'll start to understand how ill-equipped Angelinos are to handle anything outside of ideal. But after a week of storms that brought a sizable amount of rain to Los Angeles, I expected the trek to Big Bear to be a bit more lively than usual. It was.
"This thing's got four-wheel drive, right?" asked an official at a checkpoint near the base of the mountain. I nod. "Okay. Slow down."
I brush off his warning as a rubber-stamp disclaimer. Does he even know who I am? Still, I set my not-inconsequential ego aside, assumed the conditions might be a little worse than normal, and settled in for the ascent.
Things started off largely how I envisioned the entire trek would go—the runoff from melting snow equated to slick pavement, but the lanes were clearly visible, as was most everything else in front of us.
That changed about mid-way up the hill, where we encountered the death throes of that week-long storm. It made things a bit more difficult—clumps of snow lodged around the wipers and did their best to muck up the windshield—but we were going at a pretty reasonable clip, and since it was actively snowing I wasn't sure how much good pulling off the road and cleaning the wipers would do anyway. Overall visibility remained pretty good though, which was helpful since the snow was making the lanes all but invisible.
After the Mrs. and I spent a few hours on the slopes, we stopped by Smokey's for some provisions before heading back down the hill. I fired up CarPlay for the trip home. Google Maps looks great on the G550's big 12.3-inch display, but for whatever reason it chose a route that took us around the majority of Big Bear Lake before we could start our descent. It was a lovely drive, but it cost us precious daylight. I remained unfazed, though—the G550 had been a champ so far, and aside from occasional protests from the all-season rubber (which was a bit out of its depth in those conditions), the truck had effortlessly dispatched everything Mother Nature had thrown at us.
The drive back down was harder. This storm was not going down without a fight, and before we knew it, visibility had dropped to no more than twenty feet in front of us. But with the light fading fast, we decided that this was not somewhere we wanted to be stationary, so we pressed on.
If patient, deliberate inputs are a rule of thumb with the G550 during everyday driving, that goes double when you're headed down a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm. Still, if you just stick to the doctrine, this brute is willing to go pretty much wherever you tell it to.
"I'd hate to be in that Prius right now," my wife said as she motioned to the car just ahead of us. We were now out of the worst of it, so I switched the massage setting on my seat from Back to Shoulders before overtaking the laboring hybrid. "Me too, honey. Me too."