We drove the $136,000 Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon and finally understand why it's an automotive legend

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Mercedes Benz G550Benjamin ZhangOur Mercedes-Benz G550 tester.

  • The Mercedes-Benz G550 starts at $122,400 while our test car cost $136,375.
  • The G-Wagon debuted in 1979 as a utilitarian off-roader, but it has evolved into a plutocratic runabout.
  • Even though it's far from flawless, the G-Wagon is just effortlessly cool.

As an auto journalist, I drive more than 70 cars a year. And yet, there are few vehicles I've been more excited to experience than the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen. Or as it's more commonly known, the G-Wagon.

(Technically, Mercedes-Benz retired the G-Wagon moniker in favor of the G-Class designation in 1998, but to its fans, it's still the G-Wagon.)

Which is why we simply couldn't say no when Mercedes-Benz dropped off a 2017 G550 clad in an eye-catching paprika metallic paint job. For the past four decades, the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen or the G-Wagon has been one of the true standard bearers for what a true SUV should strive to be.

However, the high-price luxury SUV we know today came from decidedly humble beginnings.

In that time, the G-Wagon has found itself on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East

Even though its roots are planted firmly in the mystique of its uncompromising off-roading prowess, the G-Wagon has now become the SUV of choice for the posh suburbanite or the Hollywood starlet looking for something "different."

In many ways, the G-Wagon is a rolling contradiction. It's a vehicle made famous for its ability to survive and thrive in some of the world's most inhospitable conditions. Yet, these days, it's most likely to be found driving around the palm-tree-lined boulevards of Southern California decked out in fancy wheels and a custom paint job.

The Mercedes-Benz G550 starts at $122,400 while our test vehicle drove off the dealer lot at $136,375.

Here's a closer look at the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon:

Photos by Hollis Johnson unless otherwise credited.

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The Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon's story dates as far back as 1973 when Mercedes' parent company Daimler-Benz signed an agreement with Austria's Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG (Now Magna-Steyr) to create a go-anywhere all-wheel-drive cross-country vehicle — also known as the Geländewagen. To this day, all G-Wagons are hand built at Magna-Steyr's factory in Graz, Austria.

The Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon's story dates as far back as 1973 when Mercedes' parent company Daimler-Benz signed an agreement with Austria's Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG (Now Magna-Steyr) to create a go-anywhere all-wheel-drive cross-country vehicle — also known as the Geländewagen. To this day, all G-Wagons are hand built at Magna-Steyr's factory in Graz, Austria.

The first prototype G-Wagon emerged in 1974, but a production civilian variant did not go on sale until 1979.

The first prototype G-Wagon emerged in 1974, but a production civilian variant did not go on sale until 1979.

During the 1970s, no one truly understood the full potential of the SUV segment. Without conclusive data, Mercedes was hesitant to enter into the G-Wagon project. However, the program got a major boost in 1975 when the Shah of Iran - a major shareholder in the company at the time — placed an order for 20,000 military G-Wagons.

During the 1970s, no one truly understood the full potential of the SUV segment. Without conclusive data, Mercedes was hesitant to enter into the G-Wagon project. However, the program got a major boost in 1975 when the Shah of Iran - a major shareholder in the company at the time — placed an order for 20,000 military G-Wagons.

The first generation 460 Series G-Wagon debuted in 1979 with a heavy-duty ladder frame chassis, 100% differential locks, and all-synchromesh transfer case. Power for the 460 came from as series of four and six-cylinder gasoline and diesel engines producing 72 to 150 horsepower.

The first generation 460 Series G-Wagon debuted in 1979 with a heavy-duty ladder frame chassis, 100% differential locks, and all-synchromesh transfer case. Power for the 460 came from as series of four and six-cylinder gasoline and diesel engines producing 72 to 150 horsepower.

The 460 G-wagon came in a variety of body styles ranging from a fun two-door convertible to a long-wheel-base off-road delivery van.

The 460 G-wagon came in a variety of body styles ranging from a fun two-door convertible to a long-wheel-base off-road delivery van.

In 1990, Mercedes debuted an updated G-Wagon called the G463.

In 1990, Mercedes debuted an updated G-Wagon called the G463.

This includes refreshed styling, more powerful engines, and the addition of three locking differentials to the G-Wagon's beastly four-wheel-drive system.

This includes refreshed styling, more powerful engines, and the addition of three locking differentials to the G-Wagon's beastly four-wheel-drive system.

The 463 Series remains in production today, albeit with significant upgrades.

The 463 Series remains in production today, albeit with significant upgrades.

Even though the G-Wagon had been on sale to the public since 1979, it wasn't officially imported into the US until 2002.

Even though the G-Wagon had been on sale to the public since 1979, it wasn't officially imported into the US until 2002.

In 1992, Mercedes went back to the basics with the model 461 Series. Based on the original 460 Series, 461 G-Wagons were designed to be utilitarian commercial work vehicles for governments and businesses.

In 1992, Mercedes went back to the basics with the model 461 Series. Based on the original 460 Series, 461 G-Wagons were designed to be utilitarian commercial work vehicles for governments and businesses.

Over the past four decades, the G-Wagon has proven itself to be an automotive chameleon. It has appeared as everything from military vehicles to the Pope Mobile.

Over the past four decades, the G-Wagon has proven itself to be an automotive chameleon. It has appeared as everything from military vehicles to the Pope Mobile.

There's also the 6X6 version.

There's also the 6X6 version.

And the 4X4 version of the 6X6.

And the 4X4 version of the 6X6.

And the Landaulet convertible version of the 4X4 version of the 6X6.

And the Landaulet convertible version of the 4X4 version of the 6X6.

For many years, the G-Wagon was even sold to Soviet Bloc and other Communist nations under the Puch brand.

For many years, the G-Wagon was even sold to Soviet Bloc and other Communist nations under the Puch brand.

Due to its exceedingly long service life, the G-Wagon's contemporaries have changed tremendously. In the early days, it competed against the original Range Rover,...

Due to its exceedingly long service life, the G-Wagon's contemporaries have changed tremendously. In the early days, it competed against the original Range Rover,...

... The Toyota Land Cruiser,

... The Toyota Land Cruiser,

... The Jeep Grand Wagoneer,...

... The Jeep Grand Wagoneer,...

... The Lamborghini LM002, and...

... The Lamborghini LM002, and...

... The Hummer H1.

... The Hummer H1.

These days, the G-Wagon's rivals are considerably posher. They include the current generation Range Rover, ...

These days, the G-Wagon's rivals are considerably posher. They include the current generation Range Rover, ...

... The Lexus LX570, and...

... The Lexus LX570, and...

... Bentley's Bentayga.

... Bentley's Bentayga.

While early G-Wagons were modest in their power output, current versions are anything but. Our G550 test vehicle is powered by a 416 horsepower, 4.0-liter bi-turbo V8 engine. Believe it or not, it's actually the least powerful version of the SUV available in the US.

While early G-Wagons were modest in their power output, current versions are anything but. Our G550 test vehicle is powered by a 416 horsepower, 4.0-liter bi-turbo V8 engine. Believe it or not, it's actually the least powerful version of the SUV available in the US.

Two other versions come with hand built AMG powerplants. The G63 is equipped with a 563 horsepower, 5.5-liter bi-turbo V8 while the G65 gets a monstrous 621 horsepower, 6.0-liter bi-turbo V12.

Two other versions come with hand built AMG powerplants. The G63 is equipped with a 563 horsepower, 5.5-liter bi-turbo V8 while the G65 gets a monstrous 621 horsepower, 6.0-liter bi-turbo V12.

Mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, the 5,724 lbs G550 can hit 60 mph from a standstill in a brisk 5.8 seconds. The AMG powered models are even quicker. The G63 can hit 60 mph in 5.3 seconds while the V12 G65 reaches 60mph in 5.2 seconds.

Mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, the 5,724 lbs G550 can hit 60 mph from a standstill in a brisk 5.8 seconds. The AMG powered models are even quicker. The G63 can hit 60 mph in 5.3 seconds while the V12 G65 reaches 60mph in 5.2 seconds.

Apart from a few updates and enhancements, the G-Wagon's styling remains virtually unchanged from the boxy military vehicle that debuted in the 1970s.

Apart from a few updates and enhancements, the G-Wagon's styling remains virtually unchanged from the boxy military vehicle that debuted in the 1970s.

However, the interior is a different story. Over the decades, the G-Wagon picked up such luxury features as air conditioning, power windows, and an automatic transmission. Today's G is a veritable luxury palace compared to early editions of the truck.

However, the interior is a different story. Over the decades, the G-Wagon picked up such luxury features as air conditioning, power windows, and an automatic transmission. Today's G is a veritable luxury palace compared to early editions of the truck.

Open up the heavy-duty doors and you'll find a leather-lined cabin filled with some of the latest technology from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin.

Open up the heavy-duty doors and you'll find a leather-lined cabin filled with some of the latest technology from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin.

In front of the driver is a pair of stylish analog gauges flanking a digital information display.

In front of the driver is a pair of stylish analog gauges flanking a digital information display.

Dominating the center stack is a large infotainment screen running an older generation of Mercedes' COMAND Infotainment system. However, the G-Wagon does have full Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.

Dominating the center stack is a large infotainment screen running an older generation of Mercedes' COMAND Infotainment system. However, the G-Wagon does have full Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.

In addition, the G-Wagon proved to be unexpectedly high tech. Highlights include adaptive cruise control, blind spot awareness, parking assist, and Mercedes-Benz MBrace app integration.

In addition, the G-Wagon proved to be unexpectedly high tech. Highlights include adaptive cruise control, blind spot awareness, parking assist, and Mercedes-Benz MBrace app integration.

The door mounted spare tire and large headrests conspire to severely restrict rear visibility.

The door mounted spare tire and large headrests conspire to severely restrict rear visibility.

Outback, the rear cargo area is accessed through an out swinging hatch.

Outback, the rear cargo area is accessed through an out swinging hatch.

Inside, the boxy cargo area has plenty of room for a week's worth of shopping.

Inside, the boxy cargo area has plenty of room for a week's worth of shopping.

Overall, the G-Wagon's cabin conveys the sense of solidity one would expect. Everything feels like it's been hewn from the most durable and heavy-duty materials Mercedes could find.

Overall, the G-Wagon's cabin conveys the sense of solidity one would expect. Everything feels like it's been hewn from the most durable and heavy-duty materials Mercedes could find.

So what is the G-Wagon like to drive? Unsurprisingly, it drives like a 38-year-old military vehicle.

So what is the G-Wagon like to drive? Unsurprisingly, it drives like a 38-year-old military vehicle.

On the road, G-Wagon's handling is numb and the ride is harsh for a luxury SUV. And since it has all of the same aerodynamic properties as a brick, the wind buffeting at highway speeds make for a rather noisy cabin. But that's not the worst part of it. At high speed, the slab-sided G-Wagon catches wind like a sail — making it alarmingly unstable and a bit unnerving to drive.

With that said, it would be unfair to expect the G-Wagon to drive like a modern car-based crossover. After all, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but there are limits to this approach that even Mercedes can't overcome.

However, the more road the conditions deteriorated, the better the G-Wagon got. At lower speeds, our test car handled the snowy New Jersey winter with aplomb. It also mastered the state's notorious potholes.

However, the more road the conditions deteriorated, the better the G-Wagon got. At lower speeds, our test car handled the snowy New Jersey winter with aplomb. It also mastered the state's notorious potholes.

At the end of the day, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is sui generis. It's truly unique in that no one has ever attempted to turn a hard-scrabbled military vehicle into a posh boulevard cruiser.

At the end of the day, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is sui generis. It's truly unique in that no one has ever attempted to turn a hard-scrabbled military vehicle into a posh boulevard cruiser.

As a consumer product, the G-Wagon is far from perfect. It's incredibly expensive for a package that's objectively out of date. Compared to its contemporaries, the G is noisy, crude, and inefficient.

However, to judge this car by traditional metrics simply wouldn't do it justice. The G isn't for someone in search of an E-Class wagon with more ride height. (Mercedes has a slew of alternatives for you in that case.)

What you get with the G-Wagon is an effortlessly cool industrial strength war machine cloaked with a veil of civility. To experience the G-Wagon is to understand the piece of mind you have knowing your car was meant to handle conditions far more brutal than anything you can throw at it.

At the end of the day, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class isn't a car you buy with your head, it's a car you buy with your heart. And no matter how many flaws it has, there's no getting around the fact that it will always be an automotive legend.

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