Mercedes G-Wagen seems to defy logic when it comes to staying power

By Paul Borden

(March 10, 2017) MIAMI — The Mercedes-Benz G-Class seems to me to be a series of contradictions. It’s a big vehicle that seems small inside. It’s a luxury vehicle but lacks many of the features normally associated with the segment. And at a time that it seems every manufacturer is trying to coax the maximum number of miles from a gallon of gas, it drinks fuel like frat boys attacking a keg on “free beer” night.

You’d think such a vehicle that also carries a healthy six-figure price tag would last about as long as, oh, maybe another vehicle that also had military roots when introduced to the public well over a decade ago. The Hummer H1 was on the market less than five years. The H2 and H3 that followed also were short-lived.

But Mercedes-Benz calls the G-lass (or G-Wagen/Wagon) a “resounding success with better-than-ever sales on a worldwide basis,” and there is little sign the G-Class is due to join the H1, H2, H3 as a fading memory.

Guess that shows you what the three-prong star Mercedes-Benz logo in the front of the grille can do for a vehicle. At least that’s the opinion I got from some automotive friends when I raised the question of why the G-Class survives and the Hummer did not.

The G-Wagen came about from a suggestion by the Shah of Iran in the 1970s to Mercedes (he was significant stockholder in the company at the time) to develop a vehicle for his military to use (not that it did him a lot of good). Mercedes adapted a civilian version as far back as 1979. It was called the “Gelandewagen,” a German term for “cross-country vehicle,” and offered buyers a vehicle with heavy-duty off-road capability.

But the Germans didn’t bring it to the U.S. until 2002, which, coincidentally or not, was shortly after the Hummer H1 was introduced and just before the H2 came to market.

Mercedes-Benz apparently planned to discontinue exporting the G-Class to the U.S. in 2005, but when the U.S. Marines stepped in with a big order for use on desert patrols, that plan was scrapped.

The Marines to the rescue!

Still, sales did decline until fewer than 1,000 G-Wagens were sold in the U.S. as recently as 2010, but have picked up recently. Numbers show 3.950 were sold in 2016 compared to 3,616 for the previous year.

The G-500 Mercedes introduced to the U.S. featured a 5.0-liter V8 engine and came with a sticker price under $75,000. The next year the good folks in the AMG department got their hands on it and so today we have the AMG G63 and AMG G65 offered in the U.S. with another model, the G550 4x4(2), new for 2017. It has even more features to enhance off-road capability.

Would it surprise you to hear that the price has gone up several rungs over the last 15 years? I thought not.

The base G550 lists at $122,400, the AMG G63 at $141,400, and the AMG G65 at $220,400. That’s a $2,500 jump over 2016 prices. The new G550 4X4(2) starts at $225,925.

The thing that struck me with the AMG G65 that showed up in my driveway was the things you don’t get for that money.

For instance, when approaching a luxury car (and several so-called “affordable” models for that matter) with the key in my pocket, I’m used to hearing the door lock unlatching when I touch the door handle or push the appropriate button on it. But there is no keyless entry with the AMG G63. No push-button start either.

Getting in isn’t the easiest thing, but I’ve had vehicles that sat even higher and were much more of a chore. Once inside, I found accommodations on the cozy side. That isn’t to say the G-Wagon is cramped. It just doesn’t seem as roomy as other large SUVs I have driven.

And storage isn’t what you typically get in this genre. The glove compartment is only big enough to handle the thick owner’s manual and, well, a pair of gloves. Storage in the center console’s bin also is limited. Only one cupholder up front, and it sticks out from the console into the passenger seat footwell like it was an afterthought. The two in the back are on the floor behind the console. Five-passenger capacity, three cupholders. You do the math.

On the other hand, the quilted leather seats in my test G-Wagon were very supportive and both heated and ventilated. As usual with Mercedes, the materials throughout the cabin are top-notch. And storage capacity behind the second-row seats is listed at a generous 49.2 cubic feet. Fold them and max is 79.5 cubic feet.

The real kick is when you start up the 6.0-liter, biturbo V12 engine. With 621 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque, the AMG G65 has plenty of power, good for towing up to 7,000 pounds while getting you from zero-to-60 mph in sports-sedan territory at an estimated 5.2 seconds, according to the company.

It’s mated with a seven-speed automatic transmission that can be set to one of three modes: Comfort, Sport, or Manual, with gear selection for the latter via steering wheel mounted paddles. I mention the fuel economy earlier. The numbers are 11 miles-per-gallon city, 13 highway, and 12 combined with premium required.

MSRP for the test vehicle, which included an optional studio package (carbon fiber trim, contrast stitching to match the exterior paint color, silver brake calipers, and more) plus $925 destination and delivery, came to $236,935. That pretty much puts the AMG G65 in a class of its own.

What I liked about the 2017 Mercedes-Benz AMG G65: The cabin oozes luxury and has a kind of rugged sophistication (or sophisticated ruggedness) about it.

What I didn’t like about the 2017 Mercedes-Benz AMG G65: Why can’t designers incorporate the display screen for the Mercedes’ COMAND system into the flow of the dash? Sticking up in the middle like it does, it looks like somebody just slapped an iPad to the center of the dash. The “alien green” color is polarizing to say the least. At least you won’t have any trouble finding this green G-Wagen in a mall parking lot.

Would I buy the 2017 Mercedes-Benz AMG G65: Don’t think so. It’s too much on the expensive side, especially with something like an extremely capable and well-equipped competitors available for much le$$.