“No One Would Come to the Idea of Changing a Rembrandt Painting, Either”
I didn’t major in art history. When I paint, I tend to use a roller or a spray can. Although I enjoy art museums, I’m mostly appreciating the skill and dedication it takes to produce a masterpiece. So when I look at a sampling of Rembrandt’s works, I see the same color palette, lighting, and subject matter regardless of when it was painted. The art history majors among you are pulling their hair out.
From what I’ve read, Rembrandt went through many styles and techniques throughout his career, but the differences are too subtle to a layperson like me. I imagine most people see the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, or G-Wagen (short for Geländewagen), the same way. It doesn’t appear to have changed much since … ever. The aficionado, though, knows many things have changed over the years, but rarely have they been overt.
Like Rembrandt’s paintings, the G-Wagen has stood the test of time. Rembrandt was generally celebrated throughout his career. Like the G-Wagen, there wasn’t really a point when anyone actively disliked him. It’s a little unsurprising a German Mercedes employee would suggest, in response to a question about the G-Wagen’s glacial evolution and in a shockingly serious tone of voice, “No one would come to the idea of changing a Rembrandt painting, either.” I presume this is a highfalutin way of saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
And quite frankly, it ain’t broken. Mercedes has no trouble moving G-Wagens. In what had to be the result of a bet, the company decided to put a V-12 in it. There’s a substantial back order. People just can’t get enough of this old truck despite how many more comfortable, practical, affordable, efficient, safe, and maneuverable luxury SUVs are on the market.
Given that, I’d be willing to bet the G-Wagen’s occasional updates are performed less because the market is demanding them and more because it’s cheaper to maintain parts commonality than keep building old parts for just one vehicle. Economies of scale and all that.
Thus, the 2016 G550. You can literally (yes, actually literally) count the updates on one hand. Under the hood is the new 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8. Two-mode adaptive shock absorbers are now an option. There’s a new front bumper. It’s got new wheels. Finally, it’s got a new instrument cluster, where I dare you to identify the differences without pulling up a picture of the 2015 model.
Does any of that make a difference in how it drives? Like Rembrandt’s brushstrokes, I have to look real close to see the difference. The obvious one is power. The G-Wagen is heavy. We’ve never weighed one less than 5,500 pounds (2,495 kg). The old naturally aspirated, 5.5-liter V-8 got the job done and got it done well, but physics won’t be denied, even by the Germans. Hitting 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, it wasn’t slow. The new one, even less slow. The hot-V configuration, which puts the turbos in the valley between the cylinder heads and shortens all the plumbing, reduces turbo lag to the point where you’ll just assume any sluggishness at low rpm is a result of the curb weight, not the engine. The important thing is that this smaller engine puts out 416 hp and 450 lb-ft, 34 hp and 59 lb-ft more than the old 5.5-liter. With a flatter torque curve, that’s probably enough to bring it just under the 6-second mark.
What matters is the power delivery is still smooth and linear. It’s one of the best traits of this engine in any application, and it’s true here. The shove in the back you get when you hit the gas is consistent right up the rev range, just like the old engine, but slightly better. Also present and accounted for is a meaty exhaust burble that would otherwise be too loud for a luxury SUV, but the G-Wagen does nothing subtly.
The other change you’ll notice if you look for it is in ride quality. In Comfort, the optional adaptive dampers seem to ride about the same as the old G-Wagen but with a bit better body control. Switching to Sport is hardly revelatory, as the ride becomes slightly firmer and the body rolls ever so slightly less. For just $1,400 USD (on a $119,000 USD truck), you might as well enjoy the freedom to choose your ride quality.
Otherwise, it still drives like a G-Wagen. The recirculating ball steering is loose and enjoys chasing pavement grooves. It has no on-center point, so even driving in a straight line requires constant tiny corrections, which has the added benefit of keeping you focused on driving and not your phone. The G-Wagen is heavy, and it feels heavy with every input: speeding up, slowing down, or turning. The high seating position magnifies the body roll, making you think it might tip over if you turn too hard, only to realize that the tires aren’t even squealing, much less leaving the ground. Learn to trust it, and you can drive the G-Wagen surprisingly quickly. You know, if traffic on Rodeo Drive is light.
Part of the G-Wagen’s mountain-crushing weight is all the sound-deadening material they’ve crammed into it over the years. Thanks to that it’s actually pretty comfortable and quiet inside despite the big tires, truck frame, and barn-inspired aerodynamic profile. The leather is absurdly rich for the vehicle, the seats are comfortable and supportive, and the optional carbon-fiber trim is a daily dose of irony for the low price of just $2,650 USD (again, $119,000 USD starting price).
In a world that often takes the concept of planned obsolescence much too far, the G-Wagen is antithetical. If there’s anything our throwaway culture has taught us, though, it’s to appreciate things that are built to last. The G-Wagen doesn’t change dramatically, because it doesn’t have to. Rembrandt didn’t change his style to fit in with the other Baroque painters, because he didn’t have to, either. Both enjoyed critical and commercial success. In a world where the G-Wagen makes no sense, Mercedes will sell every one it can build. Just like it always does.