Week With a Car is a recurring look into the garage and multiple outdoor parking spots of Sam Smith, R&T's globetrotting editor at large. Expect it to hold magazine test cars, vintage race cars, whatever he's driving that week. The form—everything from road diary to rambling brain dump—varies, but it's always interesting. It doesn't always make sense, but then, that's Smith.
And a special thanks to for the use of the amazing off-road park to really test the G550.—The Editors
THE CAR: 2017 Mercedes-Benz G550 4x4²
4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, 416 hp, 450 lb-ft
$225,925 base price
11/11 mpg EPA
What in sweet unholy Satan-blazes is this?
This, my friends, is the 2017 Mercedes-Benz G550 4x4². It is a lifted, carbon-fibered, portal-axled version of Mercedes-Benz’s venerable G550 SUV. It is available at your local Mercedes-Benz dealer. It carries a warranty; 22-inch wheels; electronically adjustable, remote-reservoir dampers; and three locking differentials. It is the Kool-Aid Man in four-wheeled form. It is a bougie-thunder road cannon simultaneously magnificent and terrible. It is the German equivalent of a Gold’s Gym filled with ‘roid-raging Disney cartoons. It is the king of the sovereign land of Driveoverthatshitenstein. It is Der Spiegel for people who want to know what happened today in the Federal Republic of .
It is also what you build if you are:
- One of the world’s largest carmakers
- Still selling a luxury SUV (the standard G-class) based on a quasi-military vehicle designed in the 1970s
- Fully aware that the development costs and tooling of said luxury vehicle were paid for decades ago
- Fully aware that brand equity and fashion have allowed said luxury vehicle to command a six-figure MSRP in 2018
- Fully aware that most governments regulate trucks and truck-based SUVs far more leniently than they do “normal” automobiles
- Looking to sell something more absurd and costly than the G65—which costs $222,700 and has a V12—because rich folk always want something more absurd and costly than what the rich folk down the block have.
So this is the most bonkers-ridiculous G-wagen that Mercedes has ever built?
Oh, hell no. A thousand times hell no. That would be . Perhaps you remember that truck from Jurassic World, and still seemed preposterously large and violent.
This is basically the 6x6 slightly tamed for normal use. Parking and stuff. Driving into city centers without crushing the errant Volkswagen or Parliament building. Whatever it is that normal, private-island-owning people do.
That looks like an elephant. No, it looks like elephant Voltron. It looks like it was designed for an oligarch.
Mercedes is old and grand and generally the kind of company that does whatever it wants. Half the time, this results in gull-winged sports cars or air brakes at Le Mans in the 1950s or magnesium bodywork or God knows what. The other half, it produces portal axles for public consumption.
What in sweet unholy Satan-blazes is a portal axle?
A . Off-road vehicles live or die on ground clearance. When a carmaker or aftermarket company modifies an existing vehicle for off-road use, they typically raise it. This lets you drive over more things; it also moves vulnerable underbody mechanical bits further from rocks and such.
Lifting a solid-axle vehicle usually involves the use of taller springs and tires. That raises the body a lot, but raises the axles only a little. Portal axles let you raise the body and the axles. A gearset at each hub transfers torque vertically, so the axle itself can sit higher than the centerline of each wheel.
Couldn’t you get close to the same result with an independent suspension—say, long half shafts?
Well, yes. And a lot of people do. But then you still have spinny bits and control arms hanging down. And you lose some of the stone-shovel durability and trail talent you get with a solid axle.
Well, that’s cool. But this thing looks . . . ridiculous.
Consider a few facts: This truck is based on the ordinary G550, which costs $120,000. The standard G550 is unimpressive; the standard G550 fits in parking garages; the standard G550 is driven by Kardashians, heads of state, and other unwashed, unwantable denizens of society.
It is also currently something of a fashion piece. If you are the star of a reality TV show where you and/or a spouse/mother/bestie go in search of the good life/the perfect house/a career in Hollywood/the Joy of Being Becky From WeHo, you are undoubtedly regular-G550 material. If you live in a five-bedroom in Manhattan and prefer that the nanny drive your children to school instead of using—gasp!—the subway, you are regular-G550 material.
If you run an off-road desert tour company, you are probably G550 4x4² material, and would genuinely appreciate the durability of said vehicle. But you won’t spend for one, not in a million years, because that would be absurd. (You will instead buy some kind of Toyota product, because that makes way more sense.)
However: If you run a Planet Fitness in Oklahoma City and made your first million operating a chain of tanning salons? If you have ever visited Las Vegas and decided to buy a condo there in order to bro-host your bro-partying more bro-ficiently? If you regularly wear tank tops in public and regret that you have but one set of nipples to tattoo for your country?
You almost certainly cannot use a G550 4x4² as its makers intended, but you will buy one anyway. And vaya con Dios, you beautiful flower.
In other words, ridiculous is pretty much the point.
What if I’m just looking for the best off-road vehicle in the world? Is this it?
I don’t know. We only test so many off-road trucks around here; I suspect a modified Jeep Wrangler would be a better device for slickrock and general trail crawling, and a Baja pre-runner would be of greater use in the desert.
But who knows? Off-road vehicles are like motorcycles; if you’re thinking about a purchase logically, you’re doing it wrong. And really, who cares about use case when you’re trying to find something that tents the proverbial pants? Maybe you’ll look at the 6x6—basically a G550 4x4² with an extra axle—and think to yourself, “Self, that’s just silly.” And you will go for the more reasonable, mature option, which is, of course, that same truck with a touch more practicality. A standard-ish G-wagen body over two portal axles, instead of three.
I don’t understand this thing.
Of course you don’t. I don’t really, either. Who does? Who understands a $225,000, factory-built off-road German pimpytruck with relatively fragile carbon-fiber fender extensions? Who understands the sky, the sea, the Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to appreciate the strange and obnoxious things given to us in this world, with all their quirks. Also to borrow the G550 4x4² press truck from Mercedes-Benz North America, take it to an off-road course in upstate New York, and jump the ever-loving crap out of it.
You jumped it?
Of course we jumped it.
I just assumed that was some hand-out Mercedes press photo. Not something you actually did.
Oh, no. That’s me and this website’s deputy editor/resident off-road nerd, Bob Sorokanich. Or rather, some of it is me and Bob. The big jump shot at the top of this page, where the truck is at full droop, is a Bob and a man named Chris Duplessis. Chris is a four-time , a former instructor at , and the current . We spent the day at Monticello’s wonderful, 300-acre off-road course, climbing hills almost too steep to walk up and burying the truck in frozen ponds.
But the jumping was the best part. In addition to being an exceptionally chill dude, Chris got more air under the G-wagen than I did. I tried a couple of times; we flew. Chris flew higher on his first try, probably because he is Chris.
How did that thing fly? And land?
Like the Queen Mary, with gobs of tire and suspension travel. Alignment didn’t budge, though. On the way back into New York City after, that mother tracked down the highway, pin-straight, at 85 mph.
Was it fun?
We spent a day driving driving through the proverbial river and over the woods. Bob sat right seat for me, instructing, and said half-sensical things like, “you wanna balance it on that traction point.” Duplessis led the way in a Land Rover Discovery that seemed invincible. We may or may not have come close to tippling the 4x4² onto its door handles, and we spent about ten minutes with the truck parked in a stream, dicking around. We followed the Discovery over four-inch-thick ice that covered a shallow pond.
The Land Rover, which weighed more than 4000 pounds, did not break that ice. The Mercedes, which weighs about 2000 pounds more than the Landie, shattered the ice like it was a joke. We laughed.
Short answer: Yes.
The point of all this?
Testing. Also, yet another of this magazine’s occasional dips into the world of precision off-roading. Slow off-road driving is like working with your largest kitchen knife: You almost always have more power than you need, so the key is figuring out how and where to apply it. Using large machines in delicate fashion, in the interest of going somewhere ordinary vehicles cannot.
The point was also to park us in a river and let me stand on the seats, torso through the sunroof, barking orders like Erwin Rommel.
I’m pretty sure Bob rolled his eyes into the back of his head when I did that.
What did Bob think of it? Or any of the other R&T people there?
You’re in luck! I asked him. I emailed Bob and asked him for thoughts on the truck. This is what he said:
The thing looks exactly how every G-wagen feels. It’s weird to think about, but the regular G really isn’t that huge—its footprint is almost identical to that of a current Jeep Cherokee. A new Camry is nine inches longer than a G. But because the Benz was styled with a plumb bob, it has this psychological massiveness to it. So the 4x4²’s four-foot seating position and choo-choo-train wheels feel logical. They make the truck as big as you always assumed it must’ve been.
I was amazed that all that altitude and tire didn't ruin the way it drives. It feels almost exactly like a standard G-wagen on the road—the added track width seems to nearly equal out the increase in height. Same for the steering, which is as bad as ever. Drivers under 40 will think the steering is broken. My mother, who drove solid-axle Jeeps her entire parental career, would find it immediately familiar.
The insides of the wheels are almost precisely lined up with the outer edges of the body. If you took the carbon-fiber flares off the fenders, the wheels would be completely outside the truck. Think of how ridiculous that is! The only time you see that is on really radically overbuilt Jeep Wranglers. And this thing came from the factory that way!
You generally feel like you’re driving a big-rig, in part because you’re just about at eye level with most day-cab drivers. The windshield visor helps that sensation—especially at night, when the yellow cab lights reflect off the hood and make you feel like you’re hauling 40,000 pounds of bananas, through the night, to Boise.
It takes a minute to get used to off-road. You don’t have a good marker of where your fenders are, and it’s weird trying to place a tire that’s sitting completely outside the envelope of the body. But with all that clearance, the thing just never scrapes. My entire off-roading career has been spent in fear of bashing a rocker panel or gutting a transmission pan. It’s given me a conservative, tenuous driving style, all mirrors and craning neck and cranking at the wheel. If you look under the 4x4², there’s nothing hanging down. Jeep builders spend thousands doing “tummy tuck” mods, raising the whole drivetrain up above the frame rails and slapping a giant flat skid plate underneath. This thing comes fully tucked from the factory.
It’s the kind of truck you want to show to your favorite bartender. The night after we got back from Monticello, I gave up a perfectly good parking spot right outside my building to do exactly that. My guy wasn’t working that night. I stayed and drank anyway.
Then I emailed Travis Okulski, R&T’s digital director. He said this:
When I was in middle school, instead of doing work, I’d doodle cars in my notebook. All of them had impossible dimensions: Wheels too big, ride height too low or too high, no overhangs. This is the truck I would draw. It’s more cartoon than car. But it exists.
The amazing thing is that it’s no worse to drive on the road than a regular G-wagen. Steering, braking, acceleration and handling all feel similar to a standard G. It’s still short in length, so it fits in basically any street parking space, but it can’t go into parking garages and is legally restricted from certain bridges.
It also doesn’t seem to draw any negative attention. Especially when it’s covered in mud. People point, they laugh, they take photos, they smile. It's fun.
I’m famously a wuss off-road, but the G is deeply impressive, even with 22-inch wheels and street tires. Nothing could stop it, not even my inexperience and general ineptitude. This is the sort of truck that’s perfect and useful for very particular people—like the CEO of a logging company, someone who needs to get to job sites off the beaten path. If it's bought by people in Beverly Hills who want to have a bigger G-wagen than their neighbors and only take it off-road by accident, it should be immediately taken away. There should be a requirement in the purchase agreement that it be taken off-road at least once a month.
Finally, I emailed Dave Burnett, our photographer for the day. I’m going to let Dave close this out:
A dinosaur. Peak dinosaur. Huge, ungainly, absurdly powerful. The last of its breed. A fully grown Brontosaurus, just as the comet is heading for earth. It looks like Paul Bunyan's kid's Power Wheels. It's mildly uncomfortable to be in at all times. From inside, Jeep Cherokees seem pathetically small.
It's a powerlifting bro truck. It looks like a truck that would play beer pong. I didn't want to get into it. Then I kind of didn't want to get out of it.