Mercedes G-class lights up Michigan Theater ruin

Henry Payne


Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler A.G. and head of Mercedes Benz Cars, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor and former California governor, wear cowboy hats and  introduce the Mercedes Benz G-Class at the former Michigan Theater in Detroit on Sunday, January 14, 2018.

The Mercedes-Benz G-class, the godfather of the brand’s booming SUV lineup, debuted in Detroit 's decrepit Michigan Theater as an all-new, 2019 model.


The contrast between the iconic, shiny Mercedes and one of Motown's most famous "ruin porn" sites - a reminder of the city's storied cultural past - was intentional. "Unlike the G-class, the theater didn't last," said Mercedes Cars chief and Daimler chairman CEO Dieter Zetsche, referencing over three decades of G-class production that have made it one of Daimler's most enduring models. "(The G-class) has always adapted and evolved."

Evolution is a relative term. The rugged Benz looks its familiar homely, boxy self with three differentials, body-on-frame chassis, and a gas-guzzling, twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V-8 under the hood.

But like Jeep’s Wrangler, the Mercedes gets 21st-century technical upgrades under the skin, while retaining its stubbled iconic ruggedness.


The truck’s toughness has made it a status symbol among the upper crust even as its owners rarely take it farther off-road than the club polo field. So the $120,000-plus G-class has gained a more on-road-friendly independent front suspension (its rear is still a solid axle), standard LED headlights and quicker 9-speed transmission.

One of its most avid upper-crust celebrity owners is Arnold Schwarzenegger - body-builder, actor, politician - who joined Zetsche on stage to introduce the latest "Gelandewagen" as it's called in Europe. Indeed, Schwarzenegger and G-class were born in the same town in Austria, Graz, 32 years apart. 

"G-wagen and me are the true twins," said Arnold in reference to the movie "Twins" in which he co-starred with tiny Danny DeVito. He then used his own career spanning multiple professions to praise the Merc ute's upgrades on and off-road. 

"This one can do anything and everything. That's what I like about this car."

Hood and doors are made of aluminum as part of a 375-pound diet for better fuel efficiency, but the exterior otherwise changes little with its exposed door-hinges and tailgate-mounted spare tire. A front camera has been added and the classic, upright turn indicators on the front fenders will disappear in a collision in order to avoid pedestrian harm.

Dimensions subtly grow by 2.1 inches in length and 4.8 inches in width to benefit passengers who will enjoy more elbow room with which to ogle the interior’s refinements.

The chrome-studded cockpit gets as an option the same elegant 12.3-inch instrument-and-infotainment display found in the E and C-class sedans. The digital displays are encased under one piece of continuous glass that stretches across the dashboard. Rear seats fold flat for added cargo and both rows get heated seats.


Pampered in sumptuous standard leather seats, drivers get five Dynamic Select modes which – at the touch of a button  – change the characteristics of the engine, transmission, suspension, and steering into Comfort, Sport, Eco and Individual. The fifth “G-mode” automatically kicks in when one of the three locking differentials is activated for maximum off-road performance.

G-mode is a reminder that, for all its new creature comforts, the G-class still had to pass muster on Austria’s grueling 4,741-foot Schöckl mountain peak – Europe’s version of Jeep’s punishing Rubicon trail proving grounds.


Ground clearance and front-and-rear departure angles have all been improved to up the truck’s off-road abilities. The throaty V-8’s 416 horses and 450 pound-feet-of-torque are unchanged – though expect an AMG performance version with more than 600 horsepower later in G’s product cycle.

G-class has been coveted by everyone from the Pope to the Shah of Iran to Schwarzenegger (who has converted his to battery-power for a princely sum of money) and has seen sales increase in the U.S. for the last four years. The new box hits the shelves in late 2018.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.