The Mercedes G-Class — a.k.a the Geländewagen, a.k.a. the G-Wagen/Wagon — holds a special place in our heart, up there with vintage Defenders and Broncos. It’s a purposeful creation that follows its own North Star, and we respect that. But it’s been 40 years since the G-Class started raising eyebrows around the world, due to its sharp corners, severe verticality and decidedly anti-luxurious, militaristic disposition. Those qualities, along with its legitimate utility and off-roadability, drew fans around the world, but it was time to nudge the machine into the 21st century, even if just a hair. So Mercedes went back to the drawing board, made a variety of measured modifications to its iconic exterior and more essential enhancements underneath — and rebirthed the legend.

The Good: The core goodness, of course, rests in the improved off-road handling in both models, the G 550 and the performance-enhanced AMG G 63. Engineers retained the ladder-type frame and the three 100-percent differential locks, deeming them essential to its off-road character, but reworked the suspension and front axle to provide greater stability and crawlability, and also modernized the steering with an electromechanical system over the old recirculating ball design. They also gave it quite a bit more poise on-road — something the previous G lacked. Finally, the new G-Class is more comfortable inside, with improved seating, visibility and utility — plus, of course, all the tech accouterments that have become de rigeur across all vehicles. It still retains its character, with its unique and immediately recognizable exterior profile, but it’s a more well-rounded machine overall.

Who They’re For: Depends on which model we’re talking about. If it’s the G 550, you’re into sunrises, long runs on the beach, and hard-core off-roading. If it’s the AMG G63, you’ve never actually seen a sunrise, you go to the beach mostly to burn off a hangover and you enjoy blasting past lesser machines on the highway at triple-digit speeds while towering three feet above everyone else. We kid, of course — but the AMG G-Class is more distinct in personality from the G 550 than pretty much any other Mercedes AMG product is from its starting point. The G63 is, to be blunt, a statement vehicle — a fun bit of outrageous excess for people who crave vehicles that reflect their outrageous personalities. It’s okay, Mercedes knows this. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have birthed the six-wheeled AMG 6×6. The G 550? That’s for “normals” — those who want the car either for its utility or for their own vastly dialed-down, but still distinctive, personality preferences. Think Pimpmobile versus Popemobile.

Watch Out For: Wind and road noise. Though the G-Class is indeed a more well-rounded machine, that’s not true at the corners. The company kept those cleanly defined edges as essential to the car’s visual character, the only compromise being an ability to temper wind noise. So even though it is significantly reduced from the car’s predecessor, it’s still very much wind noise present. Tire noise is also dialed way down, but there are still detectable hints of it. So this ain’t no S-Class; but the S-Class ain’t no G, either.

Alternatives: It’s in a class by itself, of course, but the Land Rover Range Rover is the most obvious competition as a luxury SUV, and the new Jeep Wrangler will easily give the G-Class a run for its money off-road. As for which one you’d want to ride into the apocalypse, that’s up to you.

Review: You have to admire a vehicle with as many “signatures” as the G-Class — the details and qualities that designers delete from a new version at their peril. For the G-Class, these include the periscopic turn signals on the front fenders, the visible spare out back, the signature door handles, and even the satisfyingly robust clicking sound when the doors close. All remain in the new version, but they’re presented amid new signatures slyly peppered throughout the vehicle. The front headlights, for instance, now have LED surrounds that give the car a striking visage in the rearview mirrors of cars ahead of it. The front grill has a newly updated and immediately recognizable three-louver design. Coupled with other more nuanced design updates, including a slightly wider stance, the effect remains powerful and aggressive. The look is still as pure as the original’s, but it’s got a lot going on, nonetheless — a cumulative subconscious impact that thoroughly modernizes the classic look.

Performance improvements are notable throughout the G-Class. The ladder frame construction remains, as do the differential locks and low range gear reduction, to enable smoother traversals over tricky terrain. The suspension, though, gets an independent double-wishbone front axle and a rigid rear axle. This adds stability, and the ground clearance boosted a few millimeters to 270mm. Its prowess has been improved overall, with a fording depth of 70cm, which is 10cm more than its predecessor, and it can remain stable at tilt angles of 35 degrees. We tested this out in southern France on the vehicle’s launch, scrambling over the country’s hard-scrabble surface with measured stability and smoothness. The independent suspension makes for a more rigid front end, while a strut tower brace increases torsional rigidity. You don’t “feel” that as much as you see it — see the benefits of a stiffer, more capable crawler.

In both the AMG G 63 and the G 550, drivers can dial in the off-road performance or let the computer manage it, most notably in the new G-Mode. This adapts the adjustable chassis damping, the steering and the throttle behavior to maximize control. It feels precise and supremely controllable in even the more challenging — and treacherous — of skewed angles and weirdly contorted breakovers.

On-road, the same suspension enhancements also help smooth out the ride, creating a more stable feel even at triple-digit speeds. That’s not small feet for a top-heavy brick like this, but I was able to cruise effortlessly down the highway at brisk clips in the AMG G 63 — the extra 169hp, 585 total, make itself known there, while the extra 176 lb-ft of torque help out off-road — without the ever-present edge of worry that you experience in many big SUVs. It’s refreshingly car-like, even if the view up there feels absolutely stratospheric.

It’s safe to say, as well, that the myriad improvements in safety, infotainment and general ease of use — from the more accessible controls to more thoughtfully designed seats — make the G-Class compatible with daily life in a way its predecessor just wasn’t. The displays are gorgeous and comprehensible, the ride less severe, and the seating less an exercise in Cold War reenactment. It’s a vehicle you can actually enjoy while making your chosen statement, rather than merely endure.

Verdict: As a complete ground-up redesign, the new G-Class, AMG or not, is a curiously restrained execution, filled with deft tweaks and enhancements. The company could have easily decided that a 40-year run warranted something completely new and different that echoes its predecessor in name only, but they didn’t. It’s still the G, and this one will easily hold its own for another 40 years. It’s astonishing to contemplate that sort of longevity, and further to imagine what the, say, 2058 redesign might bring. But that’s getting a bit ahead of the curve. We like where we are right now, with this G-Class, and would rather imagine where it could take us than where it might go next.

What Others Are Saying:

• “You’ll still spend roughly $125K for the G 550 and $145K for the G63. Is that a lot of money or a screaming bargain? That depends on whether you see it as merely a luxurious SUV with nostalgic styling or an icon, perfected. I see it as the latter.” — Steve Siler, New York Daily News

• “The world needs the G-Wagen, even if most of them are parked in prominent valet spots at trendy restaurants in West LA. It’s an easy thumbs-up for Mercedes-Benz — for nudging the G in a direction that serves most of its buyers but not degrading the core values that put it so prominently on the automotive map to begin with.” — J.P. Vettraino, AutoWeek

• “For those who seek its rugged capability, it’s far easier to control off road without sacrificing anything in the way of outright prowess. For the on-road boulevard set, it’s significantly nicer to drive at all speeds, not to mention far more luxurious, tech-forward and outright comfortable than before.” — Steven Ewing, CNET

Key Specs: G 550 and AMG G 63

Engine: 4.0-liter V8; 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8
Transmission: nine-speed automatic
Horsepower: 416hp; 585hp
Torque: 450 lb-ft; 626 lb-ft
Weight: 5,355 lbs; 5,643 lbs
Top Speed: 130 mph; 136 mph
0-60: 5.9 seconds; 4.5 seconds
MSRP (base): $123,600

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