Can an Electric G-Wagen Match the Icon? We Went Way Off-Road to Find Out.

The only way to test the first electrified G-Class is to tackle inhospitable terrain, so our correspondent flew to the south of France to do just that

May 16, 2024 6:48 am
Mercedes-Benz G 580 with EQ Technology, the first electric G-Class SUV, also known as the G-Wagen
The electric G-Wagen can ford through 5.9 more inches of water than its gas counterpart.

It had to happen. The Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, the G-Class, that utilitarian-yet-posh outlier that has somehow retained its essence despite 45 years of gentle evolution, is now finally electrified. 

The G-Wagen saw its first inflection point when it morphed from a spartan, diesel-powered work truck with militaristic roots into a gotta-have-it status symbol for the glitterati. As A-listers and one-percenters co-opted the niche, increasingly exotic strains pushed the edge of audacity: landaulets, V12-powered offshoots favored by captains of industry, and million-dollar 6×6 versions made infamous by Dan Bilzerian types littered megalopolises, earning the nameplate a less-than-rosy reputation for unapologetic brutalism. Think: post-Millennial Cybertrucks for the non-Elon set.

Meanwhile, Mercedes has been diverting piles of cash toward electrifying the brand’s lineup of sedans, coupes and SUVs. While the Benz’s egg-shaped EV passenger cars have yielded lackluster sales amidst a larger industry-wide EV flail, the sacred G-Class has finally succumbed to the electric trend — and not a moment too soon. But rather than fully switching the model over to battery power, Mercedes is still offering internal combustion models alongside the EV. Which begs the question: what does the fully electrified, un-catchily named Mercedes-Benz G 580 with EQ Technology offer that its fossil fuel-burning counterparts can’t? 

Mercedes-Benz G 580 with EQ Technology, the first electric G-Class SUV, also known as the G-Wagen
Same iconic G-Wagen looks, same iconic G-Wagen performance?

Still Overbuilt, But in New Ways

A battery-powered Mercedes-Benz G-Class seems anathema to the squared-off model’s brash ethos. As such, the brand took extra care to preserve its capabilities while pushing it into the brave new world of electric propulsion. 

Key to preserving the G-Wagen’s spirit is the truck-based ladder frame. Bolted into the structure via 50 attachment points is a 116-kWh battery, a lithium-ion unit that’s been repackaged from EQS duty. Because the battery acts as a stressed member, the whole structure is considerably stiffer than the internal-combustion version. Protecting the battery from off-road impact is a carbon composite plate that was uniquely engineered for the application. One Mercedes engineer told me that he had a giggle taking a battery expert from a supplier out on a rugged off-road course and watching him panic as they bounced over jagged rocks; the Benz brass was confident the structure would remain unscathed, protecting the battery pack from damage and potential fire. 

Each wheel is powered by an electric motor, for an aggregate of 579 horsepower and 859 lb-ft of torque. The drive units, versions of which are also found in the EQS SUV, are capable of accelerating to 14,400 rpm, and disconnecting from power in 300 milliseconds. Those insane reflexes enable extreme torque vectoring that help the 6,812-lb truck defy its weight. The technology is also responsible for the G-Turn, a social media-friendly party trick wherein the truck spins around itself like a hyperactive tank. More on that later. 

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Interestingly, the electrified G looks virtually identical to its gas-powered equivalent except for its flush front end, which can be optioned with an identical grille to the gas version, and of course the lack of exhaust pipes at the side or rear. A squared-off rear spare wheel housing instead contains charging accessories and takes a slight visual departure, though it can be replaced with an actual spare. The EV also claims near-identical interior volume, save a slightly lower cargo volume due to battery packaging. 

Suspension travel is identical to the gas model, but the electric G-Wagen can ford through 5.9 more inches of water thanks to the fact that it doesn’t require atmosphere for propulsion. Its approach and departure angles of 32 and 30.7 degrees are just slightly off the gas version’s 31 and 30-degree figures, respectively. Just like a gas truck, the EV incorporates a 2:1 gear reduction ratio when set to drive programs like Trail and Rock; engaging Low mode limits speed to 53 mph but opens a world of intelligent crawl functions, while speed-control ascent and descent settings using the left and right paddles to set vehicle speed. 

Mercedes-Benz G 580 with EQ Technology, the first electric G-Class SUV, also known as the G-Wagen
Our writer’s trail covered steep, jagged, uneven terrain with no shortage of sharp rocks and slick surfaces.

Off-Roading in Tire-Puncturing Terrain

My first drive of the Mercedes-Benz G 580 with EQ Technology took me to the south of France to the remote stretches of the Narbonne region. The G-Class has been developed in this area for years, along with testing in Austria, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Mercedes-Benz didn’t play it safe when plotting the course for our test route: the trail would cover steep, jagged, uneven terrain with no shortage of sharp rocks and slick surfaces. We heard about journalists getting tire punctures on earlier waves, bolstering our impression that this wouldn’t be a sanitized or overly curated off-road experience. Game on. 

The route did not disappoint. I had tackled trails in the same region in 2018 when I tested the then-new generation of G-Class, and I can confidently say the electric version performs no less capably — and potentially more capably — than the gas version. Under battery-powered motivation, the electric G-Wagen assumes an entirely different persona in contrast to its rumbly V8-powered predecessor. At low speeds, the sounds of rock and twigs crunching under the tires can be clearly heard. Power is easy to administer to all four wheels as they articulate over the terrain below, and the suspension feels a tad more supple than in its gas-powered counterpart. 

Traversing a 30-inch-deep puddle is an auditory revelation: Three tons of truck fording through water creates a surreal sonic experience, like an abstract aquatic soundscape of eddies, ripples and swirls. There’s also no sinking sensation that water might enter the drivetrain and spoil the fun, as the sealed electric motors are designed to operate underwater.

The so-called off-road crawl function serves as a sort of cruise control for trails, maintaining pace and allowing for optimal energy recuperation on downhills. In fact, the G-Wagen is so efficient at regenerative braking that it could supposedly climb and descend the infamous Schöckl mountain where it was developed in Austria 14 times on a single charge, which would take more than a day to do. And then there’s the aforementioned G-Turn function, which can be set to one of two modes via a dash-mounted toggle switch: one which enables the look-at-me-I’m-spinning-in-place maneuver, while another is purely functional. By locking the inside rear wheel and overpowering the outer wheel, the G-Class can slide its way around tight corners at low speeds, practically pivoting around its own axis to round a corner.

Mercedes-Benz G 580 with EQ Technology, the first electric G-Class SUV, also known as the G-Wagen
Mercedes-Benz expects an EPA rating of 240 miles of range.

“The Aerodynamic Efficiency of a Bank Vault”

Mercedes-Benz says the electric G 580 can accelerate to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, which is hardly groundbreaking in this age of hyper-powerful, ultra-quick EVs. But if you’re seeking racecar performance from the iconic G-Wagen shape, you’re missing the point. As one Mercedes exec pointed out rather frankly, this boxy SUV has the aerodynamic efficiency of a bank vault. It also happens to feel like one when the doors are shut, an action which requires quite a bit of force that most might not be accustomed to. That upright proportion is also responsible for the drag that limits range to 293 miles on the WLTP cycle, which should work out to around 240 miles stateside using the EPA standard, making it less roadtrip-friendly than its internal-combustion stablemates. 

That said, the electric G performs solidly on-road, offering a quiet, stable ride that accelerates briskly enough, though not quite as, ahem, ludicrously as some others. Though somewhat numb steering seems to be part and parcel with the general G-Wagen experience, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more feel at the wheel. 

Mercedes-Benz G 580 with EQ Technology, the first electric G-Class SUV, also known as the G-Wagen
The new electrified G-Wagen succeeds because it stirs desire like virtually no other battery-powered vehicle available today

A G for the Ages

Even though electrification feels anachronistic against the G’s legacy silhouette and all the inefficient, wind-battling aerodynamics it entails, if you’re chasing neck-straining acceleration or bladder-busting range, the new electrified G-Class probably isn’t for you. If you obsess over “regular car” metrics and favor left-brain priorities, you also will find little reason in the ever-boxy, ultra-premium G 580 with EQ Technology, which will start somewhere in the $180,000 range when it reaches our shores later this year. 

However, the electric G hits a sweet spot for a particular kind of enthusiast, the sort who values rugged and chic unflappability as much as legacy design and iconic intangibles. Unmistakable in its intent and overachieving in its capability — especially off-road — the new electrified G-Wagen succeeds because it stirs desire like virtually no other battery-powered vehicle available today. Other EVs should be so lucky.

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