The Mercedes G-Wagon is going electric. We had the first test drive

We may have Arnold Schwarzenegger to thank for the electric Mercedes-Benz G-Class, colloquially known as the G-Wagon.

In 2018, on stage in front of hundreds of reporters at the debut of the V8 G-Class in Detroit, Schwarzenegger pressed Dieter Zetsche, then head of Mercedes-Benz, to make a battery version of the SUV being manufactured in Graz, Austria, near Schwarzenegger’s hometown. Wearing a black cowboy hat and his signature walrus mustache, Zetsche agreed—although the brass at Mercedes had not thoroughly discussed it.   

“I was actually looking at one of my guys and said, ‘Do we have a product plan for this?’” Ola Källenius, current chief executive officer of Mercedes, tells me with a laugh on Oct. 9.  He and I are in Austria, preparing to test drive the new electric G-Wagon on Schöckl Mountain, the proving ground on which all G-Wagons are tested. Källenius, a towering Swede, headed research and development at the time of Schwarzenegger’s bold provocation. “The answer was, ‘I guess we have one now!’” Källenius recalls.

Five years later, I’m about to become the first American not employed by Mercedes to drive it.  

Wrapped in camouflage that declares its pre-production status, the towering rig carries all the signature elements of the Geländewagen first commissioned by the Shah of Iran in 1979: a body shaped like a brick; round headlights that glower like owl eyes; 22-inch wheels that can stomp up a staircase; and a stance high enough to clear rivers and boulders. 

But with a powerful electric motor positioned at each wheel, instant torque, a silent ride and advanced software capable of reading rough terrain, the new electric G-Wagon is in many ways even better suited to off-road driving than its internal-combustion sibling is. If Mercedes can beat the challenges that have recently stifled G-Class production, I predict the new electric G will captivate brand loyalists and new fans alike. 

Electric Behind the Wheel

After criss-crossing Schöckl with Källenius at the wheel, I drive the electric G-Wagon myself at a nearby Mercedes testing ground that includes obstacles of gargantuan proportions: mud hills three stories tall; concrete inclines as steep as black diamond ski runs; and a wooded section of rocky trails, bogs and undulating dirt paths. Wild pheasants dart in and out of sight. 

I drive fast over gravel, dodging rocks that jut out of dirt so thick it looks like clay. I twist the steering wheel, trying to make it bobble as I push forward—no such luck. As in other EVs, its batteries are stored flat along the floor of the vehicle, so the electric G-Wagon has a lower center of gravity than other Gs, making it even more balanced than its internal combustion counterpart. It grips the trail as if it were running on pavement rather than uneven terrain. 

On a straightaway through the pines where the path was packed hard, I press the accelerator and the vehicle lunges ahead like a linebacker. When I stomp on the brakes, it halts, showing good balance for a beast of its size. (No word yet on its overall weight, though I expect it will undercut the 9,000-plus pound GM Hummer EV.) Mercedes won’t say how long it takes to charge the battery, but Källenius says the regeneration ability of the brakes, especially as the rig moves downhill, will recoup enough energy to make it competitive with other electric vehicles on the road. (They, too, regenerate energy via braking.)

Mercedes’s square-cut diamond speeds up hills so steep I can’t see over the hood. It never slides or loses control rolling downhill. It never bottoms out, never scrapes its nose nudging back onto a flat surface. Its capabilities approximate those of the existing G: a 30-degree departure angle and 31-degree angle of approach, with a 26-degree breakover angle and nearly 10 inches of ground clearance. The G handles this off-piste terrain as naturally as a retriever handles water. I especially love that it does everything silently. I can hear those pheasants as they fly out of the underbrush, and actually see wild hares darting along our path. The noise from a conventional G Wagon would have frightened any critters within a mile. 

Apart from a roofline modified so subtly I can’t see it myself—apparently, a slight slope has been added in the rear to help with efficiencies—the electric G is indistinguishable from its conventional sibling’s exterior. Don’t expect the interior setup to differ much, either, but you’ll probably still enjoy the high-res dual 12.3-inch touchscreen displays and intuitive touch controls on the steering wheel, which command everything from audio and climate to navigation and entertainment.

The G Wagon does have a unique party trick; a special positioning gimmick is a must-have for new electric SUVs these days. (To wit, the crabwalk of the electric Hummer and the valet mode of the electric Cadillac Escalade.) Mercedes calls its own trick the “G Turn.” It’s a setting that, when you push a button, will quickly spin the G Wagon around by 360 degrees without moving it significantly forward or backward.

Källenius does this in a flash in a sunny clearing up on Schöckl. It seems useful for getting out of tight spaces should you need to reverse course.  

When I said the electric G will do stairs, I meant that literally. Late in the day, after I’ve driven it, a Mercedes engineer indicates some nearby concrete steps to show me how easily this can be achieved. The feat is effortless on everything but my abs; after clenching them so much during the bone-rattling ride, I’m sure they’re closer to washboard tight.

Not that you’d ever dream of driving your G up, say, the steps at Montmartre in Paris. Or use that G Turn trick for cutting donuts on someone else’s lawn. The important thing is that you know you could do those things, if you wanted to. 

I feel smug knowing this. After a day in the electric G Wagon, seated both as passenger seat and driver, I eagerly anticipate its arrival in the market next year. Pricing (and the official name) will be announced in 2024. Sign me up for the instant acceleration, grounded performance and silent ride that lets the sounds and smells of nature soak in, unadulterated by the oily roar of internal combustion. Arnold, you’re going to love it. 

Boxy Status Symbol

I’m sure Arnie will get an electric G; my fear is that the rest of us will be harder pressed. Few vehicles inspire the devotion of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. With an average price of $150,000, it’s an unapologetic status symbol flaunted by athletes, reality stars, off-road enthusiasts—and every other resident of Beverly Hills. Even the Pope had one. 

Search for #gwagon on Instagram, and you get more than 1 million results; #gwagen, an alternate spelling used by aficionados, returns an additional 216,000. Källenius calls it “a religion,” but owning a G could be more like joining an expensive cult: You get into the one that best reflects your worldview. It can come with six wheels, with snorkels and roof racks, or jacked up so high it doesn’t fit in parking garages. You can  get one blacked-out like the night or one that’s been split open in the rear for fresh-air cruising. It’s been immortalized in 45 tons of amber resin and spawned cartoon-like metallic concepts with Moncler. 

“It got a little bit unhealthy,” Källenius says of 2022; as waiting lists exceeded two years, Mercedes stopped taking new orders. The company has resumed sales, and he says it’s ready for the influx of EVs to add to its 40,000-a-year capacity at Magna Steyr, the G-Wagon factory in Graz. 

“We have looked at what are the technical bottlenecks in the body shop,” he says. “We have a plan to be able to turn up the capacity.” (He declined to confirm whether the plan involves adding a shift to the two that already run five days weekly at Magna.)

It’s a lot for a taxed production line. Still, Källenius is adamant that going electric—especially with the company’s crown jewel—is a non-negotiable commitment. Mercedes is spending more than $47 billion to electrify its entire product range this decade; a smaller, electric “Baby G” will arrive in a few years. “We’re past the phase of the early adopters,” he says. “Now we need to go into mass adoption.” 

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