First Drive: The All-Electric Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen Is a Jouncy, Unruly Ride Even at Low Speeds

I wanted to love the Mercedes-Benz G 580, the first battery-powered addition to the German marque’s classically rectilinear G-Class family of SUVs. This is a category to which—as the owner of a 1990 Range Rover Classic, and the former owner of a pair of 1980s Jeep Grand Wagoneers—I’ve long been attracted. Yet I found that, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t marshal sincere adoration.

As a fully electric vehicle, the G 580 attempts to “solve” for one of the model’s core shortcomings: its obvious and unslakable thirst for petroleum. But as a 579 hp, nearly 7,000-pound chunk of planetary resources, it’s about as green as a vinyl redwood, and also far more likely to become a deathly cudgel if crashed.

Driving the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580, shown here in the color Desert Sand.
Driving the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580, shown here in the color Desert Sand.

With an EPA-estimated 240 miles of range in its most efficient form (smaller 18-inch wheels, foregoing the off-road tires), the electric G is also hardly a model of parsimony, despite a few aerodynamic tweaks that help smooth air over its inherently blocky form. To wit, the same 116 kWh battery pack in the G 580 propels the lower, lighter, and sleeker EQS sedan 100-plus miles further on a single charge. And the G-ROAR soundtrack that’s piped into the cabin whilst driving—mimicking the burble of a traditional gas-powered V-8 engine—undermines one of an EV’s core benefits, a less intrusive in-car auditory experience.

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But perhaps most notably, the G 580’s combination of prodigious mass and elevated height contributes to a sense of unnerving jounciness on the road. At speed—even moderate or low speed, even on relatively smooth surfaces—it can be difficult to control, as it wanders, rebounds, pitches, and rolls like a litter of puppies on a waterbed. This meandering felt even more pronounced once I’d spent time driving the electric G’s updated gas-powered sibling, the 577 hp, V-8-driven G 63 AMG. Any unruly road manners in the G 63 have been banished by an optional, and exclusive, electro-hydraulic suspension, which nearly eliminates pitch, roll, and rebound, and makes the truck feel smooth and planted on every road we drove.

Driving the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580.
Even at moderate or low speeds, the G 580 (seen here in Obsidian Black) exhibits noticeable pitch, roll, and rebound.

“The G 63 driver is the sporty one in the G portfolio,” excuses Michael Schiebe, CEO of Mercedes’ AMG performance sub-brand, when I ask him about the G 580’s unruliness. “Entry customers don’t want to spend so much money for a G, so we kept some features for the higher end of the portfolio.”

Withholding access to this suspension seems illogical, even for the actual “entry-level” G-Class, the $143,000, 416 hp G 550 V8, which we also drove. With around 1,500 pounds less weight than its electric counterpart, the G 550 wobbles on the road only as much as an over-medium egg yolk, but can still use some help in tractability. But with the G 580 expected to cost around the same amount as, if not more than, a $183,000 G 63—a Mercedes spokesperson described the G 580 as “the new flagship” for the model line—Schiebe’s explanation loses any grounding in reality. Engineers told me that there’s nothing preventing Mercedes from making this suspension system available on the electric G. Doing so would remediate a major, and notable, shortcoming in on-road manners.

The interior of an all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580.
The interior features higher-resolution screens in the instrument panel and center console, and camera displays that show what is in front of you and under the car.

The G 580 does gain a few features that improve the nameplate’s already exalted off-road capabilities, though a statistically insignificant proportion of owners will ever take it off pavement. The gas-powered G’s traditional low-range gearing and trio of locking front, rear, and center differentials—mechanical bits that apportion power-train output to the two axles to provide maximum traction in all conditions—have been replaced here by a quartet of individual electric motors. Each one is equipped with a unique two-speed transmission—to deliver proper low-speed thrust—and connected to a microprocessor in order to provide power instantaneously to whatever wheel or wheels most need it. On rubble, mud, or ravines that might challenge some goats, the system works seamlessly, finding grip more effectively than an Olympic rock-climbing crew.

Driving the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580 through water.
The G 580 can wade through water up to 33.5 inches in depth, six inches more than what conventionally powered G-Wagens can handle.

This made zipping up and down the boulder-strewn, rain-soaked, sludgy foothills of the Pyrenees as simple as pressing the Off-Road Crawl button. Aside from occasional throttle and steering inputs, the G 580 figures out the rest, knowing which tires have hold and which are floating in midair. Clever graphics display suspension articulation in real time, and grille-mounted cameras even provide a view of what’s under and beyond the broadly planar hood when steep approach angles provide terrifying visions of nothing but sky.

Given that it lacks the air intakes of its gas-powered siblings—necessary to fuel the combustive explosions that drive those engines—the G 580 can also wade through water six inches deeper than its ICE counterparts (33.5 inches compared to 27.5 inches). I superseded even this depth when traversing a deeply boggy puddle the color and consistency of liquid peanut butter. This is achievable in part due to the impregnable battery casing made of forged aluminum and carbon fiber, a shell that’s so rigid it becomes a structural element of the vehicle’s chassis, replacing three crossbeams in the steel-ladder frame.

A bird's-eye view of an all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580.
The model variant’s “G Turn” functionality enables the vehicle to pirouette on its axis.

The electric G’s other party tricks are even more noteworthy. With the vehicle’s placement in loose terrain, a press of the “G Turn” button while continuously holding either steering-wheel paddle and flooring the accelerator pedal causes the truck to pirouette on its axis, like a three-and-a-half-ton ballerina. This feat is at once entertaining, nauseating, and entirely useless.

The “G Steering” button is slightly more practical, and significantly less stomach-turning. When you depress it and saw hard at the steering wheel, the function locks the inside rear wheel and over-rotates the outside ones, allowing the 15-foot SUV to pivot around tight corners like a Smart FourTwo pulling a handbrake turn. This would be super handy if you’re ever autocrossing in an Amazonian tributary, or trying to pull into a “compact” spot in a flooded Trader Joe’s parking lot.

Driving the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580.
The G 580 is expected to cost around the same amount as, if not more than, the model line’s $183,000 G 63.

These absurdist antics are not a distraction. Like the G 580’s global introduction in April at a star-studded, eight-figure bash in a Beverly Hills park, they’re on brand. This is a vehicle that’s at once a capacious hauler of humans and their physical and emotional baggage, a covetous lifestyle accessory, a wildly competent militaristic transport, and a sheathing insulator from the realities of our ruined world. As with the Rolls-Royce Phantom, it’s unfair, if not borderline paradoxical, to evaluate it purely on the basis of functionality.

Yet since Mercedes is monomaniacal about nailing the details, it’s within our rights to insist that this electric G-Wagen not drive like a 1972 Suburban, another handsomely wallowy SUV once in my personal fleet. The brand has the technology to make the G 580 nearly perfect, but sacrificed that in order to make its guzzly G 63 AMG feel more special. This seems cynical, even for a company peddling a six-figure, 7,000-pound truck as an environmental play.

Click here for more photos of the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580.  

Driving the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580.
Driving the all-electric Mercedes-Benz G 580.

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