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Auto review: The 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class exudes a muscular, practical urbanity

Given that smartphones or any number of digital personal assistants can tell you the time, the idea of wearing a wristwatch seems anachronistic. Yet, it’s a classic — if handy — bit of jewelry that many find hard to resist.

Consider the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. The watch dates to 1930 and was designed to solve a particularly vexing if uncommon problem. It seems that British Army officers kept damaging their watches while playing polo, and they wanted a design that could stand up to the rigors of the game. The result was a watch that flips over, so that the glass faces your wrist, exposing the stainless steel back plate to withstand the beating from polo balls and mallets.

It’s not the watch’s function that attractive; it’s the timeless art deco appearance. Still made today, its agelessness derives from its decades of continuous production with minimal change.

There are cars that possess this same characteristic, most notably the 2019 Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

The G stands for Gelaendewagen, German for “cross country vehicle.” Originally designed in 1973 for use by the German army to patrol borders, its boxy shape reached production in 1979, just in time for the second OPEC oil embargo. Still, it wasn’t until 2002 that it became available in the United States, by which point it had been in production for 23 years.

Now there’s a new version, and while there are changes, they are aimed at rejuvenation, not revision.

Its design remains much as before, softened but still with the instantly recognizable look of an automotive brick. It still employs body-on-frame construction using a ladder-type chassis. Its doors are tough to fully close unless you slam them with all of your upper body strength. Their handles have a unique design and are placed low on the body relative to its overall height. Its spare tire is still mounted on the rear tailgate, which also requires some muscle to open. The front marker lights are perched atop the front fenders. Door hinges are still exposed.

Yet this new vehicle is 2.1 inches longer and 4.8 inches wider than the one it replaces, so once you are inside it’s not as cramped as before. There’s an additional 1.5 inches of legroom up front, and 5.9 inches more in the rear.

The G550 driver sits high in the saddle, with a roof tall enough to fit the Kaiser’s pointed helmet without brushing the headliner. It has the Mercedes bank vault feel when you slam the doors  and its off-road capabilities are incredible. Thanks to three 100 percent differential locks, a low range off-road gear, 9.5 inches of ground clearance, and a fording depth of 27.5 inches, the G-Class can safely transport you to places where civilization has yet to appear.

The G550’s 4.0-liter V-8 carries over from the previous model, producing 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque through a nine-speed automatic transmission. 4Matic four-wheel drive is standard and uses a 40 percent front, 60 percent rear torque split. Electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering is now fitted and imparts a far more pleasing driving experience. This vehicle is built for tough tasks, not fuel efficiency — although the toughest task it faces is looking good while its valet parked at Neiman Marcus.

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 4Matic

Base price: $124,500

Power: 4.0-liter V8 with 416 hp

EPA fuel economy: 13 mpg city/17highway

Fuel required: Premium

Towing capacity: 7,700 pounds

Bottom line: Off-road art deco

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