WHEN ARNOLD Schwarzenegger stepped into the lights at the Michigan Theater Sunday night—the surprise guest at the unveiling of Mercedes-Benz’s redesigned G-Wagen SUV before the 2018 North American International Auto Show—it was one slow-moving dinosaur celebrating another. Originally designed as a military vehicle, the G-Wagen (for Gelande meaning “cross-country”) is the handiwork of trusted subcontractor Magna Steyr, based in Graz, Austria, just an Atlas-stone’s throw from Arnold’s birthplace in Thal. With heavy-duty body-on-frame construction, full-agro 4×4 drivetrain and styling like a stagecoach lockbox, the G-Wagen was and is engineered for extreme off-road ability.
How strange that this uber-tough truck should become the servant of pampered, prideful wealth, beloved by inked-up louts and dead-eyed daddy’s girls from South Beach to Singapore. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Germany’s Hummer. The G-Wagen is fairly representative of Daimler’s transatlantic duality: In Europe, post-Paris accord and post-Dieselgate scandal, German carmakers are under intense social and political pressure to clean up their acts. Messaging from Daimler to European audiences stresses responsibility, sustainability and a bright future of vehicle electrification.
But in the United States, where gasoline is cheap and climate change is a Chinese hoax, Mercedes-Benz isn’t afraid to swagger, and thus the Arnold. The new G 550 is huge—2.1 inches longer and 4.8 inches wider than the outgoing version—and rocks a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 with a conveniently unavailable EPA mileage. The fact is Daimler desperately needs the filthy, frothy profits from North America to invest in next-generation propulsion. So I guess that’s OK.
Like many things in the Age of Trump, the 2018 Detroit show felt a bit surreal. The auto industry is, after all, a global business, and at the moment roughly two-thirds of the globe is pulling in one direction while the U.S. is pulling in another. In Europe, auto makers face spiralling vehicle-emissions standards and much tougher, real-world testing. In China—the world’s largest car market with about 29 million light vehicles sold in 2017—the government has announced a strategic pivot toward vehicle electrification, culminating in an effective ban on internal-combustion vehicles by 2040. By contrast, the Trump administration wants to walk back the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate agreement. Here fuel economy targets aren’t going up; they are dumbing down. The Trump administration effectively suspended, pending review, Obama-era targets for Corporate Average Fuel Economy covering years 2021 to 2025. The automakers complained the targets were unrealistic.