Riotous assembly - taking on the awesome G63

The oldest, perhaps most outrageous, and definitely most angular offer in the AMG armoury is the G63. With the new seemingly set to be a clone of the old, we took opportunity to try the original recipe.

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HI… and bye. Or as the maker would put it: “Hallo und tschuss.”

That’s the tenor of this experience. After all these years, I’ve finally wangled prime seat time in the brashest Benz on Earth. Just in time to farewell it.

After 40 years in production, the mighty G-Class – the big chunky that was born the G-Wagen – is at last to be replaced. You’ll see its successor at this week's Detroit motor show. You’ll also see much the same in style, sizzle and stonking awesomeness as what Benz provided until now.

With this transition imminent, it’s timely to reflect on the G’s place in history. If the world’s oldest car brand is surprised that this party has lasted as long as it has, then it must be incredulous about the path it has taken. The original reason for being, after all, was simply to serve the German Army’s requirement for a runabout rugged enough to survive battlefield conditions in an era when the term bombproof was measured in megatonnes. How ironic it only became truly explosive after AMG laid hands on it.

Success is measured not by output. This year the plant in Graz, Austria, bashed out its 300,000th. That's over a lifetime. They do more C-Class sedans in a single year. Yet that doesn't matter. The G remains invaluable to the Stuttgart cause because it's a survivor, in every sense. Also, there's deep pride that Germany makes nothing tougher. There’s hand-on-heart testimony from up high within the brand that the G’s incredible longevity was a key spur for the decision to development the impending X-Class one tonne utility.

The G63 AMG is a concept that takes the ‘extreme machine’ ideal in a direction that, even today, is jaw-dropping to contemplate. The whole idea of taking a totally blunt, extra-hard off-road hammer designed not simply to go off road but to trek through places where no road could ever be built and turn it into a fast lane, fashionable spear seems downright ridiculous, right?

And yet, as patently laughable as this specific model must be to those who think in squares, you find yourself laughing with it.  Functionality? F-that! It’s the level of sheer outrageousness that also ultimately makes it huge endearing, not least if you happen to have a ‘thing’ about old-style off-roaders to start with. That’s me.

There’s no doubt that the 80-Series Land Cruiser (still going strong) and Land Rover Defender (rest in peace) guided Benz’s design and development hand when the orthodox G-wagen (as it was then) was drawn up. Equally, though, there’s every reason to believe neither of those similarly-shaped old codgers were of comparative use when creating the Ramstein rig I  drove during a visit to Melbourne.

The sheer boldness of the Affalterbach exercise hit home when I rocked up at Benz Australia’s national headquarters’ lockup.

I tend to think of the G in the same way that I do AMG’s first biggie, the famous ‘Red Pig’. You don't know it? This was the 1971 300 SEL limo whose transformation into very successful race car (simply on the strength on it having a 6.8 litre engine) ultimately got Benz together with AMG. In a visual and engineering sense, the G63 seems to be of the same ilk as that ground-breaker, particularly in respect to its in-your-face visual audaciousness.

The standard G is an imposing model in its own right, no argument, but is a wallflower compared with the AMG. As I was to discover time over during my drive, age has not diminished this machine’s ability to gobsmack.

Well, no wonder. It’s loud in every sense. AMG thinking appears to go this: Since placing a 5.5-litre V8 outputting a not-so-shoddy 420kW and 760Nm into this model’s brick-shaped nose demanded a fair few changes to the bodywork anyway, why not simply go the whole hog?

Thus it sports huge, square air intakes on the front bumper, wheelarch extensions, takes 20-inch rims and even a sports exhaust, which sticks pairs of pipes out under each side of the car just in front of the rear wheel.

It’s an exercise in extreme excess that could only be further emboldened were it to be covered in gold and given an extra set of rear wheels. Both of which have, of course happened (the latter project finding favour with Middle Eastern royalty though the programme actually started through a request from the Australian army).

The reborn W464 will have new engines, more safety aides and, not least, a contemporary aluminium construction (though it keeps a ladder frame chassis). Yet even though Benz swears just three external fixings transfer from what I'm driving – the nozzle of headlight washer, the door handles and the cover for the (still rear door-mounted) spare wheel – appearance-wise the incoming and outgoing models square up, so much so that the new has the same 0.54 drag coefficient.

Speaking of. It’s time to push some air. As I expected, driving this thing was something of a vintage experience, but were some surprises.

Presumption that I knew exactly what I was getting into truly dissipated when I hefted myself (yes, even for one over 1.8 metres in height, it’s still a clamber) into the cabin.

If this were a Defender or 80-Series Cruiser, you’d be time-travelling back to the Stone Age. Not so the AMG. Even though it keeps a design layout most Mercedes cars have moved on from, there is little at all ancient. The plushness and technology spread is very decent. 

For sure, it’s perfectly fair to argue that any vehicle leaving just $100 change from $254,000 SHOULD be well-appointed and seamless in its build. Yet it’s also only fair to point out that for fit and finish and presentation, it doesn’t particularly short change and is clearly too good for muddy boots and manure-coated clothes.

All the surfaces you see that would be logically painted in other vehicles of this class are at the very least covered in nice textured plastics, if not materials of even higher quality. The AMG instruments are cool and though the COMAND system runs via a mini iPad stuck on the dash rather than an inset screen as per the latest cars, it accepts Apple CarPlay. The Harman Kardon surround sound stereo seems awfully excessive for a mud-plugger, but is actually a necessity; you need something this powerful to overcome the wind, road and mechanical noise when on the move. One of the driving days was, then, the hottest on record for December – I saw 40.5 degrees C on the in-car display – so I was grateful for the air con also being of excellent efficiency.

The driving position takes cues from Merc's truck division. They say the next will be more car-like, to give greater sense of sitting ‘in’ than ‘on’. I don't mind what you get now; you sit imperiously tall of course, but you also comfortably because, while it still asks for a right elbow to be rested on the window ledge (which isn’t quite wide enough) as others of its ilk do, it at least has enough space to allow for a straight driving position. It’s not cramped, either. Defender drivers who have been quite literally bent out of shape by suffering one of the most awkward seat-steering wheel juxtapositions ever created will be astounded.

That’s as modern as it gets. Even though the quality of Benz engineering makes it a better than average vintage experience, you are certainly rolling back the years. A driver’s door that closes, as a colleague put it, with “the sort of authority of a prison cell gate” sets the scene for an equally heavily-weighted driving experience.

But it’s still a blast as you rock down the road. Big engine, big size, big footprint and thunderous big drama. The test example’s UN-style white paintjob didn’t lessen at all impression of this being an outright blackhearted phwoar machine, not least once a prod of the remote start button induced the engine to blare bombastically into roaring life. Some might call it schlock, but you cannot deny the awe.

You hit the road looking over the square bonnet and between those wing-mounted indicators that have survived since day dot; and from that moment on you’re aware how blighted it is by blind spots. I was triple-checking the big door mirrors before every lane change and if it weren’t for the reversing camera, would potentially not have risked reverse parking. The next model is said to have a 360deg camera, ostensibly for safer manoeuvring in tight off-road conditions. You’ll be thankful for it on urban expeditions.

You’re going to think me pretty soft for steering clear of the bush and instead keeping my trekking almost wholly to tarmac, with a trip on day one to the Royal Australian Air Force museum at Point Cook (hey, how many car nuts are not also plane spotters and this place has so MUCH cool stuff?) and next day to Phillip Island circuit a favourite AMG hangout (though that counted for nothing when I sought permission to park near the track for a photo), plus an evening run into the big city.

Let’s face it, whatever you do with this big thing it’s going to demand compromise. While it has the nous for off-roading, it probably has the wrong engine and definitely has the wrong footwear. 

So, really, you’re left with something that is, more than anything, an exercise in bigtime vanity, something to show off in all the swank spots, though really, that’s not the full answer either.

The kind of challenges thrown up by the urban jungle expressed with particular rigours when heading downtown for dinner. Negotiating the gridlock of Melbourne’s motorway system then into the Lilliputian suburb to catch up at the admittedly brilliant eatery my nieces and their partners chose was a full-workout, not least when the wing mirrors were passing ABOVE parked cars on the final stretch.

Gotta say the big beast looked every bit as uber-cool in parallel parked repose outside that Richmond noodle spot as any of the exotic European street sharks that were cruising through. Clearly, even after all these years on the scene, the G remains an excellent choice of vehicle to make one.

Get outta town, right? Well, yeah, I did that too and it still felt big. And bulky. And brash. As will the next, I’m sure, despite talk of a 160kg weight loss. The bigger impact of eschewing the mostly steel-bodied model for a more intensive alloy construct will come from benefit to torsional rigidity – Benz cites a 30 percent improvement. The old G feels incredibly solid already. 

Do you buy for dynamics? Of course not, and just as well. It’s fair to say the Spiderman line about great power requiring great responsibility doesn’t translate well into German. Yes, it is more agile than its massive height and weight would have you believe. And the grip IS impressive. But you don’t have to play too hard to sense that purposeful down the straights will be offset by porpoiseful around the bendy bits.

There’s also the steering. When this G departs, the only Benz models still with a recirculating ball steering will be buses and trucks. Recirculating ball is great for off-roading, but the switch to electromechanical will be beneficial to on-road behaviour. In the outgoing vehicle, when running zestily on winding roads, you potentially have two ways to learn about the trademark ‘pause before effect’ trait. One might end in the roadside scenery. The other with wet pants.

Mercedes-Benz's twin shock and spring set up allows a variable ride choice on the suspension, with a switch in the cabin for Sport or Comfort. Choose Sport and the ride deteriorates-rates-rates, so Comfort is the best compromise.

Engine-wise, the new G63 goes the same route as all AMG cars have already taken, with adoption of the 4.0-litre twin turbo V8. A good move. More power and torque and a better … well, slightly less dire … economy and also, from experience of it in the AMG car line, nicely-done sound and sizzle.

All the same, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness knowing this G was providing the very last chance to sit behind the famous 5.5-litre. Yes, it's a dirty bird. But is also very charismatic, walloping and furiously loud with acceleration that is ridiculous and rambunctious. The turbochargers add a sci-fi movie whoosh to the engine’s rumble, giving the whole driving experience a wholly giggly cartoonish appeal.

The enormous 96-litre fuel tank is not big enough. Despite the addition of stop-start and Mercedes’ super smooth seven-speed auto gearbox, fuel economy is average at best and savage at worst. Effort to run light nonetheless exacted heavy toll, with a 14.9km average out of 499.6kms’ running. I got back to base on fumes.

The G63 is a hugely ridiculous creation, no argument. You could argue, with some conviction, that the limitations that arise from tooling around town are surely no different from those presented by other kinds of super-sized SUV. Or any supercar, for that matter.

But that line of reasoning doesn't hold too well when you attempt sporting use, because it doesn’t do corners. Admittedly, it's great on straights. I only undertook one flat-to-the-floor take-off and the effect was sobering. It was as if some invisible hand had grabbed the end of the horizon and pulled it toward me. Cue film of charging bull elephant. Officially it knocks off the 0-100kmh run in 5.4 seconds. A ridiculous claim yet one I find no reason to doubt.

Maybe I should have gone off-road. The footwear is suss, but the military-grade hardware and its massive height, approach, departure and ramp-over angles are all preposterous compared to regular four-by-fours.

So, anyway, I’m glad I got to say hi to the ‘old’ G63 before it hightailed. Sure, it’s anachronistic, outdated, out of step and, to the right-thinking majority, utterly obnoxious. As it seems, will be the replacement. You wouldn’t have it any other way …


Why Benz hit the G spot

G-CLASS development commenced in 1972 as an agreement between Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch of Austria to produce a military wagon, with production kicking off in 1979.

Often still referred to as the G-Wagon, the current W463 series replaced the earlier W461 in 1990, though constant upgrades have kept the vehicle contemporary.

Interest in the G-Class on this side of the globe rose to new heights when, after five years of negotiations, Daimler won a contract in 2008 to supply the Australian Defence Force with about 1200 purpose-built G-Class all-terrain vehicles under the banner ‘Project Overlander’.

The company has since introduced ‘civilian’ versions in the form of G300 CDI Professional five-door wagon and single-cab utility. There’s a G350d and the a G63 AMG.

The new W464 presents the most extensive redesign for the model in nearly 40 years but the existing W463 will likely remain in production for the time being.

Benz has acknowledged that the enduring success of the G helped encourage it to break new ground with a global premium-priced utility, the X-Class arriving later this yearThere’s belief the big wagon’s inexorable rise to luxury cult status has left a workhorse-shaped hole that only a one-tonne truck could fill.