2015 Mercedes-AMG G63 Review: the ‘rockstar’ of SUVs?

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With Aussie roads already crawling with soccer mums (and dads) in their urban tractors you’d think ‘rockstar SUV’ would now be a contradiction in terms – but the Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG turns all that on its head. This is no lumbering suburban cruiser – and priced from a stratospheric $233,910 (plus on-roads) you’ll certainly need a rock star’s bank account before ascending into the cockpit of this super-SUV. It’s already a huge premium over its two G-Class siblings; the $150,610 G350 Bluetec and the $167,500 G500, which shares the same V8 engine as the G63, though with considerably less haul-ass ability. The reason there’s no shortage of buyers for these G63 hot-rods is the sheer quality and craftsmanship on offer, not to mention undeniable exclusivity given the price tag. Every G63 is hand built over 11 days, where less expensive makes and models can be completed in a few hours or less. Meanwhile, the history behind the G-Wagon is as interesting as the vehicle itself. It was the cashed-up Shah of Iran – a major Daimler-Benz shareholder in 1975, who first proposed a military cross-country vehicle made by Mercedes-Benz. He was so inspired by the idea that he immediately placed an order for 20,000 of them. Unfortunately, the contract was cancelled by that country’s post-revolutionary rulers, prompting regional police forces in Germany and overseas to take up the back orders and effectively launch an automotive icon in the process. Although plans for a civilian version were hatched several years prior, the Gelandewagen (German for Cross-Country Vehicle) didn’t hit the road until 1979. Back then it was a pretty rudimentary package, much like that other 4×4 icon, the Land Rover Defender. Certainly, it was nothing like the over-the-top G63 of today. While there has been a succession of mild updates to the G-Class along the way, the general styling has remained largely the same. That’s why the G63 looks less like a contemporary SUV, and more like a battle tank. And it sounds like a tank too, because under the bonnet lurks a hand-built 5.5-litre direct-injection and twin turbocharged monster V8 that produces a military-grade 400kW and 760Nm of ground-shaking torque. It’s also the same bespoke V8 that’s used in the 430kW/900Nm S63 AMG, although mercifully detuned to a less manic state. And in true AMG fashion, it’s coupled to another precision piece of engineering in the smooth-shifting seven-speed auto transmission, which sends drive to all four wheels. Drivers can also choose to shift manually, using the beautifully fashioned metal paddle shifters, though they do require a proper tug. Understandably, the G63 gets a noticeably more in-your-face look than less powerful editions, with flared wheel arches, stainless steel side steps and huge twin side pipes that make it look like something specially prepared for SEMA (Speciality Equipment Market Association) and not a series production vehicle. It also gets a more threatening front bumper, with extra-large air intakes feeding the radiators that help cool that reactor-size engine. From any angle this is no ordinary SUV, whether we’re talking about off-road or on-road performance. Despite tipping the scales at over 2.5 tonnes, the G63 AMG is capable of seeing off a Porsche Cayman with PDK transmission from 0-100km/h, which it can conquer in a blistering 5.4 seconds. Well, that’s the claim by Mercedes-Benz – and there’s absolutely no argument whatsoever from me. Put the boot in, and you’re not quite sure whether to break out into fits of laughter or start worrying. A bit of both, I suspect. It’s very, very, quick. But perched high-up behind the wheel as you are in the G63, it feels unnaturally fast for something that was primarily designed to go where no other off-roader can go. Drivers can choose between several transmission and throttle-mapping modes (Comfort, Sport and Manual), which really do change the vehicle’s character; Comfort for the daily office commute or long-distance cruising, and Sport for when you have something to prove to the guy in the lane next to you. While off-the-line-drags are certainly manageable, you won’t want to carry any real speed into bends. Although the recirculating-ball steering system might be a robust piece of engineering, accuracy and response clearly weren’t a high priority when the G-Wagon was conceived. And while there’s plenty of arm-twirling required when it comes to tight spots and city car parks, I’d argue there’s enough of on-centre weight to stop it wandering on the motorways. What’s more, the AMG steering wheel is beautifully tactile and contoured in the hands. But honestly, that’s not what the G63 is all about. Not even close. Aside from its straight-line pace, this is pure automotive drama at its best. And it doesn’t even have to be in motion to be enjoyed. Turn the key fob and the twin-turbo V8 thunders to life and immediately settles into that familiar AMG burble – something I could listen to twenty-four-seven. One thing is for sure, this isn’t the car for well-heeled folks looking to maintain a low profile. Like all AMG-built engines, this one sounds great anywhere throughout the rev range, but it’s most satisfying to the ear when the G63 is eased slowly off the line. That’s when this 5.5-litre monster emits its deepest tones, leaving a proper muscle car soundtrack in its wake. Certainly, there’s as much aural entertainment on offer here as in any other AMG V8. Despite sticking with an old-school (but infinitely robust) rigid axle suspension system, the ride is reasonably compliant, at least over the bigger bumps. Smooth roads are fine, but the ride can get choppy on less-maintained surfaces. AMG engineers have done their-level best to minimise body roll in the G-wagon, but there’s no avoiding the general physics of a heavy vehicle with the profile of double-decker bus. If you go in too hard it’s going to lean, there’s no getting around the laws of physics. That said, there’s a decent size footprint from the extra-wide Dunlop tyres, so it feels planted, even at a decent clip. With this kind of coin invested in an SUV, it’s doubtful many G63s will ever get the chance to display their off-road clout, but if they do, they’re exceptionally well equipped to handle the toughest of terrain. Along with permanent all-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case, the G-Wagon is also armed with three independent differential locks – operated via triple switches on the dash. Despite its utilitarian looks, the G63 boasts a five-star luxury fit-out inside. Super soft, premium grade, twin-stitched hide covers almost every surface other than the authentic metal work – and there’s plenty of that, too. The front buckets are especially sumptuous. They’re also heated and cooled. In fact, the entire cabin might easily be mistaken for a top-spec AMG E-Class sedan, such are the quality of the materials. Taking centre stage is the standard-fit seven-inch Benz infotainment screen atop of the centre console. The G63 is fitted with a high-end Harman Kardon sound system that can belt out tunes with the same crystal clear clarity we’ve come to expect from this quality American manufacturer. There’s room for five adults, with ample leg and headroom even for the taller set. Luggage space is reasonable and the rear seats fold flat, though there’s a substantial step exposed that could inhibit the carrying of longer objects, such as a six-foot surfboard. The Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG probably isn’t something your financial planner is going to recommend anytime soon. Hell, even with the 2016 updates, we struggle to recommend it as a sensible purchase! It’s horrendously expensive, hugely thirsty and not overly practical, given its size. But for those with a taste for the outrageous in their automotive choices, the G-wagon delivers on all counts. It’s brash, loud, and it comes with a three-pointed star. Add to that, icon status and ultra-exclusivity, and for over 15,000 owners worldwide, it’s the only choice. Click on the Photos tab for more images by Mitchell Oke.