LA CLUSAZ, FRANCE – Mercedes Benz’s iconic Geländewagen off roader, still looking like the packing crate that the tool shed came in, is alive and well despite, or possibly because of, barely changing in appearance since 1979.
It’s fantastically at odds with everything the modern personal automotive conveyance tries to be – a true love-it or dismiss-it ride.
Originally developed with Austrian military vehicle manufacturer Steyr-Daimler-Puch (on a suggestion from the Shah of Iran, no less), the ladder-framed G-Wagen had no pretentions of chi-chi-civilian duty.
If you had suggested to the original engineering team that in three and a half decades a 612 hp twin-turbo V-12 version of their off-roader with on-board TVs would extract $300,000 from the world’s wealthiest, you would have likely witnessed some spectacular Teutonic spit-takes.
But with Range Rover plowing a successful furrow into the luxury SUV field, Mercedes followed suit through the eighties, giving the G-Wagon an automatic transmission, leather, wood, ABS, power-windows, permanent all-wheel-drive and electronic locking differentials.
In 2004 M-B handed the G over to in-house performance nutters AMG, from whose garages has sprung a series of progressively hotter versions of this all-terrain vehicle.
Despite not seeing a major makeover since 2001, the G-Class has experienced a sales resurgence of late. Worldwide sales leapt from 4330 units in 2009 to 6600 in 2011, much of this due to emerging luxo markets in Russia, India, China and the Middle East.
Last year a Middle East oil sheik allegedly ordered 300 G 63 AMGs to distribute amongst his friends.
For 2013, the G-Class sees a comprehensive makeover that includes refreshed front and rear styling, a completely new instrument panel and the availability of Mercedes-Benz’s latest tech and safety systems.
The G 550 continues with its 382 hp 391 lb-ft naturally-aspirated 5.5 L V-8 but now gets a 7G-Tronic transmission, while the G 63 AMG ditches the previous 500 hp 5.5 L supercharged V-8 for a more efficient 5.5 L twin-turbo V8 that kicks out a thunderous 536 hp and 560 lb-ft of torque.
The latter also comes with auto start/stop and is mated to the AMG Speedshift 7G-Tronic gearbox. Aggressive body bits, 20-inch alloys and bad-ass side pipes suggest this ain’t your average Home Depot tool shed on wheels.
The aforementioned V-12 G 65 AMG is not available in North America, nor is the Professional version that dispenses with much of the luxury. We also don’t get the 3.0 L turbo V-6 diesel engine.
It grows on you
Now, I will be the first to admit to having a nasty prejudice against the G-Class, which could fairly be described as a ridiculous contraption for poseurs with more money than brains. But after spending the better part of a day behind the wheel of a white G 550 and a matte grey G 63 AMG, I kinda get it. Kinda.
The G’s amazing off road cred is a given, so I was surprised to experience from the driver’s chair the on-road refinement of a mainstream luxury Merc. The G Class is not a huge vehicle, making it quite maneuverable, and with the high seating position, low beltline, tall greenhouse and thin pillars, outward visibility is terrific.
Back seat leg room is not the G’s strong suit, but up front it’s all first class in a charming retro sort of way. And the doors shut with a decisive "clack" that would warm the heart of a Swiss banker.
The redesigned instrument panel features a new centre console and gear selector lever, a leather covered upper with integrated COMAND display, and a new instrument cluster with colour display. It all looks a bit forced – no easy task that, trying to make an antediluvian icon look Bel Air chic. Didn’t work that well for Joan Rivers either.
The differential lock buttons, which will likely see as much use as a Scottish pay toilet, sit boldly below the LCD screen.
To keep up with the aftermarket that makes big business out of trimming the G-Class’ digs with the likes of ostrich hide or whale foreskin (sadly, no joke), Mercedes-Benz is offering its own designo Exclusive Package that features quilted leather combinations in a variety of complementing shades.
New electronics architecture means the G-Class now comes with Distronic Plus proximity control, Blind Spot Assist and Parktronic with back up camera.
The 2013 G 550 is smooth, controlled and confident. As is the G 63 AMG. But when m’lady plants her Christian Loubitan in the latter she should be prepared to have the back seats painted with the contents of her vente mocha skinny latte.
The blat from the side pipes is just plain rude, and with a zero to 100 km/h time of only 5.4 seconds, this thing launches like a rocket-powered box car.
Over the winding Alpine roads, the G 63 AMG drove quite well for an antique solid-axle all-terrain vehicle. Yes, there’s plenty of grip from the tires, but it’s tall, tippy, and not particularly at home here. One got the sense it just wanted to lock its diffs, be put it in low range and go frolic with the eerily perfect cows in these post-card Alpine meadows.
Yes, the Geländewagen is 33 years old, and while it will surely climb any hill that faces it, it is far from over the hill. Increasing demand from emerging civilian markets pretty much guarantees the old war horse’s future. As will Mercedes’ promise to NATO that it will keep building them till 2025.
While no pricing for these 2013 models has been announced, the outgoing G 550 starts at $115,000, and the G 55 AMG is $155,900.