Enter the Dragon
LA CLUSAZ, France - Snow-capped peaks frame a valley that could have sprung from the pages of one of Tolkien's fairy tales. One can easily believe that the tiny stone chalets nestled in the foothills might have once housed hobbits. Fat doe-eyed cattle graze the lush pasture, and the only sound you hear is the melodic ringing of cowbells.
Into this lovely pastoral setting we came, shattering the bucolic peacefulness like Tolkien's ravaging Smaug - turbos whistling like angry teakettles and every downshift punctuated by rude blatts from the twin side pipes.
The Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen (now there's a name that rolls trippingly off the tongue) is one of those over-the-top vehicles that you either don't get at all - or embrace wholeheartedly for its utter ridiculousness. And the one we're in, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G 63 AMG, has been fed a regimen of steroids.
Originally designed for military use, the iconic G-wagen's 33-year legacy includes winning the 1983 Paris-Dakar Rally, the world's most gruelling off-road endurance race.
As far as hardcore off-roaders go, the G-Class is considered one of the best - a nearly indestructible bushwhacker instantly recognizable for its boxy upright shape. Yet it's rather unlikely that most will ever venture far from the pavement - the G-wagen being a niche favourite of the entitled set who probably has little interest in its formidable prowess, but plenty in its bragging rights.
And that recent cachet is a good thing - the death knell having come very close to sounding for the boxy ute more than once. Currently experiencing a surge in popularity with a double-digit growth in sales last year, the G-wagen returns with a modicum of enhanced style, yet the image that made it an icon remains relatively intact.
Powerful biturbo V8
Our beast, the G 63 AMG, boasts a twin-turbo, 5.5L V8 that puts out 544 bellowing horsepower with 560 lb-ft of torque. Mated to a 7G-tronic automatic transmission, the G 63 has an official combined fuel rating of 13.0L/100km.
It also features a start/stop function while in C mode (for controlled efficiency). Switching the shift lever to Sport or Manual cancels the start/stop function, shortening the shifts and speeding up throttle response.
Butch exterior hides luxury inside
Its butch appearance boasts a little added bling with an LED strip under its distinctive round headlights and red callipers peeping through the spokes of its 20" rims. It's dressed in gunmetal grey, with that sexy matte finish that's been appearing throughout the brand's lineup. The front end is treated to an AMG makeover, with the characteristic chrome-trimmed, twin-blade grille, and an aggressive bumper with large air inlets.
Hardcore on the outside, the cabin treatment is pure, upscale Designo - because every off-roader needs quilted, butter yellow upholstery, right? It's complimented by carbon fibre trim and an enamel white centre stack. Despite its retro exterior, the G 63 boasts all the latest gadgetry: Mercedes-Benz's COMAND multimedia interface, large touchscreen, blind-spot warning and adaptive cruise control, just to name a few.
Leave it to the Germans to construct what looks like a giant Meccano track in the centre square of this quiet alpine village, to give us a taste of the unstoppable G-wagen in action.
With three electronically-controlled locking differentials, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G-Class chugs effortlessly up the 45-degree inclines to the 3-storey summit of the rickety steel track like some chunky automotive version of the Terminator. Ludicrous, yet delightfully compelling, we're still giggling about it later when we set out to conquer the Alps.
It's no sports car, but the G-wagen handles the tight mountain roads with more composure than its top-heavy looks would suggest possible. The suspension and damper settings have reportedly been tuned for more "dynamic handling," although dynamics is a fairly relative term when you're talking about a slab-sided vehicle that probably displaces as much air as a small delivery truck.
Certainly, it felt taut for a ladder-framed vehicle, with no undue body roll on the rough and undulating route through the Rhone Alps.
The steering, however, is decidedly truck-like and requires some extra manoeuvring through the twisties.
Knock the shift lever into Sport mode and the engine note becomes almost obnoxiously intoxicating, bouncing off the stone walls of the tiny villages we passed through while sheepishly avoiding eye contact.
It's a head-turner - even the cows stopped grazing to gaze at us expressionlessly.
The G 63 AMG, and its more mild-mannered sibling, the 388-hp G 550, will be available in North America this August. As usual, the Europeans receive an even more outrageous version that we won't be able to get our hands on: a V12 G 65 AMG boasting 612 hp.
Auto journalist & Consumer Ratings
Editor's Review Highlights
2013 Mercedes G-Class Specifications