Familiar looks, wholesale changes underneath, the Mercedes-AMG G63 comes kicking and screaming into 2018, building on its military-bred roots with newfound comfort, space and driving enjoyment.
For some scribes aboard the never-ending car launch gravy train, most events are business as usual, while others are like birthday parties. Except the latter tend to be less frequent than once a year. Despite prevailing belief, cause for celebration isn’t due to the quality of venue, food or frills – all damn fine most of the time – but in the rarity of unwrapping a four-wheeled gift far better, superior or downright more enjoyable than you’d ever anticipated.
One occasion was back in 2012, the local launch of Toyota’s 86, the sports car’s buck-banging fun factor so surprising as to cause jaded seasoned hacks to dither about like 16-year-old birthday partygoers on a cake and red cordial high.
Then there’s the recent 2018 Mercedes-Benz G-Class international launch, showcasing the flagship Mercedes-AMG G63, a sort of adults-only 21st celebration, complete with anecdotes and smartphone videos I wouldn’t reveal to my mum, let alone admit to in print in my (dubiously) professional capacity. Hand on heart, I’ve never laughed so hard and so often ‘on launch’ as I did during two days with what I’ve affectionately nicknamed ‘G-Banger’.
Benz and its AMG performance skunkworks have pulled a swifty. Oh, we knew of some changes afoot, but the near forensic retention of the “zombie-apocalypse-proof military style” exterior design, as Alborz professed in love, is a grand deception, propelled in part by its maker’s assertion this was a “facelift” of sorts that duped many including, initially, some Benz employees.
It turns out that this 2018 version is all new, not just everything under the oh-so familiar façade – the look that sells so many G-Wagens – but even the exterior styling itself. You could literally count the number of carryover components on two hands: minor stuff such as door mechanisms, sun visors, headlight washer nozzles, the tow hitch and such.
Yes, it’s literally all new. But it’s how perhaps the biggest overhaul in the nameplate’s 39-year history improves almost every critical area of the G-Class and lifts its game almost beggars belief.
Traditionally, well-heeled urbanites drawn to the G-Class’s iconic, boxy appearance faced borderline masochistic compromise from what’s long been considered the least-liveable device of any Benz passenger vehicle: agricultural and fatiguing driving manners from behind the wheel; cramped accommodation and punishing ride comfort for all else aboard. Eau de prison van chic persevered through gritted teeth and quiet desperation for the around-town ownership experience, anchored by some half-hearted promise that its industrial-strength off-road capabilities will one day be called into play.
With 2018's revamp, that’s all changed.
The new G-Wagen isn’t merely larger and roomier inside, it’s all-round comfier, much nicer to drive over all surfaces, more modern and up-to-date in tech accoutrements. The top-shelf AMG G63 version, which spearheads the forthcoming updated G-Class range in Oz come August, is quicker, more ferocious in vibe, hugely more capable and fun on twisty tarmac, while also being faster, more compliant and eminently more engaging bombing along off-road and being much easier to live with. Even if it’s not all immediately apparent.
From 50 paces, it’s 22-inch-wheeled, side-piped, fat-arched, slabby and hard-edged ostentation, and that familiar and old-school seduction continues as you prod the door handle push button, when the door shuts with a loud ‘clank’, and the central-locking activates with a signature, rifle-bolt snap. There’s freshness in detail: circular driving lights, multi-beam LED headlights, AMG’s new signature vertical grille slats and so on, though it’s not really evident that the G-Class is now 53mm longer and 64mm wider.
But the cabin sprouts a more modern design, with its huge dual 12.3-inch Widescreen display and features and switchgear minted in S-Class decor, and it’s hand-finished in rich and lavish materials. Ambience-wise, it's ‘new Benz’ if a generation behind the newly debuted MBUX infotainment window dressing as found in the new A-Class, though the comprehensive content – including smartphone mirroring – in the display screens is impressively slick.
With 38mm more leg and shoulder room, that claustrophobic sense you’re perched face-first into the windshield and hemmed in sideways has been somewhat relaxed, but it’s the near seven centimetres more elbow room that means you no longer need to drop the side window and steer with your arms splayed out like a chicken any more. You still sit commandingly high – your elbows naturally rest neatly on the door top sills – and despite slightly short bases in the form-fitting sport seats, there’s now a much airier, relaxed ambience.
The added spaciousness is more dramatic in the rear: a whopping 15cm of noticeably more leg room, while shoulder and elbow room have grown by 27mm and 56mm. The comfy and supportive rear seating have tilt adjustment and 60:40 split-fold capability, allowing the cargo space to vary from 454L to 1941L. Those neat turbine air vents (replicated from the first row) get rear temperature and fan speed controls, there are added vents in the B-pillars, and all four outboard seating positions get seat heating. It sounds luxurious and upmarket and feels as much in practice, with perhaps properly contemporary SUV family-friendliness for the first time in the G-Wagen’s near four-decade-long history.
But an SUV it’s not, at least not by today's terminology. It’s a veritable monster truck, if one that embraces more sporting utility in literal terms than your average, or even finest, family hauler.
Off the bat, it’s an infinitely nicer G-Wagen to drive. Both the clear, direct and communicative steering and the pliant, nicely disciplined suspension tune are a massive improvement over the old G-Class or go-fast AMG G55/63 versions. That’s little surprise given the wholesale chassis re-engineering, perhaps the biggest area of departure from G-Wagen convention.
Gone is the archaic solid-axle front end and recirculating ball steering, replaced by contemporary independent strut and electro-mechanical rack and pinion, while the rear end is a five-link design, its mounting points cleverly triangulated for lateral axle support. The direction finder has speed-sensitive assistance and a variable ratio, while the ride and handling package features continuously variable damping tuned separately for a gamut of on- and off-road tunes, all of which drags the G-Wagen out of the Dark Ages and firmly into 2018.
And it’s all integrated into a stronger ladder frame that, together with a stiffer body and firmer body mounts, increases torsional rigidity a whopping 55 per cent, with material choice said to contribute to a reduction of 170kg. Though at nigh on two-and-a-half tonnes, it asserts a lot of mass onto Mother Earth.
The 4.0-litre biturbo V8, replacing the old 5.5-litre and currently the staple of AMG’s more serious machinery, produces 430kW and 850Nm, a little shy of AMG's finest E and S stock, if otherwise right up there on Affalterbach’s bent-eight output tree. And it’s using a fraction of its ultimate muscle as the G63 dials up 140km/h on the French motorway, where the superbly silken automatic is perched up in its – yes – ninth ratio, the V8 humming along at 2000rpm with a low-bass soundtrack that makes it sound like twice the cubic capacity.
There’s some slight patter from the huge foot-wide (295/40R22) Goodyear Eagle F1s and some wind noise around the mirrors, but it’s a quantum leap in long-haul comfort – it’s quiet, too – and you could pluck a point on the horizon and cruise all day. Wind it out and top speed is a ‘limited’ 220km/h (or 240km/h with optional Driver’s Pack), though we suspect limitations are largely down to aerodynamic limitations of moving what’s akin to a small apartment block through air than actual electronic intervention. It likes a drink, too: we see mid-11s per hundred on the highway, and that will be as favorable as it ever gets this day…
We point the G63 inland, towards hills and curves, dial up Sport mode, open up the taps and… Holy crap! The sheer thrust of this thing belts your attention bells, the noise of it reaches deep into your soul, but the combined effect is like a mosh pit of sensory agitation. The soundtrack itself has three voices, the low thrum rising into a full roar – imagine dropping a ballpeen hammer on a lion’s paw, say – in the engine’s mid-range, with added higher-pitch metallic scream as the tacho swings beyond 6000rpm peak power to the seven-grand cut-out.
Oh, and it gets better…
Dialling up Sport+ not only add crackle on the overrun, it uncorks one great party trick. From a standstill, you jump on both pedals and the nose lifts about 10cm on the spot, the G63 wriggling against the strain of 850Nm. You step off the brakes, hang on, and the beast squirms as it rockets to 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds. Sure, that’s a full second shy of an E63 S, but the explosive fanfare with which it does it when experienced high in the saddle aboard on on-stilts truck, sends fits of laughter bouncing around the cabin that even a sudden and sobering 25L/100km fuel readout can’t quash.
Throwing the G63 from one corner apex to another simply makes for a funnier, more entertaining event. It’s not merely the colossal and accurate retardation of the 400mm six-piston front anchors, the eye-widening balance when hooking through the mid-corner, or the corner exiting poise afforded by 60 per cent rear-biased all-wheel drive that conspires to miraculous cornering capabilities, 2.5 tonnes of lateral inertia considered. It’s that you’re seated so high, peering through huge expanses of glass, in a ladder-framed truck while doing so that’s so downright amusing.
On heat, both the steering and throttle responses are linear, accurate and immediate, but specific praise must be heaped upon the nine-speed auto, which is so quick, slick-shifting and intuitive in full monty Sport+ mode that opting for paddle-shifting is merely an indulgent option.
When need be and called upon, the G63’s faculties are genuinely high in performance, if dynamically not without limitations. Push too hard or dive in too deep and shit gets real very quickly or, specifically, the bigger the lateral weight transfer, the higher the degree of steering input demanded to input correction or adjust a chosen line. Thankfully, the G-Banger returns clear signals when overdriven to remind you that, no, this is not a sports car.
While it mightn’t be quite as swift point to point as perhaps a Lamborghini Urus or third-gen Cayenne Turbo, say, the gut feel is that the G63 wouldn’t be too far behind in the wheel tracks of dedicated, unibody constructed, ultra-high-performance SUVs. And it’s simply light-years better as a driver’s device than any other I can think of built off underpinnings certifiably tailored towards off-roading terrain.
For instance, I’d imagine that given the high-rider’s generous ground clearance and inherent compliance, you could fire straight on through a French provincial roundabout quicker than, say, an AMG GT sports car, merely because you could, ahem, use more of the available landscape en route. Of course, only a fool would openly admit to actually tempting such folly to a public forum (or to his mum) or laughing hysterically with the ease of the execution.
Measurably more confronting are the steep slopes and deep gorges of Château de Lastours, a French winery with some 90km of off-roading challenging enough that it served as a stage of the Paris-Dakar Rally 1994 and has been used as a test facility for rally-raid and WRC teams ever since. It’s here I find myself seated alongside German Group N rally legend Uwe Nittel inside a G63, this example wearing 20-inch Pirelli Scorpion all-terrain road tyres. And it’s pulling more party tricks of the sort that a great many G-Wagen owners might never dare.
The course ahead is tight, mostly blind in crests and corners, and alarmingly uneven across its surface in contour and substrate. We’re attacking it at about twice the pace I’d brave in a LandCruiser or any diesel 4x4 ute you could name, wincing as the G-Banger punches into sloping rocks, across sharp vertical dips and through diff-deep ruts. It simply flattens the rugged landscape, seemingly if not literally, almost wafting across the rough stuff with full-noise traction, if with the agility of a plus-sized rally car, its 2.5 tonnes lively and reactive to even small steering and throttle inputs.
There are impressive tricks in its off-roading bag. It’s the only series-production passenger vehicle out there with front, middle and rear 100 per cent diff locking. There’s high and newly lowered low-range, of course, plus dedicated and cleverly calibrated Trail, Sand and Rock drive modes to draw upon when need be. And the new G-Class genes upon which it's built are inherently fitter for 4x4 work than any of its forebear generations.
I’m no 4x4 expert, but even in more tarmac-centric G63 form, the G-Wagen offers swifter, comfier and far more enjoyable off-road passage than I’ve ever experienced in a road-going device, period. Not only is it impressively adept, it’s a bloody hoot. You could probably have heard my laughter clear across the adjacent Pyrenees mountains…
All of which leaves me undecided as to where the G63’s sweetest spot resides – cruising, tarmac tearing or serious 4x4-ing – because it’s hugely improved in the first two and remarkably good at all of it.
This updated generation has proven the improbable, flipping the age-old G-Wagen formula of trading machismo for punishment, and instead offering reward. Especially the AMG version. For this alone, the much-improved monster truck has become a much more justifiable and rational ownership prospect for those irresistibly drawn to its iconic G-Wagen form.
Perhaps most importantly, the G-Banger is double-dipped and dripping in naughty, feel-good character. Its fitness for purpose of delivering maximum ‘X-factor’ is through the proverbial roof. In appraisal, then, I’m compelled to let emotion rule over rationale.
The G63 also delivers its firebrand character more often, more accessibly, and in a broader variety of driving environments and situations than, say, an E63 S, which demands lose-your-licence road speeds to really start swinging its mojo about. All things considered, then, the G63’s similar $247,700 list price looks something of a bargain, voracious thirst for 98RON notwithstanding.
Of course, as a huge two-fingered salute to automotive moderation, the G63 isn’t for everyone. Those chasing ultimate motoring pragmatism best look elsewhere. Me? If Mister Lottery ever comes a-knocking – any time now, mate – there'll be a car space in my ultimate dream garage with a sign labelled ‘G63’ above it.