2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG review: Military truck meets hot-rod tuning

A button near the shifter cycles through the transmission's Comfort, Sport, and Manual modes. The G63 AMG defaults to Comfort at start with Eco mode on. Rather than detune the throttle, Eco in this truck seemed merely to engage an idle-stop feature. When I pulled up to a stop light, the engine would shut down, only coming on again when I lifted off the brake.

I found it remarkable that this big engine could start up so quickly and easily, and I liked the idea of not burning gas unnecessarily.

This idle-stop feature worked more smoothly than what I experienced in the BMW M5 . I could generally live with it in city driving, but in stop-and-go traffic the constant restarts could become annoying. Tapping the Eco mode button, or putting the transmission into Sport mode, disables idle-stop.

2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG
Wide tires aid on-road cornering. Josh Miller/CNET

Also standard on the G63 AMG is Mercedes-Benz's Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system. This system works very well, and automatically brings the truck to a full stop when traffic is stopped on the road ahead. Mercedes-Benz was the first company to put adaptive cruise in a production car, and the refinement of its technology shows. I have driven many other cars with adaptive cruise, and the G63 AMG's worked the best, reacting very smoothly to my own lane changes or other cars cutting into my lane.

The truck included a blind-spot monitor system, a necessity given its high driver position, but it only operated at speeds above about 25 mph.

With its body-on-frame construction and fixed suspension, the G63 AMG's ride quality is much rougher than I would expect from any other Mercedes-Benz model. I could feel the solid kick of bumps in the road riding up through the suspension into the cabin. For long road trips, I would much prefer the air suspension of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The transmission's Comfort mode does nothing to help the ride quality, and I didn't like that setting much for anything other than highway driving. It makes the G63 AMG feel sluggish, and resulted in a laggy kick-down when I wanted power for merging or passing. Sport mode improved matters substantially, but I couldn't help worrying about the fuel economy, and my rapidly diminishing range.

2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG
The G63 AMG feels more at home on the dirt than on the road. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Flooring the gas pedal, the G63 AMG stepped up nicely, not with neck-breaking acceleration but impressively considering the truck's bulk. In fact, I can't imagine the non-AMG G550, limited to 388 horsepower, can be anything but a disappointment when it comes to acceleration. Most enjoyable about a fast, straight-line run in the G63 AMG was the engine's notable roar.

Tacking around the corners of a twisty mountain road with the transmission in Sport mode, I was impressed how well the suspension kept the G63 AMG from wallowing. I felt the four-wheel-drive system give the truck a little help rotating it through the turns. But I have to admit that I didn't have the courage to push it particularly hard in the turns, a capability that I assumed its AMG tuning would give it. The high center of gravity gave me too many visions of tumbling this $134,300 box down a cliff side.

Get dirty
However, I wouldn't be surprised if the G63 AMG survived a trip down a cliff, and drove itself right out of the ravine at the bottom. The G-class is legendary for its off-road prowess. Taking it down a rutted dirt track, I was impressed that the ride quality did not change appreciably from the road. If anything, it felt more at home on the dirt.

2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG
Mercedes-Benz helpfully labels the three differential locks. Josh Miller/CNET

My off-road excursion was not technical, so I did not need to stop, put the shifter in Neutral, push the Low Range button, then figure out how many of the three differentials I wanted to lock. Mercedes-Benz numbers the differential-lock switches in the order they can be activated: center, rear, then front. You could take an advanced course in which settings to use for which conditions, but the easiest rule to follow would be, if you get stuck, keep activating differential locks until you get unstuck. If you can't get unstuck, then you are probably buried under a landslide or at the bottom of the ocean.

If you did manage to get irretrievably stuck in the G63 AMG, at least you could enjoy some music with its 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system. Using audio sources including Bluetooth streaming, the car's own hard drive, a USB port, and HD Radio, the system delivers very well-balanced, well-controlled sound. I enjoyed listening to a variety of music, from complex multilayered electronic tracks to bare acoustic performances, all delivered with excellent clarity.

My only complaint about the system has to do with personal expectations, my feeling that something as outrageous as the G63 AMG should have an equally outrageous stereo. I wanted bombastic bass pumping out of this truck, announcing its presence to all around as surely as does its appearance and engine roar. Instead, the bass was as tightly controlled as the treble, drumbeats playing with smooth precision. Eventually, I cranked up the bass with the equalizer and got a more personally satisfying sound, but it still remained audiophile, not gangsta.

2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG
Strange to find an old-style iOS device connector in the G63 AMG. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Oddly, Mercedes-Benz includes a 30-pin connector for previous-generation iOS devices hardwired to the truck; its USB port only works with USB drives. I used a Lightning adapter to connect my iPhone 5, which worked fine. I was pleased to see that, with a USB drive plugged in, the stereo parsed the music, presenting a full music library with categories for artist, album, genre, and the like. One really interesting music selection option afforded by this stereo uses a Cover Flow-like format, showing album art on the LCD and letting me flip through until I found the album I wanted.

Gas guzzler
Now comes the really bad news, which should really be no surprise. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG drinks gas by the barrelful. I saw an average of only 12.3 mpg, and that is within the EPA-estimated fuel economy range. There are just a few supercars that can boast worse mileage. Beyond the cost of constant refills, this fuel economy limits the truck's range, which is something to take into consideration.

For its tech payload, the G63 AMG benefits from most of Mercedes-Benz's latest. It has been updated with the connected apps to complement the navigation, stereo, and phone systems. Distronic Plus is one of the best adaptive cruise control systems on the market, and it is nice to see that on the standard equipment list. The AMG division also offers its input in the form of a very advanced engine, surprisingly good suspension tuning, and the seven-speed transmission.

However, there are a few backward features as well, such as the 30-pin iOS connector.

Now if we humans were merely practical, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG would not exist. But, as evidenced by our art and wars, we are not all that sensible, and so the G63 AMG has a place in this world. Although amazingly capable in the wilderness, this truck is only mildly adapted to the actual roads on which it will be driven. If you wanted a true luxury vehicle, the G63 AMG is not for you. If you wanted a straight-up performance car, the G63 AMG will disappoint. But if it's a completely unique vehicle you are looking for, something with massive power and brawny looks, this strange kludge will put a smile on your face.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Mercedes-Benz G-class
Trim G63 AMG
Power train Twin-turbo direct-injection 5.5-liter V-8 engine, 7-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 12 mpg city/14 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 12.3 mpg
Navigation Standard hard-drive-based system with traffic data
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, onboard hard drive, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system Harman Kardon 450-watt, 12-speaker system
Driver aids Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera
Base price $134,300
Price as tested $137,305

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About The Author

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET. Prior to the Car Tech beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine. He's also the author of "Vaporware," a novel that's available as a Nook e-book.