It could be the most extraordinarily bizarre production vehicle in the world. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG makes no sense whatsoever. It's a German military truck dressed up in a veneer of civility with a hot-rod engine. It combines legendary off-road capability, AMG performance, luxury, and technology in complete disharmony.
And whether you love it or hate it is a pretty good indication of whether you operate from the heart or the head, at least when it comes to cars.
The sensible approach to the G63 AMG would be to reason that you will never use its three differential locks and then dismiss it over its dismal fuel economy. But for some of us, the roar of the engine coming out of the quad-sidepipes coupled with the goofy, boxy cab and chrome brush bar will provoke instant desire.
Everything old is new again
My first clue to the absurdity of the G63 AMG came when I used the key fob to remotely unlock the doors, the door locks sounding like the pump action of a Mossberg 500 shotgun, then had to push a button on the door handle to actually open the doors. The car I learned to drive in, a 1961 VW Beetle, had similar door handles, giving a clue to the vintage of at least some parts of the G63 AMG.
The straight lines of the G63's body show it was developed with the idea that utility was paramount. And while it seems massive, its size is a bit of an illusion created by its height and boxiness. The G63 AMG is actually shorter in overall length than the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The hood is also remarkably low. These dimensional features are part of what gives the G-class its excellent off-road capability. The high driving position let me see over the low hood, making it easier to steer across ruts on dirt roads, and the length makes for better break-over, so it is less likely to bottom out.
It could use a tighter turning radius to help it negotiate switchbacked mountain tracks or narrow parking spaces.
Anyone who keeps up with cars knows that number designations rarely denote engine size anymore, and so it goes with the G63 AMG. Instead of a naturally aspirated 6.3-liter V-8, as in other 63-designated AMG cars, this wagon boasts a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 with direct injection. That engine, which features a badge engraved with the builder's name, makes 544 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque. Mercedes-Benz lists towing capability of 7,716 pounds and a zero-to-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds for this 5,622-pound velvet beast.
The AMG treatment of the Geländewagen (the name from which Mercedes-Benz derived G-class) also gives it wider, lower-profile tires than its non-AMG counterpart, a faster-shifting transmission, and high-performance brakes.
Both the G63 AMG and its slower sibling, the G550, come standard with an LCD screen showing Mercedes-Benz's standard array of cabin electronics, eliminating the need to option up anything. Luxury elements include power-adjustable leather seats with memory settings along with heating and ventilation functions.
But the cabin dressing does not entirely hide the G63 AMG's character as a utility vehicle. For example, with the upright windshield there is really no upper dashboard space. Likewise, the single cupholder is a limply hanging net held up by a ring, the whole assembly resembling a basketball hoop for kittens. Getting into the front seats requires stepping up. Getting into the back seat requires pulling a thigh muscle, as the rear bench is a tad higher than the front seats.
Propped up above the differential locks sits the LCD, another of those confluences between old and new. The LCD shows navigation, stereo, phone, and Mercedes-Benz's new app integration, all controlled by a simple dial mounted behind the shifter. The interface is standard Mercedes-Benz stuff, requiring a push down on the dial to bring up a menu ribbon along the top of the screen. I find it pretty quick to get the hang of selecting the different cabin tech functions and delving into the capabilities of each.
However, Mercedes-Benz could improve the system by placing buttons near the dial that give immediate access to the main cabin tech functions.
The cabin electronics include a hard drive that stores the maps, along with music imported by the driver. The maps look good and show nice detail, with rendered buildings in downtown areas. Turn-by-turn directions show up with good graphic detail and lane guidance on the main LCD and on an instrument cluster display. The system also uses online traffic data for route guidance. With traffic-reporting services covering more surface streets, I found the navigation system hyperactively asking me if I wanted to change my route to avoid problems every couple of minutes in San Francisco. I imagine in Los Angeles, where traffic is magnified, this rerouting function would be almost unusable.
Entering a destination manually required a lot of dial-twisting, which was only a little tedious thanks to proactive city and street look-ups. With voice command, I had to enter street and city separately. I was particularly disappointed when looking through the POI database for a gas station. Rather than giving a list of all the nearest gas stations, it first wanted me to select a station brand in the Gasoline category. Given the G63 AMG's fuel consumption, I would want it to give me the nearest station regardless of brand.
There was no Internet-based search in the navigation menus, but Google local search is available among the Mercedes-Benz apps, which live under a different menu area in the cabin electronics. The apps also include Yelp and Facebook, but as my CNET colleague Antuan Goodwin found in his review of the Mercedes-Benz SL550, activation and response times are extremely slow.
To get moving in the G63 AMG, I had to deal with another collision of the past and present. The parking brake is an old-style hand lever. It sits next to a modern electronic shifter, complete with push-button Park mode, controlling the seven-speed automatic transmission. Engaging Drive mode required a mere pull back on the shifter, as it has no actual gate.
Tipping in the gas, the truck moves sluggishly, as if it's fighting with itself.
Reversing was aided by a rearview camera, though it featured neither distance nor trajectory lines. Surround-view cameras would be nice, but the view out the front is very good. The front corners are marked by big, protruding signal lamps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Model||2013 Mercedes-Benz G-class|
|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|
|Price as tested||$137,305|