Mercedes AMG G-Class: Climb every mountain
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The driving instructor pointed to the edge of a rocky precipice in a mountainous region of southern France — with only the horizon in front and no track in view — and said, “drive down there, then reverse up it”.
If he had told a local mountain goat to scamper down the cliff then back up, it would have refused. But I’m in the all-new Mercedes-Benz G-Class formidable SUV with a new suspension system that makes most terrains plausible.
The Mercedes G-Class is more commonly referred to as the G-Wagen (short for the German “Gelandewagen”, or “cross country vehicle”) and has been in production for 40 years.
Over that time, not much of the exterior design and stance has changed. But, under the bonnet and inside, the tough off-roader has had dramatic improvements with new mechanical, safety, technology and equipment updates.
Mercedes used the famous rally testing ground of the Chateau de Lastours estate in southern France, near the Spanish border, to launch the AMG G63 version and the G500.
New Zealand will get the new Mercedes-AMG G63, priced from $263,900, with this model making up 70 per cent of local sales.
Mercedes-Benz NZ has passed at getting the G500, and instead will bring in the G350d later in the year.
Production of the G-Class starts next month but we won’t see it here until later in the year.
The G63 was revealed at this year’s Geneva motor show, with Mercedes-AMG sticking to the formula that has made the “G-Wagen” famous and highly sought-after in New Zealand.
The latest G63 has several features never-before-seen on the G-Class, including two 12.3-inch widescreen displays, multibeam LED headlights, and AMG ride control adaptive damping.
Other key improvements include a new Burmester surround-sound system with 15 speakers, ambient lighting with 64 colours and eight colour schemes; standard Parking Package with Active Parking Assist and 360-degree camera; a sliding glass sunroof with tilt function; a selectable AMG sports exhaust system; keyless go; an AMG Performance steering wheel in Nappa leather; and 21in AMG 5-Twin spoke alloy wheels.
Further standard equipment includes three 100 per cent differential locks plus an off-road information centre; digital radio and TV tuner; online infotainment system with internet connectivity and fast hard-disk navigation featuring 3D map display and dynamic route guidance.
Safety and security are taken care of by the addition for the first time of nine airbags, including rear seat airbags and a knee airbag, plus the distronic Active Distance Assist system with Active Lane Keeping Assist.
Other key measures include Blind Spot Assist, Active Brake Assist, Traffic Sign Assist, and the pre-safe system.
The G63 gets the all-new 4-litre, V8 bi-turbo engine with 430kW of power and 850Nm of torque, up from the 420kW/760Nm produced by the previous model’s 5.5-litre V8.
It also has the AMG 9-Speed automatic transmission to a permanent all-wheel-drive system, including a low-range ratio with shift-on-the-move.
The new Mercedes-AMG G63 accelerates from 0-100km/h in 4.5 seconds.
The G500 also has the 4-litre, V8 engine with a power outage of 310kW and torque of 610Nm.
Although that doesn’t match the power outage of G63, it has a more practical appeal and less annoying than the “let other motorists within 10 kilometres of me hear with my roar” AMG model.
Looks-wise, Mercedes decided there wasn’t much room for improvement with between five or 13 carryover parts, according to which expert you spoke to at the global launch.
The five main visual parts include the push-button handles, cover for the rear-mounted spare tyre, sun visors, and the headlight washer nozzle, while literally the nuts and bolts from the previous model could account for the 13 figure.
But the classic G-Wagen parts are there; the indicators on the edge of the front guards so you know exactly how wide the vehicle is; door hinges positioned on the outside, and the surface-mounted bonnet.
The new G-Class is 53mm longer and 64mm wider than the previous model but is more agile and comfortable than the previous model.
Inside, the G-Glass gains a classy interior and dash found in the E- and S-Class with dual infotainment screens, turbine-style air vents, sophisticated leather seats and more refined textures and paneling.
A personal favourite of the interior was the floor-mounted accelerator; meaning drivers with small feet (like mine) didn’t have to stretch up to hit the power pedal.
Under the floor, the G-Wagen has a stronger ladder frame, which increases torsional rigidity 55 per cent, plus three 100 per cent diff locks and low range off-road gear reduction.
Mercedes has given the G-Class better off-road clearance, including 700mm wading depth (as testing in southern France), and 6mm more ground clearance.
The latest model weighs 170kg less than the previous G-Class, but is still a hefty 2.5 tonnes.
Although the narrow public roads focused on the width and height of the box-shaped G63, the power from the V8 engine was highlighted when overtaking — easily punting from 50km/h behind a local to 130km/h to overtake on a straight.
The G-Class on the public roads is a like rhinoceros at full charge; it’s big, it’s powerful and formidable.
Put the G63 into comfort drive mode and the ride eases up and is less intense than in sport mode. It’s ideal for country towns, and less attention seeking, if you can say that about a three-tonne box-shaped off-roader.
But leave the French village behind you, see long stretches of road or — better still — motorway — and sport drive mode is your friend.
The exhaust notes are obnoxiously but delightfully loud, the steering firms up and the suspension becomes for rigid.
If you want to really spice up your life, try the G63’s Sport+ mode with the sports exhaust in full yelling mode and acceleration alarmingly fast — and fun.
But sitting at 130km/h on the motorway — or in 100km/h on country roads — and the wind noise still permeates the cabin. But Mercedes said it had reduced cabin noise by more than 20 per cent — so previous G-Class owners must have had to have their stereos up loud to counter the droning.
Once we arrived at the Chateau de Lastours estate’s 90km of off-roading rally testing area, the AMG G-Class was swapped out due in part to the G63’s twin exhausts being impractically situated under the rear passenger’s door.
This meant it couldn’t be used to climb up some of the incredibly steep rocky testing tracks used by rally teams as they prepared for such events as Paris to Dakar.
Instead the new Mercedes-Benz G500 was called into the duty — and it ate the tracks that a mountain goat would hesitate to leap up.
Facing the steep rock wall-like tracks, the G500 effortlessly climbed 45-degree inclines and crawled down steep precipices all without the use of hill-decent control — instead the magic the Mercedes’s low range four-wheel-drive system came into play.
At the edge of that infamous precipice, the AMG driving instructor added low ratio 4WD, applied 360-degree camera so I could see over the lip, and told me to take my foot off the brake and let the G500 do the rest.
Having faith in the machinery, I aimed over the lip and the G500 clambered down at 5km/h.
Then at the bottom came the instruction: Engage reverse.
Using the rear-view camera, I backed up the rocky track (go to Driven.co.nz to the videos of our off-road exercises).
The AMG G63 showed its heritage with the highlight of the visit to the test track.
We headed up the mountain where there is a rally test track at the top including the Sebastien Loeb corner — which he infamously missed.
The test was to drive the G63 as fast as you could — and safely of course — with an instructor beside you.
The way that the G63 ate the rock surface and tempted me to drift through a few tight corners was exhilarating.
It wasn’t the fastest time — as the instructor kept asking me to slow down — but it showed why this G-Wagen is so popular that there is a waiting list and lottery for it in the UAE.
Back in New Zealand you may have to win the lottery to buy the G63, but that doesn’t stop customers clambering for one. How much so? There are no G-Class models on Mercedes-Benz NZ’s press fleet as the customers come first — and nab any that arrive on our shores.
So the southern France drive programme is the first time I’ve been behind the steering wheel of one, and not just the latest versions.
You may ignore the boxy look of the G-Wagen, but add the latest technology, safety features, and exceptional suspension system — plus off-roading ability that has to be seen to be believed — preferably seen when seated behind the steering wheel.