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.