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Whether you think "gangsta" or "Gelaendewagen" when you hear the letter "G," the Mercedes-Benz G Class probably fits your visual definition. It's boxy, brash, blingy, so out of date it's hopelessly hip. It's an Instagram version of the past, like playing Atari 2600 games on an iPad.
Best of all, the G Class is authentically an SUV--not a curvy crossover, not a control freak that strips the fun of challenging off-roading out of your hands. Based on a design said to have been built for the Shah of Iran's military, back in the late 1970s, the G-Class has evolved only when it had to, meeting safety and emissions regulations and the luxury needs of the day as they popped up in its more than 33 years on sale. It's an automotive piece of amber jewelry, preserved in one form, recast as a pretty bauble for another purpose entirely.
It's one of the most capable sport-utes on the planet-and one of the most expensive. With a base price of more than $100,000, the G Class is a cult object and a celebrity magnet, with its only real competition being the Land Rover Range Rover or, possibly, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX 570 twins. Even in that very small competitive set, it stands out in sharp relief. The sides are flat, the roofline high and horizontal, the outline relentlessly rectilinear. It's been softened inside, though, with a new set of gauges this year, a big LCD screen for infotainment features, and through the years, layer upon layer of leather, wood, and chrome to disguise its origins.
The 2013 G Class is carried over in base form as the G550, powered by a 5.5-liter V-8 with 388 horsepower, coupled to a seven-speed automatic, with power channeled through its four-wheel-drive system, low and high ranges, and three locking differentials. The twin-turbocharged version of the same V-8 nets out at 544 hp in the G63 AMG, shaving almost a second from the G550's 0-60 mph time of 6.0 seconds--down to 5.3 seconds--though they share a limited top speed of 130 mph and abysmal gas mileage of 12/15 mpg, and possibly less.On-road performance is about what you'd think. The top-heavy feel and hefty controls demand attention, though electric steering feels lighter than the former recirculating-ball setup. Astonishing ultimate grip gets tempered often by aggressive traction and stability control--and it has to, to manage the G's plentiful body roll. Ride quality's managed well enough for such a rugged ute, though noise levels climb on textured pavement and gravel paths. The G's appeal is all about the latter, and once it's off any kind of graded path, it shines. Locking any or all of the differentials exposes the real SUV underneath the layers of refinement, and it just keeps clawing its way over rocky paths and plugging through muddy bogs, places where you'll only find Defenders and other endangered species.
Inside, the G-Class impresses with all the headroom you're likely to need. It is somewhat narrow, though, and front-seat passengers will notice the width the most since the center console is fairly tall and bulky. The seats themselves are typically firm and power-adjustable, with multicontour adjustments. The second-row bench has some bottom-cushion tilt to soften the flat cushion. It's a five-seat SUV with plenty of cargo room, but passengers will notice it takes a good climb to get into the G-Class, and cargo loading through the side-hinged rear door takes a higher lift than in today's crossovers. High-quality materials and an excellent finish mark the cabin.
Neither the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) nor the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) has crash-tested the G-Class. Anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution along with stability control are standard in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz G Class, as are side-seat and curtain airbags. A rearview camera is standard, and it's useful since visibility is constrained at the rear, where a wide frame surrounding the rear window blocks out most of the view. A lane-departure warning system and blind-spot monitors are new additions to the safety list.
Those upgrades are joined by more infotainment features than ever. Each G Class has Bluetooth connectivity, a sunroof, a navigation system with 40GB of hard drive space for maps and music, a six-DVD audio system, satellite and HD radio, real-time traffic, an iPod interface, a wood-and-leather heated steering wheel, and heated and cooled leather seats in front, with heated second-row seats standard as well. Now, both the G550 and G63 AMG also have mbrace2--a mobile-app connectivity suite that enables apps like Yelp and Facebook through the G's COMAND controller.
The G550 is expected to be priced from more than $107,000 when it goes on sale in August 2012; prices haven't been mooted for the G63 AMG, but it arrives in showrooms at the same time.