Driven: 2009 Mercedes-Benz G55 AMG

May 14, 2009
2009 Mercedes-Benz G Class 5.5L AMG

2009 Mercedes-Benz G Class 5.5L AMG

Have you heard? Frugal is the new wretched excess. Target’s Merona house brand is the new Paul Smith, Kia, the new Aston Martin. Should I say it louder? Really, luxe is dead. Really!

Unless you still have dough, in which case none of the above applies. Exclusivity still trumps piety and it will as long as capitalism continues to dance on communism’s grave.

Exhibit A: The $119,450 AMG G55. Yeah that AMG, the elite division of Mercedes where everything they turn out is bespoke. And business at AMG? According to U.S. Product Manager Robert Allan, it’s just fine, thanks for asking.

As for this specific AMG, you might consider it particularly decadent, wrong for our times, even sinful. It is, after all, born from a military heritage, built body-on-frame, with three differential locks and a low-range transfer case—all of which give it more off-road grit than any buyer in this income bracket will ever put to good use. And it’s also bristling with machismo: The 5.5-liter supercharged V-8 makes no apologies for blasting the asphalt with 500hp/516 lbs. ft. of torque; in fact, just the opposite is true, with the chrome-tipped exhaust custom plumbed to make the engine sound like it belongs under the hood of circa late-1960s GTO rather than the product of the bespectacled badasses in Affalterbach, Germany—a.k.a., AMG HQ.

Then again, it’s arguable the G-Wagen, as its faithful fans call it, is precisely the thing that makes capitalism beautiful. That argument: that a specific few customers (Mercedes won’t talk numbers but the safe bet is fewer than 2,000 a year — half of which are AMG buyers) can get a severely fast street rod that’s both on- and off-road capable. And that these happy few folks want to go beyond the Range Rover echelon.

It’s not all about the motor, either. The AMG G55, according to Allan, is the product of specific skid-pad testing; the suspension of the G550 is beefed up and tuned for the AMG product and it shows; whereas the last “stock” G-Wagen I drove was more readily thrown off its line by cross-winds, the still boxy G55 felt rock-stable on the Interstate at 95mph (hey, it’s product testing, not speeding!). The AMG-Wagen is also lighter on its feet through tight turns than you’d expect from a solid-axle truck weighing north of 5,500 lbs.

Let’s not forget the posh interior. AMG customers can opt for unique, designo-edition touches such as premium woods and fabrics. My tester had a super-plush, charcoal theme, with handsome swathes of richly stained maple, Nappa leather seating surfaces, extra thick carpeting, and even a suedlike synth-leather-liner for the ceiling. The net effect of this cabin is exceptionally swish—you ought to wear Cashmere when you get behind the wheel. It helps that the custom-tuned, 5.1 Dolby Digital surround audio system from Harmon/Kardon isn’t only powerful but highlighted nuances in my Fleet Foxes driving soundtrack I’d never heard on my distinctly more lo-fi home system.

All this AMG gluttonousness got you a little queasy? I’ll perk you up with a splash of warm Dom—this ’wagen has a few warts.

For one, it is exceptionally tall but not exceptionally wide so loading anything of significant size—even with the rear seats flipped forward—is a trial-and-error process. Compared to more evolved SUVlike critters on unibody platforms, the Gwagen isn’t the pragmatic antique bobble gatherer you might expect. Also, said rear seats do flip forward—but they don’t have anchors to remain “flipped” and can come crashing backwards upon acceleration, crushing whatever you’ve stowed aftwards.

And let's not forget the significant 91 octane swill rate of this box, a distinctly insatiable 11 city/13 highway. True, G55 customers don't have to choose between their petrol and Petrosian tabs, but there's a fashion statement at play here and Hummerlike guzzling in 2009 is about as popular as as Dick Cheney.

Does the average buyer give a damn about any of those latter quibbles? Unlikely. Because the delicious aspects of the G55 far outweigh any bitter aftertaste. That is, if you’re still wealthy enough to dine on such rich fare.

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