Payne: Mercedes-AMG G63 is like a Wrangler on steroids

Posted by Talbot Payne on September 7, 2019

Vroom. With all-wheel-drive capability, locking differentials, and big departure and approach angles, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 likes to hang out with ATVs.

Vroom. With all-wheel-drive capability, locking differentials, and big departure and approach angles, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63 likes to hang out with ATVs. (Photo: Henry Payne, The Detroit News)

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mercedes was an aftermarket performance-mod shop for Jeeps.

Consider the fire-breathing all-road beast prowling my driveway, the 2019 Mercedes-AMG G63: Boxy shape like Jeep Wrangler. Ladder frame like a Wrangler. Round headlights. Square fenders. Locking differentials. Rear-door mounted spare. Dash-mounted grab handle. Even the door locks go WHAP!  when you shift into Drive.

A Wrangler, yes?

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Mercedes shipped the Jeep off to Austria, gutted it, and then rebuilt it as a luxury hot rod. It has gorgeous twin digital screens, remote rotary controller and touchpad and red leather and Nappa seats (oooohh!). The engine compartment is stuffed with a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 that churns out 577 horsepower. Quad exhaust pipes exit the side rocker panels like a Dodge Viper, and let out a VROOOOMMM! when you press the start button.

If I didn’t know Mercedes-Benz was a Stuttgart-based luxury automaker, I’d think they were the Jeep equivalent to the Lingenfelter, Callaway and Roush mod shops that inject steroids into Dream Cruisin’ Chevy and Ford cars and trucks.

But the G63 is German from the ground up.

It was just a year ago that Mercedes stole the Detroit auto show with the all-new G-Class truck on which the AMG G63 performance model is based.

The first remake of the iconic truck in three decades, the 2019 G-Class — popularly known as the G-Wagen — was thoroughly reworked from stem to stern with Mercedes’ state-of-the-art drivetrain, interior and electronics.

If the Land Rover Sport is the $100,000 equivalent of the Jeep Grand Cherokee for well-heeled customers, then the G-Wagen is the six-figure Wrangler for the well-to-do. At a nose-bleed price of $125,000, the base G-Wagen is a Wrangler in a tuxedo with an interior so rich you want to lick it, and a 417-horse V-8 to hammer asphalt into submission.

But, God bless them, Mercedes is not content with a base G-Class. Like the Challenger Hellcat, the BMW M or the Audi RS, the German luxury-maker has gone off and made a fiendish AMG performance version of the G-Class called the G63.

My $166,000 tester is the most bonkers vehicle I have driven. Ever. It’s even more insane than the Hellcat-engine-infused, 707-horse Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk or GMC Hummer that migrated from Mideast battlefields to American roads.

Interestingly, the latter was popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also debuted the G-Wagen in Detroit in 2018. Seems they share an Austrian birthplace. Nothing says intimidating like the Terminator.

The G63 is no mere Jeep Trackhawk that wants only to terrorize race tracks. Not content to set asphalt on fire with 3.9-second zero-60 launches, G63 also wants to go off-road with three — count ’em, three — locking differentials. It’s the first vehicle that I’ve taken to the Mounds Off-road Vehicle Park in Flint and drag racing on Woodward … in the same day.

The G63 is pure conspicuous consumption. (Maybe that’s why Mercedes has debuted its Q-class EV: to atone for its sins). On my hour drive to the Mounds, I blew a Challenger off the road, idled loudly in a construction zone and consumed about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.

But I didn’t sweat the 12.7 mpg because I knew there would be gas stations just miles from the Mounds. When Rivian comes out with its $150,000 all-electric, all-terrain SUV next year, the G-wagen will be tough competition.

Entering the Mounds, I armed my off-road tank for battle. Toggle the low gear setting, shift into neutral, then lock up all three differentials. I’ll leave the why of three differentials to the engineers, but all I know is this thing will climb trees.

Even outfitted with low-profile, sporty Goodyear Eagle 22-inch tires (for Woodward burnouts) rather than more appropriate off-road knobbies, the G63 grunted around the Mounds like it was its backyard sandbox. The Jeepish grab-handle is wrapped in leather (natch), so if Mrs. Payne were along for the ride, she’d have something to hold on to.

The Mounds is Wrangler, ATV and dirt bike territory. Jaws dropped as I rumbled by, rear-end slewing sideways, quad side pipes snorting obnoxiously. I don’t think anyone had ever seen a Mercedes there before.

“That is a gorgeous vehicle,” said one mud-caked ATV rider, drinking in my equally mud-caked chariot.

Too bad more G-Wagen owners don’t exercise their $100,000 animals up here. Maybe it’s because they would get the red leather interior muddy. With a whopping 9.5 inches of body clearance between the axles and 38-degree departure angle up front, the AMG 63 bounced along the Mounds moguls like a big puppy.

Its appetite for mud satisfied, G63 headed south for Woodward.

The G-Wagen is outfitted with Mercedes’ latest interior — twin instrument and console screens under one horizontal plane of glass, silver steering-wheel spokes festooned with controls including mini-touchpads to scroll the instrument display, rotary air vents, rotary infotainment controller with a touchpad that can read your handwriting.

But the G-Class doesn’t have the state-of-the-art infotainment system — triggered with a hearty “Hey, Mercedes!” — that debuted on the A-class this year allowing for direct, phone-like navigation commands. I entered an address on Woodward, then settled back into rouge-seated luxury.

The G63’s new electronic systems are oddly nervous for a car so indestructible. Proximity sensors went berserk at the sight of curbs, walls and drive-thru windows. I turned off the auto lane-keep system given its annoying habit of slamming the brakes whenever I diverged from a lane.

I’m particularly grateful for Merc’s placement of the engine start-stop button right next to the ignition button — so I can immediately turn off the annoying stall feature when I get in.

The G63’s handling is remarkably good for a rolling, solid-rear-axle shoebox, and I enjoyed some twisties on my way to Woodward Avenue.

Woodward is all about stoplight hole-shots.

A Mercedes-AMG CLA45 sedan, recognizing its big brother, shadowed me at a stoplight. On paper they do similar 0-60 times. But my V-8 monster got the jump and that was that.

Other muscle cars were less suspecting of the might beneath the skin of the big toaster. I dragged a Camaro SS and Audi RS5 that disappeared in my mirrors before they knew what hit them.

With its boxy proportions, the cabin comfortably fits four. Who knows, maybe Mercedes will bring a G-Wagen pickup to the U.S. someday just like a Jeep Gladiator.

With 577 horsepower.

2019 Mercedes-AMG G63

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, luxury sport utility vehicle

Price: G-Class base price $125,495 including $995 destination charge ($166,095 AMG G63 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter, bi-turbo V-8

Power: 577 horsepower, 627 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.9 sec. (Car and Driver); top speed, 137 mph

Weight: 5,842 pounds base

Fuel economy: EPA: 13 city/15 highway/14 combined (12.7 mpg observed)

Report card

Highs: On- and off-road power, state-of-the-art interior

Lows: What, no Wrangler-like swaybar disconnect? Needs its own fuel tanker

Overall: 4 stars

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