Gone crazy

Sirish Chandran  /
22 May 2013 22:17:20 IST

Mercedes G55 AMG

Door handles reminiscent of those on old Trax but of course don't come off in your hand. Rear-view camera a must considering rear visibility non-existent. Below: High centre of gravity evident while cornering but for something that feels like a bank vault it moves with muscle car rapidity.

This is quite possibly the stupidest car on sale in India right now. And also the most heart-achingly desirable.

With that, dear reader, we wrap up the test of the Mercedes-Benz G55 AMG. Or I would have except there are a further five pages to fill up which forces me to elaborate. And what better place to start than the stupidest number you will see in this story (actually in this magazine): Rs 1.1 crore.

I repeat, Rs 1.1 crore.

That's how much the G55 AMG costs which doesn't even include taxes, registration, insurance and what not, which will probably be another 20 lakh rupees. Maybe more. Sure this is not the first car in India to cost over a crore of rupees. Over the years we've actually gotten over the shock of seeing so many zeroes tacked on to a price tag but ` 1.1 crore for something that looks like a hopped-up Sumo or Trax? Wow! Our sister magazine Forbes India says there are 55 billionaires in India (ten times that if all the black money is accounted for). But getting somebody to splurge that kind of cash on the G-Wagen when he could have got an S500 and spare cash for fuel, that's the ultimate indicator of the disposable income floating around in the country.

Because the G-Wagen is 31 years old. Even older if you account for the fact that the first Gelandewagens (overland vehicles) were delivered to the German Army way back in 1972. This not just makes it way, way older than your writer, but it's probably way older than you are. An anachronism in an industry where change is the only constant (and no, please don't point to the Amby).

That it looks like a Sumo or Trax then isn't the G-Wagen's fault. The Sumo came along 13 years later and the slab sides, clamshell bonnet, breadbox proportions, even the nose and the size and position of the logo were all a bindaas copy of the G-Wagen. It's so eerily similar that excited villagers interrupted our shoot a dozen times to check out the new Sumo (and then we had to rush them to hospital after they heard the price).

Maybe it's all that shameless copying - I don't know - but you have to admit there's a certain timeless appeal to the rugged, utilitarian, military-esque design, born in an era when designers exclusively used rulers. Heck, I'm even going to go ahead and call it iconic. Along with the Land Rover Defender, this is the last of the dinosaurs, from a time when men were men and pedestrian crash safety norms were for sissies. The hoi-polloi will not get it but to those who know cars, the G-Wagen will make perfect sense parked next to a Ferrari. If I were on the Forbes list, my garage would have one.

Step inside though and you will be amazed by how engineers have managed to shove in a properly modern, properly Mercedes interior. Great materials, great quality and luxury touches you would expect, all are there and present including a smattering of AMG badges. But then you slam the door shut (and you have to SLAM it shut) and you're quickly taken back to the good ol' days. It's a metal-on-metal clank you will remember from the Sumo, and then you lock the doors and the ferocious KHATANK like the bolts falling into place in a Swiss bank vault will leave you startled. In fact the cabin has the integrity and solidity of a bank vault and feels practically indestructible.

It is also a weird mix of the old and new. The seats are lovely with adjustable side supports but the lumbar control is positioned so awkwardly that it gets in the way every time you buckle the belts. Forward visibility is brilliant, thanks to A-pillars that are no thicker than little twigs and the slab edges and indicators on the top of the front wings allow it to be positioned with inch perfect accuracy. Perfect for negotiating minefields. But rear visibility is all but non-existent which makes the rear-view camera less a luxury and more a necessity. The cup holders are little foldable nets in the driver's footwell. Worst of all, for all the space she occupies on the road there isn't all that much interior room, the door openings are so small it's a task to clamber into and there is no third row seating. Not an SUV to be chauffeur-driven in then.

Which is just as well considering the ride quality is terrible. This is an honest to god SUV, a steel body bolted on to an industrial-grade ladderframe chassis running on live axles and sprung by leaf springs. Back then nobody thought that SUVs would be tested at the Nurburgring or be used by yummy mummies to pick their kids from school. SUVs were designed and built to win wars and cross the Sahara. That's what the G-Wagen did, winning the Paris-Dakar rally, transporting German and other armed forces, serving as UN ambulances and even doing duty as the Popemobile.

Even today there has been no dumbing down of its capabilities. This is the only production SUV in the world with three locking differentials. Engage low ratio, centre, rear and front diffs and it will clamber straight up mountains and pull out tanks stuck in a sand pit. It becomes a freaking tank. The G-Wagen has a well-earned reputation of being among the best, if not the best off-roader on the planet and I have no reason to doubt that. Not that I tried anything of course. For all the G-Wagen's legendary abilities, the G55 shoots itself in the foot with its massive 19-inch high-performance 275/55 street tyres that aren't much cop at off-roading nor do they do the ride any favours.

But it is just as well considering there's a ridiculous 507PS of power. If a sports car had that much power we'd be getting a hard-on. This is an SUV with 507PS of power. Actually let's re-phrase that: this is a 70s SUV with 507PS of power. And 700Nm of torque. There's so much torque it only needs a 5-speed auto. Or maybe there's so much torque the 7-speed auto will turn to pulp. Ludicrous! What possible reason could there be for shoe-horning a supercharged 5.5-litre V8 into a G-Wagen? Mental doesn't even come close to describing it, and as is to be expected it makes the G55 stupidly fast. Wet-your-pants quick. Sitting two storeys up in the air only makes it feel doubly quicker and to top it all there's the noise. Oh the noise!

Like old Mahindra jeeps, the G55 also has exhausts poking from the side, ahead of the rear tyres. Unlike those old Mahindras these are twin rocket-launcher barrels on both the sides, chrome-tipped for effect, and the thunder that emanates soiled many pants on the expressway. Imagine a chappie who's driving with vigour and then blasting past him at twice the speed of sound, in something that looks like a Sumo (at that speed definitely a Sumo), the gods of thunder hollering straight into his ear as it passes by. Hilarious. I haven't laughed as much as I've laughed in the G55, and it becomes even more ridiculous in tunnels, the exhaust bouncing off the walls, booming like the apocalyptic end.

It's such an intoxicating growl that I couldn't do a fuel efficiency run on the G55. Couldn't drive it for more than two minutes without flooring it and scaring the hell out of other road-users. Just how fast is the G55? 6.3 seconds to 100kmph, that's how fast. So in something that looks like a Sumo you can smoke E- and S-Classes. This is faster than an SLK. Faster than the Audi TT. Faster than the BMW Z4. One of the fastest cars we've tested in this country. Isn't that ridiculous?

That said the G55 isn't without its flaws. There is, in fact, a whole rosterful of them. The ride is poor, interior space is tight and the slow-acting recirculating ball steering has a million turns lock-to-lock. At first the heft and weight gives the G55 a nice solidity and imperiousness but very soon it gets tiring. The handling, while admittedly very good for something so old, will have you calling out to all your gods if you carry as much speed round corners like you would in any modern SUV. As for fuel efficiency, I don't think you even want to know. There are in fact a million reasons why the G55 makes no sense whatsoever, the stupid price headlining them all.

And yet... none of it matters. This is one of the coolest and most interesting vehicles I've driven in a long time. I am in love.

Tags:  | suv  | Mercedes-Benz  | mercedes g55  | g55 amg

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