There is no shortage of luxury sport-utes in sunny southern California, home base of Truck Trend and Motor Trend. Three in particular are hot commodities in LA's posh enclaves: the Porsche Cayenne, Range Rover Sport, and Mercedes-Benz G 550.
Of this special set, the last - also the oldest and least refined - is the most badass of them all.
Just glance at any G-Class variant (we only get the G550 and G63 AMG in the States; 30 versions are sold around the globe), otherwise known as the Gelandewagen, and you know it's something special. Yes, it's essentially a rolling brick with four doors, two headlights, five seats, and a steering wheel, but open one of its bank-vault-solid doors and you'll find nearly the entire range of Mercedes' modern amenities. This wasn't always the case. Go back just a few years and the G-Class of yore was as filled with as many features as a Caterpillar dozer. Now that's cool.
To that point, the G's origins are wrought with badass-ness. Back in the 1970s, the G was engineered to be a universal soldier for military and law enforcement squads. Mercedes. It has things such as beefy solid axles, three locking differentials, full-time four-wheel drive, massive ground clearance, and what is essentially an armored undercarriage. And that's just the tip of the tech iceberg (which, if it truly existed, the Gelandewagen would likely easily surmount). Ruggedness courses through its reinforced brake lines.
Mercedes had no intention of selling a layman's version. It was only when a wealthy individual saw an ex-military Gelandewagen working on a farmer's land that such a model came to be. The well-heeled man convinced Benz to toss in cushier seats, a stereo, and air conditioning. His buddies liked the end result, and eventually, interest skyrocketed. Company officials decided to make some extra cash by "mass producing" a civilian edition.
Since 1979, Every G-Class has been built at Magna Steyr's factory near Graz, Austria. It takes 10 days to build one G-Class stuffed with more than 3 miles of wiring and covered in four layers of paint. Most of the work is done by hand.
The same people manufacture military versions at the same plant on the same line, so it's not unusual to see six-wheeled army-spec Gelandewagen goliaths fitted with machine gun mounts, grenade launchers, hard-core off-road paraphernalia, and full camouflage paint being assembled among more fashionable G63 AMGs.
These civilian and military wares (AMGs included) are continually tested on Austria's famous Schockl mountain. A team of veteran off-roaders beat G-Wagens every day by traversing a roughly 9-mile obstacle course set in a thick, rock-riddled forest. It's a trail from the innards of off-road hell, and the Gelandewagen tackles it without as much as a squeak. (Read more about my airborne experience on the Schockl here.) Mercedes says more than 80 percent of the 20,000 or so G-Wagens built since 1979 are still on (or off) the road today.
Put a Gelandewagen on the street, like I recently did in Miami, Florida, and you'd better pay extra attention. It drives like, well, a 30-plus-year-old truck. It leans and charges like a drunken rhino. Steering -- though heavily revised for 2013 -- is lackadaisical; rearward visibility is laughable. But that's exactly why it's so cool.
As the commander of this immensely capable, barely refined brute, you feel like a true, John McClane-esque badass. People gawk and point, and in the case of the G63 AMG, the side-mounted chrome exhaust burbles and barks with every throttle jab. (It flies like a Japanese bullet train locomotive).
Few vehicles today have this much extroverted character as the G-Class. It's such a winning personality that when product planners, engineers, and designers convened a few years ago in Stuttgart to hash out the G's latest refresh, one brave soul stood up and said something to the effect of: "Here's how we update the G-Wagen: Don't change anything."
Thankfully, that's exactly what they did. Well, sort of. Things like a new steering tune, COMAND, and a thoroughly revised interior arrived in 2013. AMG is only building half of the global demand for its G63, says AMG marketing chief Mario Spitzner. Why? Because Mercedes isn't about to mass-produce the Gelandewagen like any other passenger car. Plus, it wants the G to be somewhat exclusive.
Sadly, as you can imagine, much of the G's badass-ness goes underutilized in markets the world over. G-Wagens in southern California are more likely to patrol the Beverly Center's parking structure than one of the region's many ORV areas. Even fewer will ever hike a Schockl-esque trail like the Rubicon. Thousands of electronically controlled locking differentials will never get properly exercised. Cue your sad face emoticons.
Still, no matter where its rubber rolls, this rare and expensive devourer of rocks, ruts, and mountains that looks like a tank, drives like a bus, and gulps fuel like a semi-truck will always be one of the baddest-ass four-wheeled objects around.