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First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG

Joe Loriowriter

What to make of the fact that the Mercedes-Benz Galendewagen has seen a nearly fifty percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2011? The fact that this vehicle, which was originally designed for military, not civilian, use, is now more than thirty years old (it dates from 1979) apparently does little to deter its well-heeled buyers. Nor does the ancient SUV's appalling gas mileage (13 mpg combined city/highway, in the case of the G550). The fact that a GL, or an ML, is far roomier inside also appears to be irrelevant.

One assumes that most of those buyers rarely if ever use the G-wagen's three (!) locking differentials, or seriously tap into this vehicle's incredible off-road skill set -- which includes the ability to climb, or descend, a 45-degree slope. That off-road ability is the only rational reason to choose a G-class over one of Mercedes' far more modern SUVs. But rationality probably has little to do with a G-class purchase.

After three decades with only minimal changes, the G-wagen has emerged as an icon. The boxy design is now seen as a throwback style statement. This utilitarian vehicle has morphed into a wild-child image machine.

That idea that outrageous is a core component of the G-wagen's appeal is supported by this statistic: The AMG version has traditionally accounted for a majority of G-wagen sales. In no other Mercedes model line is the AMG version so popular.

Model year 2013, then, will be an important one for G-wagen clientele. After the G55 AMG disappeared for 2012 (only the G550 is currently sold in the United States), the AMG G-class returns, in the form of the new, 2013 G63 AMG.

Mercedes may be loath to mess with the G-wagen's design, but there's always room for a little more bling. Thus the 2013 model welcomes a strip of LEDs under the round headlights, red brake calipers, twenty-inch wheels, and a more aggressive lower fascia punctuated by three huge air intakes.

Mercedes also continues to build on the amusing dichotomy between the G's militaristic exterior and its Sybaratic interior. New interior features include a console-mounted knob controller for the standard Comand multi-media interface; a new iPad-style TFT-screen that sprouts out of the dash; and available Designo interior that decks out the upright cabin in quilted leather. A new electrical architecture allows such up-to-the-minute conveniences as internet access, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot assist.

Having bowed out with the old, supercharged, 5.5-liter V-8 under the hood, the AMG G-class returns with the new, 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 (having skipped over the normally aspirated 6.2-liter engine seen in most other AMG models). Now cranking out 544 hp (up from 507) and 560 pound-feet of torque, the burly new V-8 still emits a deep rumble from its side-exiting exhausts but also -- amusingly -- comes with auto stop/start. From rest, the AMG V-8 can have this tall, heavy beast hurtling along at 62 mph in only 5.4 seconds. Hauling it back down again are new brakes that feature six-piston calipers up front. Mercedes claims that the suspension has been revised for more dynamic handling -- too bad the steering, which is unbelievably slow and full of friction, discourages any exploration of the G's enhanced cornering abilities.

The greater disappointment for G-wagen buyers, however, probably would be that the G63 is not, in fact, the zenith of G-wagen outrageousness. Two other variants are even more absurd: the two-door convertible (complete with power top); and the G65 AMG, powered by a biturbo V-12 with 612 hp. Unfortunately, the two wildest G-wagens are not available in the United States.

2013 Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG

On sale: July
Base price: $129,000 (estimated)

Engine: 5.5-liter, twin-turbo V-8
Power: 544 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 560 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Four-wheel
Curb weight: 5625 lb
Wheels: 9.5 x 20 in
Tires: 275/50R20 tires