I turned 39 this year and as the grey hairs poking out of my beard will attest, I’m no longer a spring chicken. Even less of a spring chicken is the car I’m driving. The backstory is a familiar tale: the Shah of Iran, a significant Mercedes-Benz stakeholder in the seventies, wanted a cross-country vehicle for his armed forces to venture far and wide. Testing in the Sahara and the Arctic Circle revealed a 4×4 so capable it was quickly civilised, going on sale a year after I was born. A year later the Pope got his Popemobile. Three years later, a near-stock G-Class won the Paris-Dakar rally. Then came three locking differentials. Air-con, ABS, an auto ’box, all kinds of engines, a dash fashioned out of something more than metal sheets folded by pliers – everything was thrown at the G. An (intended) end-of-story ‘Classic’ edition came and went twenty years ago; it was followed by another end-of-line ‘Grand’ edition. AMG shoe-horned a V12 into it. A ludicrous 6×6 version murdered a few dunes. The US Army militarised it into the Fast Attack Vehicle. Maybach left the rear quarters open to the skies and slapped a half a million dollar price tag on it. It’s an incredible story, a slab-sided 38-year-old dinosaur that is still ticking away, every minor update managing to land itself on the covers of magazines! This is the newest variant – the Edition 463 sticker job – and it is causing accelerated greying of my stubble as arms saw away at the steering wheel in response to a planted right foot.
Anybody can drive fast in a straight line. Modern electronics, modern traction control systems, modern tyres, you launch a high-performance car and you get catapulted to the horizon. Noise might overwhelm you. The rapidity with which numbers build up on the speedo might cause an accident in your pants. The physicality of all the g’s punching you into the seat might leave you breathless, if not cause actual pain. But swallow the fear and anybody can hold on and go.
None of this applies to the G 63 AMG. It’s the only 4×4 I’ve ever driven that has torque steer. Floor it and the all-mighty wall of noise makes you jump out of your pants, forget the havoc it wrecks on other road users. It can actually cause an accident and I mean it in all sincerity. So anyway you climb back into your own pants, brace for thunder from the twin side-exiting exhausts, and keep your foot pinned in. The G 63 catches whatever camber, whatever rut is there on the road and drags you into it. It’s like a tightly wound limited-slip differential on a rally car, wherever the G 63 finds traction it pulls itself in that direction. And behind the steering wheel your hands are a blur trying to bring the G 63 back in line. It’s a slow and languid rack, befitting of an extreme 4×4 that needs to crawl over the Himalayas and plough through the Sahara, and the gazillion turns lock-to-lock struggle to contain the tsunami of torque clawing into the tarmac – a full 760Nm of it. If you told me you need skill to hold a fast car in a straight line I’d have laughed you off. Not anymore. When you give the G 63 AMG everything, you better have your wits about you; you better be quick to dial in steering lock else it could all end in tears. And in the midst of it all you better be careful not to smash your elbow on the right door pad.
The G 63 really has too much power for its own good. No matter how much the chassis has been tweaked, this is still a ladder-frame with the body bolted on top of it. You’re sitting on the moon. Steering precision and accuracy are conspicuous by their absence. And none of this information is new to Mercedes-Benz – that’s why they made the GL-Class in the first place. Well GLS-Class if you’re paying attention to Merc’s new naming nomenclature.
The S-Class of SUVs
That’s what the G in GLS denotes. G, meanwhile, is for Gelandewagen, German for off-road vehicle and homage to its father, to the SUV it was supposed to replace. It never did because Mercedes found a new set of buyers for the GL while the G continued to soldier on with its loyal following.
The GLS 63 AMG is the newest addition to Merc’s SUV portfolio that already numbers well over a dozen. Well, new is a term applied very loosely because the biggest change when the GL became the GLS was the suffix, the SUV itself was but mildly facelifted. The differences on the AMG side of things are a little more dramatic though. The air dam is gigantic, the nostrils are monstrous and the flanks have been given massively flared wheelarches to contain the 21-inch rims. The old GL AMG would have got 4 out of 10 on the styling front; the GLS AMG gets 7. Maybe 8. It does look every bit as dramatic in the flesh as it does in these pictures: awesome is an appropriate word to describe it.
It also feels awesome from the inside. For starters you sit low, inside the SUV and not on its roof. You still get an elevated view out front but at the same time you get a crucial sense of confidence in the GLS 63 as you grip a fat, small(ish)-diameter, Alcantara-trimmed, flat-bottomed steering wheel. Yummy. Fire it up and the mighty 5.5-litre V8 barks into life, settling into a terrific burble at idle. Not intrusive but unmistakably sporty. Your neighbours rush to their balconies and wonder how the hell does a Sumo-kinda-thing make a noise like the apocalypse.
While the powertrain is retained from the GL 63 an additional 27 horses have been massaged out of the mighty M197 V8 taking max power up to an unbelievable 577bhp. 577bhp in an SUV with three rows of seats! Max torque remains mighty and unchanged, all 760Nm of it, channelled via the 7G-Tronic gearbox. I suspect 760Nm is way too much for the new 9G-Tronic to contain, and anything more than 760Nm would probably be too much for even the 7G-Tronic. Actually 760Nm is too much for any SUV to handle, except the GLS hasn’t been adapted from an army off-roader of the seventies. This is an SUV that sits at the top of Mercedes-Benz’s pyramid, incorporating everything the German powerhouse have learnt over the years. You can take this to a drag race and win against supercars (no jokes, we did it with an ML 63, and this one accelerates even harder!). Floor it and it grips and goes, tracking a line straight and true. There is fear, the knuckles do turn white, but it’s because the brain cannot keep up with the impossible turn of pace, not the demands placed on your wheelsmanship. Behind the ’wheel you’re just holding on, not fighting anything, not making any steering corrections; the GLS 63 remains straight as an arrow and to top it all the ride is so good it not only flattens bumps but continues to accelerate over them without skipping or hopping. The ridiculous thing is not that the GLS 63 bends the laws of physics but the effortlessness of the defiance.
It also goes round corners. Of course there’s no finesse to it, no pointy front end, no torque vectoring getting the tail rotating mid-corner, no four-wheel drift on the exit, and no match for a go-faster Cayenne. It’s just a mountain of grip. And barely any roll. Sport+ mode – yes Sport+ on an SUV! – stiffens the dampers while putting the powertrain on heightened aggression while Active Curve Control uses active anti-roll bars to flatten the body while being cornered aggressively. As before, the front will push when you go in too hot, and as before the speeds at which this happens are ridiculous.
Equally ridiculous is the fact that you can do all this with a six-member rock band piled into the GLS – and they will all be comfortable. No Cayenne can do that. Last year, we went on a road trip with Indie-rock band Sky Rabbit to get an expert thesis on the AMG soundtrack and what Ouseph Chacko penned back then is valid even now. ‘At low speeds, its rumble is an underlying cello in a muted orchestra – it’s there but it’s never intrusive. As revs pick up it builds into this full-bodied… forgive me, it’s hard to explain… tingle that you feel in the pit of your stomach. Hit the redline and pull in the next gear from the paddleshift and there’s a minor thunderclap from the pipes before the next gear plays the whole baritone to a gritty double-bass drum roll all over again.’ For Rs 1.58 crore (down by over twenty lakh rupees!) you get four pipes sticking out the back of a penthouse-on-wheels that makes sweet, sweet music. All of which begs the question, why is the G 63 AMG still around?
In 1990, the G-Wagen got three locking differentials and that brings me to today’s engineering lesson. You know what a differential does, that magic piece of equipment that lets you go round a circle with the outside wheels (that prescribe a wider arc) rotating faster than the inside wheels. Magic, except when one wheel is stuck in mud – the differential then sends all the power to that wheel rotating freely without any grip ensuring you’re never going to get out. Enter locking differentials.
Switch number one of the G’s fascia locks the centre differential so that the same amount of torque goes to the front and rear axles. But you’re still stuck (you’ve really effed things up here!). No worries, switch number two activates the rear differential to ensure that both the rear wheels turn at the same speed, so in cases where both the fronts and also one rear wheel is stuck, the G will send torque to the other rear wheel that has traction to get it moving. And when only one front wheel has traction the third switch locks the front differential and all four wheels of the G rotate at the same speed to conquer the Sahara.
The Edition 463 you see here celebrates the W463 that came in 1990, the model designation the G-Class still goes by because even Mercedes has to admit they’ve not done enough for the G to get a new model code. So what’s new over the ‘Crazy Colour’ edition launched last year? (Yes, they actually called it that)! Ummm… new stickers and a price tag that’s gone up by twenty lakh rupees. Three locking differentials or not, when your 4×4 costs Rs 2.17 crore you’ve got to be insane to go 4×4-ing with it.
I did not lock the differentials. I stuck to tarmac, gave it the beans, and good lord, lost all ability to be objective and level-headed. If I’m wearing my road-tester hat the G 63 AMG will have to be written off. It is a bouncy, imprecise, cramped, hairy, lairy, heart attack-inducing aerodynamic brick. There isn’t even a cup or mobile phone holder. What the G 63 has is character. It is amongst the absolute coolest thing on four wheels. Just looking at it makes you love it – and if you’re an unemotional type that doesn’t get swayed by these things, the deep-chested gurgle at 1500rpm will push you to the other side. It’s so cool that you stick it in manual mode, click it into seventh gear, and just feather the throttle to hear it burbling. Then you see a tunnel, you bang it down the gearbox, and accelerate through the tunnel, the side-exiting exhaust ricocheting the insanely loud exhaust blare off the walls. And then everything is drowned out by the wind noise, you look down, and notice the speeds start with a two and then you hit the 210kmph cut-out. It’s mad fast, mad powerful and way too mad for AMG to let you do more than 210kmph in it. It also involves you in the driving experience like an AMG GT S does when faced with a set of twisties. I don’t believe I’ve just said that!
The G is a time machine to an era where A-pillars were thin, bonnet edges were visible and doors needed to be slammed shut. The fact that the G has more than a few grey hairs poking out of its stubble is exactly what makes it so desirable. It is a seventies off-roader with Apple CarPlay. Imagine if Mercedes made a 300SL Gullwing with modern tyres and cooled leather seats, that’s what the G 63 is. And it can still teach its kids – well, grandkids – a trick or two.