Coolness is always more special when it’s unexpected. The element of surprise, combined with time and place has a way of etching an experience into your memory in a way that nothing else really can. For example, discovering a new band on the Internet is great, but just think how it makes you feel when you’re at a city pub with some mates and you randomly discover them live. A 360 Modena at a show is good, but it’s more special when one unexpectedly blasts past you on a country road at dawn.
And so it was with the AMG G55. I always knew what the G55 was, but to be honest it was never really the type of car that piqued my interests. That ignorance just served to make its impact on me all the more profound.
This isn’t just a badass car; in it’s not-so-subtle black-on-black-on-black it’s the definition of a badass car. It has cages to protect the lights; it has side exit exhaust pipes, oversized Brembo brakes, blackened badging and piercing xenon lighting. But its pièce de résistance is the engine, a 500hp supercharged 5.4L AMG hand built V8. Despite its 2.5 tonne kerb weight the G55 really moves, 0-100 in 5.5 seconds isn’t slow, and it sounds ridiculously evil doing so. Higher rpm’s are matched by a howling supercharger whine, although you don’t need to be going quickly to enjoy the noise. Just puttering around town at fifty still brings a smile, the deep baritone burble rivaling most street machines.
The Gelandewagen’s pedigree adds just as much to its badass nature as its physical specifications do. First and foremost a military vehicle launched in 1979 at the request of the Shan of Iran, the G-Wagon is so effective that it is still used today by over 63 armies; the Australian Army has ordered 1,200 of them and Mercedes have agreed to supply them to NATO until 2025. It is still the official Popemobile after 22 years, and it won the Dakar rally in 1983.
The durability of the G-Wagon is famous; if apocalypse were to come this is most definitely the vehicle you’d want. It’s literally designed to last for a million miles, and everything on the car is totally rebuildable. Each G-Wagon is hand built by Magna-Steyr in Austria at a rate of just 15 cars per day, and the G55 is built on exactly the same production line as the military versions. Your Range Rover Sport is a pretty cool car, but it has nothing like the pedigree of the G.
You feel every inch of this history when you drive the G55, and every mile behind the wheel makes you feel like you’re on a secret raid deep into East Germany. Despite Mercedes’ best efforts to mask the madman hiding within, there’s no doubt as to the G55’s true origins. It still has a separate ladder chassis, and there’s no questioning the fully independent suspension’s off-road tuning. It features some serious all terrain hardware too – low range on the gearbox, 3 fully locking differentials and solid axles all around. The view out the almost vertical windscreen is pure 70’s German muscle – the flat screen presents a square, flat bonnet and a commanding view of the road. Aerodynamic is not really a word that readily comes to mind.
Nor does ergonomics. The interior is a rather curious place to be; on one hand you’re presented with the finest luxuries you’d expect from a brand new AMG, but on the other the proportioning and sizing is pure 70 Series Landcruiser. The seats are trimmed in sumptuous leather and feature air conditioning, heating and adjustable air cushion bolstering, but they are mounted tall and upright. There are grab handles everywhere for serious off-roading, but they’re trimmed in leather and carbon fiber.
To get in you first step over a running board, and then step over a Tron-esque illuminated AMG logo on the door sill. Mercedes have done a remarkably good job at modernizing the interior, however you can see compromise if you look close enough. The COMMAND navigation and entertainment screen is mounted too low for comfortable use, presumably because the switching for the diff locks and various other electronics are mounted above it and there are only a precious few inches between the dash and firewall. There’s not a ton of interior space either, which is surprising because the G55 looks like a big car. It’s not though – it’s only 66mm longer than the current Toyota RAV4 and barely 2mm wider.
You may have noticed that these pictures are unlike most other road test shots out there; that’s because we became probably the first people to tarmac rally a G55 at the recent Adelaide Hills Tarmac Rally. For this event I was co-driving again with Sebastian Lip in his R35 GTR as a zero car, although unfortunately we suffered a split oil line that forced us to retire the GTR at the end of Saturday’s competition. However another course car (in a role that didn’t require a roll cage) also had problems, so we decided to use the G55, Seb’s tow car, in that role for Sunday’s competition. Tarmac rallying a 2.5 tonne, 500hp SUV is definitely one of the more unique ways to spend a Sunday.
I’m going to be honest here – as expected, it wasn’t exactly fit for the task. But it’s worth mentioning that the G55 made a better tarmac rally car than the R35 made an off-roader. For what it is, it was surprisingly good. Its only ace is really its power, which demanded an extreme ‘point and squirt’ driving style. We did some filming for the TV crew where we mounted a camera to the front and tried to follow Rob Black’s classic 911S for as long as we could down the Paris Creek stage. That car has about 250hp and weighs just 990kg, so with similar power to weight ratio’s the G55 kept right on the 911’s tail off the start line. It was a completely different story once we reached the first corner, however.
The brakes on this particular G55 have been upgraded with the “Brembo Big Brake Kit”. This features Brembo’s 8 piston caliper with a massive 380mm cross drilled and vented rotor a the front and similar 4 piston 343mm rotors on the rear. They worked brilliantly and we suffered no fade, even after hauling the big tank repeatedly down from significant speed (even over 10+ km of the mostly downhill Paris Creek rally stage). However it all comes undone in the corners – no matter which way you work it, there’s no hiding that much mass and inertia travelling at that velocity. Whilst the G55’s center of gravity is very good for an off-roader, it’s still terribly high for this sort of work.
But it must be remembered that we were doing things that it was most definitely not designed for. Seb bought the G55 because he wanted to be able to tow his racecar in comfort at effortless road speed, and it excels at this more than anything else. After the rally we peeled the door stickers off, loaded the GTR onto the trailer and filled the car with five people and their luggage. Despite an all up weight of about 6 tonnes, the G55 held a rock solid 110km/h on the freeway, even towing up large hills.
The G55 definitely has its flaws, but to be honest these just add to its character. Whether on the rally stage, splashing through the dirt or stopping outside a restaurant for dinner, the G55 simply oozes presence. I don’t know if it’s that monstrous engine, if it’s the way the solid thunk of the doors closing highlights its quality or maybe it’s just its sheer ridiculousness, but the G55 has a real character and personality. I really wasn’t expecting it, and for that reason it is undeniably cool. At first I strongly disagreed with Richard Hammond when he said “I think I’ve just found the coolest car in the world” after he drove one on Top Gear, but after spending some time behind the wheel myself, I honestly think he couldn’t be more right.