Let’s be honest, this conversation happens in rarified air. If you’re in the mood to debate what six-figure SUV is best for your needs, or even if you’re simply in the mood to debate what beautiful, sculptural, power-harnessing, high-octane (premium only, please) piece of German machinery is the superior vehicle, there’s a good chance you’re seated on a plump leather sofa sipping away at an impress-the-emperor Japanese whiskey. Life hasn’t, it’s safe to assume, tossed you under the overpass these two machines will loudly roar over.
Now let’s imagine for a minute I’m there next to you, with Brahms adding context in the background. And I’ll happily play guide through this though exercise, as I’ve spent considerable wheel-time in the last few months in both Mercedes-Benz’s largest SUV, the GLS550, and Mercedes-Benz’s most beguiling SUV, the AMG G63.
The Life-Saving Luxo-Barge
On the two-lane road between the towns of Phoenicia and Big Indian, in New York’s Catskills, the speed limit is 50 mph. I was driving 55 mph, casually returning from a dinner with my girlfriend at the Peekamoose, our bellies full of rainbow trout and ribeye. A quarter-mile down the road from the restaurant, he tried to kill us.
Engine: 4.7L V8 biturbo
Horsepower: 449 @ 5250-5500 rpm
Torque: 516 lb-ft @ 1,800-3,500 rpm
0-60 MPH: 5.2 seconds
Towing Capacity: 7,500 lbs
Fuel Economy: 14/18 (city/highway)
At a stop sign ahead, a 2500 pickup truck sat idling. Plenty of time passed for the pickup to enter the road, but he waited for our approach. When we were only a dozen yards away, he pulled out. Suicide? Homicide? Alcohol? Drugs? Ignorance? Misjudgment? Hard to say. But what happened next sold me on the GLS550 forever. I spun the wheel to the left, guiding the behemoth over the center line, into the opposite lane — where the nose of his truck had entered, its midsection and bed taking up the entirety of my lane — and on into the partially gravel shoulder. I turned the wheel back right, hitting the gas to grab traction on the rear tires, and accelerated back across the center line. We were alive, safe, and very awake.
That did it for me. This massive hunk of steel navigated the situation like a McLaren — nimble, responsive and entirely balanced. That and it carried two bicycles, four bags and two passengers cozily, seat massagers engaged. With the fold-down third seat, the roomy cabin, easy steering and all the hi-tech comforts of a modern Mercedes-Benz, it’s simply the biggest, best luxo-barge I’ve captained; and its engineering competence may save your life.
Best Fit: the entire family. Comfortably and safely.
Grade: A+, with extra marks for life-saving abilities.
The Peacocking German Tank
Parked at the Hemlock Trail trailhead in Saratoga Springs, a small layer of snow on the ground, I dismounted the orange G63. Gravel trails befit this tank, but today it stopped well short of a Camel Trophy expedition. Moments later, a Land Rover LR4 pulled up in the parking lot, and a jolly man and his dog hopped out. We exchanged pleasantries, he asked about the distinctive color (“I’ve never seen it in orange!”), and we laughed about having never maximized the potential off-road abilities of our luxury overlanding vehicles. Ha! Consider it! At this price tag? Never!
Engine: handcrafted AMG 5.5L V8 biturbo
Transmission: AMG Speedshift Plus 7G-Tronic
Horsepower: 563 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 561 lb-ft @ 1,750-5,250 rpm
0-60 MPH: 5.4 seconds
Towing Capacity: 7,000 lbs
Fuel Economy: 12/14 (city/highway)
And such is the good life. The G-Wagon — essentially unchanged in design since the ’70s — is a vestige of practical times past and an homage to excess. It’s a truck with three locking differentials and designo leather seats and a sound system that quite literally pumps enough decibels to get too loud (protect your ears). It drives like a tank, yet dutifully relays every road undulation and imperfection to the driver like a sportscar. And its biturbo V8 guzzles gas with the best of the One Percent (I averaged 12.3 mpg on my 650 miles driven). But o’ how those dual-side exhausts sing! And o’ how that square, boxed off look is cool! And o’ the off-roading potential! I could drive it to Baja! Peru! Over the Andes! Through the Amazon! Valet at Bar Marmont!
Reality check: with a person of any significant height in the front seat, the back seat does not exist (it’s best to think of the truck as a coupe). There are two cup holders (both in the rear seats). To shut the doors fully takes an act of God (no kid strength here). Any corner taken at over 20 mph feels like a potential topple (on/off-ramps included). And the steering is so damn tight (on the positive, a great forearm workout).
And yet, like few other cars ever have (a Maclaren 675LT, a Bentley Continental GT3, Range Rover SVR), it made me feel things I never hoped to feel: I felt like a badass dude with a super cool car. Plus, kudos should be given to Mercedes-Benz for achieving the truck feel. Slamming shut the doors, peeking over the front grille guard and those frog-eye blinkers, glancing over the three locking differentials while adjusting the stereo, the grand hiss of the pneumatic seat adjustments (electronic adjustments are far inferior), the near-vertical front windshield, and that damn tight steering and suspension, the Germans enwrap you in pure truck and leave you with only one proper thought to think: “I am driving a tank. And I am powerful.”
Best Fit: one of two people: the extremely deep-pocketed adventurer, or the badass.
Grade: B+, with deductions for the chiropractor costs of loosening my lower back post-drive.