Before Merc sold it, we got the keys to the ultra-luxe, V12, part drop-top G-Wagen
In 2008, Stuttgart implemented a kind of “Low Emission” zone. Fail to buy the little sticker that grants you permission to enter the city centre, and Herr Plod is well within his rights to fine you the princely sum of €80 (est. S$128). The scheme is designed to keep older cars, trucks and vans from polluting the city’s precious airspace with all manner of nasty particulates that make your lungs look like tinned prunes. I find it tricky to suppress a smirk as I pass the zone’s edge, in (a variation on, admittedly) a car first imagined in the mid-Seventies with thrice the number of cylinders strictly necessary to make it move. This is somehow allowed.
Then a man decides his bus really needs to be in my lane. Had he done what any decent human being would have without thinking – look in one of his many and varied mirrors – he’d have seen a bespectacled Englishman placidly shaking his head from behind the wheel of what is surely the most outrageous road-legal SUV we’ve featured in this magazine for some time.
The Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet is what happens when you merge the twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre V12 from the G 65 AMG with the portal axles (and other serious off-road kit) from the G 500 4x42 and the rear seats from a long-wheelbase Maybach S-Class. And then because you are Mercedes and you possess limitless money and an insatiable desire to plug niches that don’t even exist yet, you add over half a metre to the wheelbase and a Landaulet-style fabric roof. Because you can. And yes, it still has three diff locks. My first question to Pamela Amann (G 650’s development boss) is, entirely predictably, “Why?” Her answer amounts to “Why not?” This is an attitude we at TG can get behind and, in short, is why we love this thing.
Morning. Photographer Dennis and I are whisked from our hotel to Merc’s place at Möhringen, where the big G awaits us. It’s all we can do to stop looking at it, as we load Dennis’s kit into the back of our E-Class AllTerrain support car. That is not a small car, but the G makes it look tiny and inconsequential. Hell, it even makes buses look tiny and inconsequential.
Unlock the doors – with a familiar and deeply militaristic click-clack – pull one open and you’re confronted with a problem. This is a luxury car, but it has portal axles and enough ground clearance that the short one out of Ant and Dec could walk under it without bowing his head. Mercedes has therefore fitted sidesteps that deploy electronically when you open any of the G’s doors, then retract once you’ve clambered aboard. Pam tells me this is because when she went to look at an early prototype modelled on a 4x42, she was wearing a pencil skirt and thus couldn’t physically clamber up and in. I’m told the problem was solved in the short term with a small stepladder.
The engine begins unspectacularly – it’s purposefully not as aggressive here as in an S or G 65. Flick the gearlever into D, wait for the thunk and you’re away. First thing you notice is that judging its considerable width isn’t as easy as you’d imagined. On regular G-Wagens the indicators atop the wings give you a decent idea of where to place it, but the 650 has what feels like a good foot of carbon-fibre arch either side. And you can’t see those from the driver’s seat, so your first miles are spent wincing and praying to whichever higher power will have you.
Once you’ve got used to the width, all you’ve got left to contend with is the steering, which is super-slow, amazingly imprecise and curiously willing to self-centre at every available opportunity. Even while stationary. And there’s the ride, which by G-Wagen standards is quite good (thank a vast amount of suspension wizardry), but still some way short of a more conventional SUV. This is a G-Wagen, don’t forget, so this is very much business as usual and nothing really to be alarmed about. It’s all part of the charm.
Attempt to park it and you run a higher than average risk of looking like an incalculable berk because it doesn’t have a reversing camera. Our Nissan Micra long-termer has one of those. In that car it’s about as necessary and as useful as suede Wellingtons, but the G could genuinely use one. Pamela says owners don’t care about parking. Oh to be rich and unburdened.
But you shouldn’t be parking it – or driving it at all, for that matter. This is a G-Wagen geared towards those who want to be driven – more so than any G-Wagen we can remember that wasn’t built for export to the Vatican. Its rear seats are a direct lift from a regular Maybach S-Class, and they are thusly very comfortable. The G adds a partition wall (with glass that can be raised, lowered or made opaque with the push of a button), two screens mounted on a kind-of console made to look like the G’s dash (the only interchangeable bit is the glovebox lid) and, of course, that roof.
Like the partition it can only be raised or lowered from the back seat (the “master” is always sitting in the back, so Merc says), and is quite a thing to behold. Not fully automatic, either. The heavy lifting is done by electric motors, but you have to lock and unlock it manually using a couple of handles. Pamela tells me they didn’t want to have a fully electric one because G-Wagen owners like that kind of interactivity.
Sat back there is indeed the best place to be. The S-Class chairs take the sting out of the G’s ride, a small wind deflector means bluster is kept to a minimum and the positioning of the seat relative to the windows, folded roof and spare tyre mean you feel surprisingly cocooned. You barely notice the gawping, the waving, the hurled expletives…
Mercedes-Maybach is doing 99 G 650s. All apparently sold almost immediately after the car’s reveal at this year’s Geneva motor show. Some are going to Russia and the Middle East, but most are staying here in Europe. Some owners will drive theirs, others will employ men to and the rest will mix and match. There are no optional extras – you get to choose which colour you want, and that’s more or less it.
I thought the G 650 might be the G’s swansong. That, like Land Rover did with the Defender, Mercedes was readying the unsuspecting Geländewagen for its last trip to the vet, by giving it a big, juicy ribeye to eat and a walk around its favourite park. But no, we’re promised the G will live on. Beyond its 40th anniversary two years from now and well into the future. It will no doubt be updated – new technology fitted, engines replaced or improved upon – but fundamentally it will still be the car that was released in 1979. The car that had its best-ever sales year in… 2016.
People love these things not for how well they handle or how fast they are, but for their character – that’s why Mercedes can still justify building such a thing 38 years later. We love the 650 for its wanton absurdity. It has no competition and is so fantastically outrageous you can’t help but fall for it, however conventionally objectionable it might be. Long live the G.
STORY TOM HARRISON
PHOTOS DENNIS NOTEN