Epic Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz G65 AMG In Sweden
King In The North: Going Beyond The Wall In AMG's All-Weather Unicorn
None of this was ever supposed to happen. Not the Mercedes-Benz G65 AMG, and certainly not a five-day road trip from Copenhagen, Denmark, to the Swedish Arctic Circle with 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Justin Bell and little old me. A generation ago, Lamborghini dropped the Countach's V-12 engine into a failed military vehicle and called the result the LM002. The Sant'Agata concern sold 328 of them in an 8-year period. Very few OEMs have bothered with a 12-cylinder SUV since then. Audi had its special-order-only Q7 V-12 TDI (now out of production), and BMW once shoehorned its LMS 6.0-liter V-12 into an X5 as a publicity stunt. Recently, Bentley and Lamborghini have been toying with the idea of selling 12-cylinder SUVs -- the W-12-powered Bentley EXP 9F and the Aventador-engined Lamborghini Urus -- and both may have been green-lighted for production by the time you read this. Or not. AMG reportedly hemmed and hawed for years over the decision to build the 612-hp, 6.0-liter twin-turbo V-12 brute. When it finally did, the thinking was that AMG would sell around 500 units in 10 years. More than 400 were sold in the first six months.
"The Germans don't want you driving the G65," I'm informed by a Mercedes-Benz North America PR honcho. "They think you'll be upset by the poor gas mileage and would rather you went in a G63." The G63 AMG is the 5.5-liter, twin-turbo V-8 version of the G-Wagen that's actually sold here in the States, another reason they didn't want an American journalist in said ultra-rare truck. The G65 is not sold here because Mercedes felt the cost and complication of certifying one for U.S. roads (i.e., crash testing) weren't worth the hassle. Though in light of how the big G is selling around the world, I'm sure they're rethinking that strategy now, because, holy cash cow, Batman. The Gelaende-wagen, more commonly called the G-Class, first showed up in 1979. Meanwhile, the big, twin-turbo M285 engine is already in production for use in AMGs such as the S65, CL65, and SL65. The beauty part is that the base price for the G65 is [euro]220,000 ($292,000). Adjusted for taxes and so forth, a U.S.-spec G65 would likely cost about $225,000.
Another reason for the reluctance to let moi have at the baddest production G-Wagen the world has ever seen is that Mercedes-Benz has exactly one G65 press car in its stable, and you're looking at it. After much haggling (fine, begging), it was agreed that I could drive the Big Daddy G.
Why Sweden? A few months ago, while riding around in a prototype version of the new E63 AMG S Model 4Matic, AMG CEO Ola Kallenius offered me the chance to visit AMG's Winter Driving Academy on a frozen lake near the town of Arjeplog in Sweden. Hey, it's good to know the king. While that sounded like loads of fun, I told Ola it would be even better if we could drive up to his lake. Of course, we would need something sufficiently burly to deal with extreme northern latitudes of Lapland, as well as something luxurious (and, dare I say, decadent) enough for my good buddy and travel companion Justin Bell. The truth is that I've always wanted to do something epic in a G-Wagen, and heading up through the heart of Scandinavia in the dead of winter just made sense. So our trip began in Denmark, the only Scandinavian country I'd previously visited. We quickly learned a couple of things: The first is that, even in late January, the denizens of Copenhagen love riding their bicycles. The second is that Danes seriously admire the G-Wagen, at least compared with their Swedish neighbors. I think a yellow Ferrari would have been less conspicuous. Copenhagen was just our embarkation point, and after a dinner featuring herring five ways, we set off for points farther north.
Copenhagen to Stockholm was by far the least interesting portion of our trip. Justin kept accurately complaining that the weather looked like England: cold, wet, and bleak. Most of that 400-plus-mile day was spent with me explaining the history of the G-Class to Justin, as he'd never so much as been in one before. I've driven a few. Just days before I showed up in Copenhagen, Mercedes let me play around with a G63 AMG (same basic truck, but with the M157 twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8) in Miami to get familiar. While I was in Miami, Florida experienced its coldest night of the year, and the temperature dropped to 58 degrees. I realized then I'd never driven a G in anything approaching bad conditions, let alone taken one off pavement. Justin added, "I mostly see these in Beverly Hills with mothers dropping their kids off for soccer practice. I always thought their capability was more folklore than truth." I assured him that the military in 35 countries use the G-Wagen, including the U.S. Marines. I also assured him that three locking differentials meant the G65 would essentially turn into a tractor off-road, even with the quilted, two-tone Designo leather and quad sidepipes. But all that good, dirty stuff would have to wait until after Stockholm.
"Things finally got a little harsher and weirder once we left Stockholm."
Steinbeck never mentioned how sometimes the best-laid schemes of mice and men actually work out. Trying to be as new-media-savvy as possible, I contacted the people behind Curate Sweden. Each week, the country of Sweden's Twitter account (@Sweden) is handed over to a different citizen. Because the individual Swede gets to do whatever he or she likes with the account, Curate Sweden can't tell him/her what to do, or to help us out in any way. However, I was able to get in touch with a curator named Kristin Zetterlund (@kzetterlund), and she agreed to show Justin and me around Stockholm. Then, just days before we left, Kristin wrote me that the day we were to show up was the end of Fashion Week Stockholm, and she had to cover the shows for work. I contacted Mercedes and asked if they were behind this particular Fashion Week. Yup. Justin and I rolled the dirty G65 up to the front of the posh Berns Hotel, were treated like visiting dignitaries while checking out the latest in Swedish haute couture, and even met up with the lovely Miss Zetterlund. All in all, a picture-perfect night. Angus MacKenzie has a saying: "There's only one vehicle that can pull up to the opera caked in mud: the Range Rover." I'd like to add the G65 to that list. But fashion shows and fine dining were not the reason we brought Big Papa G to Sweden.
Things finally got a little harsher and weirder once we left Stockholm and began trudging north up the E4. First of all, the sleet and rain turned to actual snow. Second, we passed a sign that read, "Welcome to China -- 4 km." Sure enough, for no discernible reason whatsoever, we stumbled across a Chinese-themed rest stop, complete with a miniature Great Wall and a 20-foot Confucian good luck statue. Of course, the improbable China complex seemed almost normal once we reached the city of Gaevle to check out the world's largest Yule goat, aka the Gaevle Goat. Only problem is that someone had burned it down. In fact, the Gaevle Goat has been burned down 26 times since it first appeared in 1966. Every year, the merchants of Gaevle erect a 40-foot straw goat (Guinness certified as the world's largest), and every year, attempts are made to burn it, break it apart, or throw it into the river. My favorite Gaevle Goat destruction story has to be the year two men dressed respectively as Santa Claus and a gingerbread man shot flaming arrows into the goat. This past year's giant Yule goat was burned down on December 12, just 10 days after it was built. All Justin and I found were pieces of the goat's charred necklace lying in a field of snow.
Speaking of snow, the roads were now absolutely covered in the stuff. Justin hails from the south of England, and I was born and raised in Southern California; we both currently call Los Angeles our home. Meaning we know very little about snow. (It's also why we thought driving into a 3-foot-high snow bank was a grand idea.) But even on some modest Dunlop all-season rubber -- instead of the rubber-band-thick summer tires most U.S.-bound G-Wagens roll on -- I can't remember either of us having any sort of traction-related trouble with the nearly 6000-pound G65. The big AMG shrugged off the worsening conditions exactly as your 12-year-old self expected the ladder-frame beast would. Even Justin was coming around to the prowess of the G-Wagen, though he seemed to enjoy the potent seat heaters as much as he did the truck's copious capability. We stopped at Lake Storsjoen just outside of Oestersund, the third largest city in Norrland (northern Sweden), to see if we could locate Storsjoeodjuret, Sweden's version of the Loch Ness Monster. No luck on that front. However, while standing on the dock looking out over the gorgeous frozen lake, I noticed for the first time that it was really and truly cold. The G65 told us it was -11 C, or 12 degrees Fahrenheit. From Oestersund, it was still another 300 miles farther north to reach AMG's frozen lake in the Arctic Circle. Well, what we assumed was the Arctic Circle. As it turns out, AMG's most excellent lake just outside of Arjeplog lays a few tenths of a degree below the Arctic Circle.
"What a lake! Acres of 2-foot-thick ice and a bunch of AMGs on studded tires."
But the lake was next -- and what a lake! Acres and acres of nothing but 2-foot-thick ice and a bunch of AMGs on studded tires. Had we not been delayed a day (Justin had been obligated to announce the 24 Hours of Daytona race for the Speed Channel), we would have been able to participate in two glorious days of ice drifting. As it stood, we had but one morning, and it was 26 degrees C below zero, the coldest temperature we'd see. Neither Justin nor I had ever done ice driving before, so naturally we leapt right into an E63 sedan, the most powerful car on the ice. I'm sure it won't shock any of you to learn that Justin drifted better than I. He's a car control expert and former owner of his own driving school, after all. However, I did pretty OK, kicking the back end out and applying enough opposite lock to look kind of fancy for several seconds at a time. We then switched over to a much smaller course and an SLK55. I had explained to Justin that the diminutive AMG roadster with its naturally aspirated 429-hp V-8 is the best drift machine currently on sale. Within maybe two corners, he was in complete agreement. We unfortunately had to skip the C63 so we could take the G65 on a proper off-road course. With just the center differential locked, the V-12 SUV didn't even break a sweat. There was even one tight corner where the G65's near-ludicrous 738 lb-ft of torque came in handy, as you had to quickly nail the throttle to whip the back end around to avoid making a three-point turn. Brilliant fun.
But as much fun as we were having at the AMG Academy, we still weren't above the Arctic Circle. A quick check of photographer Julia LaPalme's French-language map told us we had 50 more miles left to trek. If our Epic Drive was going to live up to its name, we simply had to go -- even if doing so meant missing half a day of playing on ice. The thing that grabbed me hardest about Sweden in full winter bloom is that the farther north we went, the more otherworldly the terrain became. We saw rocks frozen white, trees covered in so much snow that their tops were bent down to the ground, and lakes so cold they glowed blue. The scenery was growing both more gorgeous and more bizarre with each passing mile. We drove through frozen fog, and I swear that, on more than one occasion, the air simply froze. I was behind the wheel, and Justin was on my iPhone, watching a GPS app that told us our position. "66 degrees, 27 minutes," he announced. The magic numbers we needed were 66 degrees, 33' 44". I pushed the G65, flying along at 80 mph on perfectly white, frozen roads. "66, 29," Justin barked. Then suddenly we saw the sign. Polcirkein. Napapiiri. Arctic Circle. Cercle Polaire. Polarkreis. We'd done it. Justin and I had driven one of the rarest SUVs on Earth 1483 miles to a place very few people get the chance to visit. We were absolutely thrilled. As for the G65, we finally found its element.
|2013 Mercedes-Benz G65 AMG|
|BASE PRICE||$292,000 (Germany)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||6.0L/612-hp/738-lb-ft DOHC 36-valve twin-turbo V-12|
|CURB WEIGHT||5900 lb (est) WHEELBASE 112.2 in|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||184.5 x 76.3 x 76.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.7 (est) EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 10/15 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||337/225 kW-hrs/100 mi (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||1.65 lb/mi (est) ON SALE IN U.S. No|