From first glance it's clear that the Mercedes-Benz G-Class (also known as the Gelandewagen or G-Wagen) isn't like any other vehicle the company offers. Its upright and slab-sided styling runs counter to the sleek shapes of the rest of Mercedes' passenger vehicle lineup. Underneath is rugged body-on-frame construction and twin live axles, both counter to the modern sophistication of the company's numerous sedans, coupes, sports cars, and SUVs.

That's because the G-Wagen took an unusual and surprisingly long path to the penultimate model we drove, the 2018 Mercedes-AMG G 65. The G-Wagen was first introduced as a no-frills utility vehicle way back in 1979, its slab sides and rugged construction built to withstand roads ranging from terrible to nonexistent. With tons of suspension travel, three locking differentials, and a low range transfer case, it's one of the most capable off-road vehicles ever built. Yet somewhere along the line it became a high-priced luxury SUV, and despite its triple-digit price tag, it remains sought after as an ultra-luxury statement of wealth, now filled with soft leather, a powerful hand-built twin-turbo V12 engine under the hood, and virtually every modern convenience you could imagine.

Time capsule tech

The crazy thing is what a time capsule of 40-year-old technology the G-Class is from behind the wheel. The steering, for example, uses a recirculating ball mechanism that mostly fell out of favor in new cars a couple decades ago; it's heavy, with a huge dead spot on center that requires constant correction at all speeds. The suspension works hard to control the rigid axles in the rear and the front, and with the stiff springs on our sportiest-of-them-all G 65, the ride bordered on punishing. While visibility is amazing--imagine driving a lifeguard station--the blocky shape means there's an extraordinary amount of wind noise at highway speeds.

The monster V12 engine was hand built by the same Mikail Ozbay who built the V12 in the AMG S 65 we recently drove, but here its 621-horsepower and 738 lb-ft has to push nearly 6,000 pounds of barn-like SUV through the air, and its 5.2-second 0-60 mph time is handily bested by any number of vehicles. Even its off-road prowess is compromised thanks to its low-hanging side exhaust and street tires. You can see where modern sophistication was forced on the G-Class, such as in the add-on curtain airbags thickening the A-pillar, or the mesh bag that serves as the lone cupholder in front. But fundamentally, the G-Wagen is much the same as it was way back in 1979.

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In-your-face luxury

Of course, none of that matters. The G-Wagen competes in the same rarified atmosphere as the S65, but with a different purpose. Where the S 65 is all modern technology, elegance, and champagne-and-tuxedos class, the G-Class is in-your face, driven by those who are rich and famous and want to remind onlookers of those things. From the roar of the engine when you start it, to the sheer audacity of its road presence, the G-Wagen goes far beyond its mere specifications. And, yes, we do mean rich: The base price of a G 550 is about $125,000, and our loaded Mercedes-AMG G 65 rang up a price tag of $235,695. Fun fact: at $6,500, the Magma Red paint job was the most expensive standalone option.

So, evaluating the 2018 Mercedes-AMG G 65 as a regular ol' car is about as silly as the vehicle itself. It succeeds in its mission of being as in-your-face as possible, and suffice it to say, Mercedes-Benz has handily established it as the de-facto must-have super-expensive SUV for the upper crust. Need proof? Its all-new replacement promises vast improvements in sophistication and technology, with virtually nothing carried over. But it looks almost identical, with the slab sides, flat glass, and upright windshield that made the G-Class famous. The underlying message: don't mess with success. 

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