GRAZ, Austria -- For the past four decades, workers in a specialty shop at the sprawling Magna Steyr automotive assembly plant in Graz, Austria, have used hand assembly techniques to construct a unique and versatile sport utility wagon for Mercedes-Benz badged by the cumbersome name of Gelaendewagen, a German word meaning off-road wagon.
Built on a torsionally rigid steel frame with the body composed of angular metal panels which form a tall and boxy package, the Gelaendewagen has become an ultimate go-anywhere vehicle designed for the most serious off-pavement applications in military and police patrols, and governmental and industrial units.
In the private sector among elite sportsmen, the G wagon has been the prized trophy vehicle for cruising remote regions so rugged that conventional sport utility wagons would never work.
It can scamper up a grade as steep as 36 degrees or traverse a slope canted to a severe angle of 24 degrees.
And it's the only four-wheel-drive vehicle outfitted with three locking differentials -- one each for front and rear axles plus the interconnecting drive shaft. Add high and low gearing with full synchronization even for the low range so you may shift into low while moving up to 15 miles an hour.
Prior to 2002, you might have encountered privately owned Gelaendewagens prowling the autobahns of Germany, making sand tracks on dunes in Saudi Arabia or crossing the dusty plains of East Africa, but only a few trickled into America because Mercedes never imported them.
Since 2002, however, Mercedes has developed deluxe and powerful versions of the Gelaendewagen for the North American market. In place of the tongue-twisting Gelaendewagen nameplate, though, the wagon is known as the G Class, with two distinct and pricy models available for 2011: A deluxe G550 and the high-performance G55 AMG.
Each G Class model carries every mechanical armament -- a full-time four-wheel-drive system, traction control, vehicle stability system, the three differential locks -- and a luxurious five-seat passenger compartment lined in fine leather hides.
G550 draws from a Mercedes V8 engine which displaces 5.5 liters to explain the 550 nomenclature of the nameplate, and a seven-speed automatic transmission with TouchShift manual control.
The single-cam V8 in G550 produces 382 hp at 6000 rpm and torque of 391 lb-ft spread between 2800 and 4800 rpm.
G55 AMG amounts to a special edition by AMG, the Mercedes performance-tuner collaborator.
This super SUV packs a hand-built AMG V8 engine with supercharger added plus unique exterior body parts, AMG-designed low-restriction exhaust system and performance-geared brake and suspension hardware.
A visit to the AMG engine plant in Affalterbach, Germany, reveals that one skilled engine technician assembles a G55 engine in only two hours time.
The V8, displacing 5.5-liters, has a belt-driven screw-type supercharger added to generate over-the-top horsepower. Supercharging kicks into action instantly above the 2700-rpm mark and it's so smoothly integrated that a driver will never detect the operation -- only so much more pedal power.
The AMG plant develops 500 hp at 6100 rpm and peaks the torque at 516 lb-ft between 2750 and 4000 rpm.
Transmission for the G55 AMG is a high-capacity automatic with five forward gears and SpeedShift programming to make high-speed gear transitions. It will operate in full automatic mode, one-tap clutch-less TouchShift mode using the shift lever, or -- for ultimate control -- a manual mode with hands-on shifting by the driver from finger switches pegged on the back of the steering wheel.
How fast will the G55 AMG go?
It's so quick -- even for a vehicle weighing nearly three tons -- you can move into the realm of illicit speed faster than you might say, "Hello, Officer."
AMG lists the official 0-to-60 mph acceleration time for G55 at 5.4 seconds. An electronic governor on the engine restricts the top speed for G55 to 130 mph
There are multiple devices aboard the G55 AMG to stabilize all forward movement and tire traction.
Sensors in the suspension system determine vehicular payload, speed and road conditions, and they can adjust dampers on shock absorbers to smooth out or firm up the ride quality. Still other devices measure wheel speed and lateral acceleration and can brake an individual wheel to correct potential skidding or spinning of the wagon.
Also on tap is the alphabet soup of computerized vehicle controls -- anti-lock brake system (ABS) with brake assist plus (BAP), four-wheel electronic traction system (4ETS) and electronic stability control (ESP).
And Mercedes provides roll-over sensors, curtain-style air bags for outboard seats on both rows in the cabin, plus smart two-stage frontal air bags.
In the spacious cabin of all G Class wagons, a center console separates two front bucket seats which stand in front of a bench for three that splits 60/40 and folds flat.
Each G Class issue provides all of the features of a refined luxury car.
For G550 the standards include leather upholstery and hand-polished burl walnut wood trim, a wood-and-leather steering wheel, heated and ventilated multi-contour front seats which adjust ten ways through power controls with three memory positions, heated rear seats, central locking for doors and a dual-zone automatic climate system, cruise control, rear parking assistant, a 115-volt receptacle in the cargo area, power tilting/sliding sunroof, reading lights for rear passengers, HD digital radio, SIRIUS satellite radio, Harman/Kardon Logic7 surround-sound audio system with Dolby Digital 5.1 and a 40-gig hard drive with GPS navigation system.
Wheels for G550 are 18-inch five-twin-spoke alloys capped with 265/60R18 all-season tires.
G55 AMG stocks seats clad in Designo Nappa leather, a premium leather roof liner, hand-polished Designo maple wood trim, a heated wood/leather steering wheel and AMG wood/leather shift knob, silver-accented AMG instrument cluster, heated and ventilated front seats with pneumatic multi-contour controls, stainless-steel running boards and driver-side rear foglamp.
Wheels for G55 AMG are 19-inch AMG five-spoke alloys with 275/55R19 all-season tires.
The MSRP for a no-compromise 2011 G550 tallies to $105,750. Pricing for the 2011 G55 AMG begins at $124,450.