If glowing purple aliens landed in front of the drainage pipes our Range Rover Supercharged and Mercedes-Benz G55 AMG had just climbed, none of the guys in the lifted Jeep would have noticed. Nothing looks stranger than $230K screwing around in the dirt.
The first SUVs were born from the battlefields of World War II (the acronym would come later). Lacking women-folk to curl up next to, GIs had gotten especially attached to their Jeeps and wanted to keep them. SUVs were born again when someone at Willys decided to turn a Jeep into a station wagon. They were born a third time when Arnold Schwarzenegger used his celebrity pull to buy a civilian version of the Humvee.
And then, because these military trucks started selling like mad, and for big bucks, someone got the idea to build one that behaved like a car, tossing the typical, rugged body-on-frame construction for a unibody and air shocks. Soon, SUVs descended from military operations (or real work of any kind) began dropping like flies.
A rare exception to this is the Mercedes G-series trucks, which represent a last stand against the cushy softroaders.
When I discovered Texan Zerin Dube of Speed:Sport:Life was rocking the $105,000 Range Rover Supercharged the same week I had a $125K G55 AMG in my driveway I decided it was time to pit the old style against the new style. The Germans against the British-cum-Indians.
Could the cargo-shorted second-generation Indian-American in his Indian-Anglo fancy wagon outdo me, a hipster-goggled third-generation German-American, in my brutish ex-military rapmobile? What would give out first: the vehicles or our comfort level?
Pamela Anderson drives one!
Tough mutha fuckas around the world drive G55s because they're big, nasty, and have a go-anywhere reputation. In this country, woman with fake breasts and rappers with fake pasts drive G55s because they're big, shiny, and ridiculous.
Slipping behind the seat of one for the first time I can understand its popularity amongst the elite. On the outside is an exterior designed to scare off the working poor if class warfare ever makes the leap from rhetoric to reality. On the inside its Designo leather is soft and smooth enough to persuade me to contemplate bondage as a hobby. Yet despite head clearance ample enough to support Dikembe Mutombo's taller older brother in the Pope's jeweled three-tier hat, I'm extremely short on legroom. I'm sitting high and back in the front seat and I'm too big for it. I'm barely over 6'1" and I don't fit.
Out driving I soon discover the G55 drives a lot like an old muscle car with similar vague off-center steering and little feedback, but with a center of gravity roughly where the roof would be on a Detroit land yacht. It's great on the highway, but murder around turns. I suggest just driving straight in the direction you want to go and just running over anything in your path.
Thankfully, the hoary, old supercharged 5.5-liter AMG V8 — itself a dead-ender in the Mercedes-Benz line — also resembles something you'd find in a muscle car, assuming your muscle car was hand-built by detail-oriented German tinkerers. Torque comes in glorious waves as the 500-hp mill hits the sweet spot between 3K and 4K RPM.
This thing weighs 5,700 pounds, was designed two decades ago and hits 60 mph in 5.4 seconds despite having the aerodynamic profile of the Williams Tower.
On the road it's a bit of a pig. But off-road, it's happy as a pig in shit.
Revenge of the colonies
I'm still tickled by the irony of an Indian company buying Land Rover, since its vehicles are essentially the carriages of British colonialism. It doesn't seem to bother Zerin, who enjoys everything about Range Rover Supercharged but filling it up.
The modern Rover has the look of the oldest Rangie but filtered through the lens of Olafur Elliason's elemental modernism. It's clean. It's sharp. It's a little too fancy for my taste.
This latest generation of Range Rover uses unibody construction and independent air suspension for quiet and predictable on-road manners. It's as comfortable as any luxury sedan and, with its 510-hp 5.0-liter Jag V8, it's as quick as most of them, too.
As soon as we get out to Creekside Edge Off-Road Park in Splendora, Texas the nice guy at the front gate finds us so entertaining he doesn't even charge us. He's also clearly not worried about us tearing up the park.
It's quickly obvious that the RR Supercharged and G55 AMG employ opposite philosophies when it comes to going off-road. It's also obvious to everyone on an ATV that maybe we don't belong. My plaid shirt hasn't fooled them.
The RR Supercharged is an Africa-crossing supercomputer that uses sensors and adjustable everything to control any situation. There are knobs to select the type of terrain you're crossing and a large LCD display to show you how the vehicle is adapting itself to the surrounding area. Are the differentials locked? There's a cartoon to let you know.
The G55 has no fancy LCD screens. There are three hydraulic locking differentials (front, rear, center) and they're engaged using three buttons with amber and red lights on them. To lock them you need to be in low, which means hitting a button semi-hidden in front of the center armrest.
Creekside is known as a great place for mudders, but the drought has turned much of it into a Sahara. Perfect. The British and Germans battling in the desert again. A mud pit is suddenly a sandy shell, perfect for safely testing how far we'll get on stock rubber.
Over uncertain ground the G-Wagen easily descends into the pit and up the edge of it without losing traction or hiccuping. The only real risk is digging into the sand too quickly after letting the V8 roar.
I try the Range Rover next, charging into it like Keith Douglas and the Eighth Army into El Alamein. Engaged in "sand mode" it sits up all the way and manages to cross the same ground despite the slippery tires. So far so good.
Follow the Jeeps
After screwing around in the pit we follow a threesome of Wranglers deep into a trail. Here the Range Rover shines. With its short front overhang and fridge-on-stilts stance it cuts through the brush and over ruts without any problems The G55 AMG also has no issues keeping up with the RR, but it doesn't do it as smoothly or with the same air of familiarity.
I'm a little displeased at the RR's advantage here, so I suggest we turn around and try to climb the pair of discarded water tanks covered in dirt halfway back toward the entrance. I'm not sure which truck will do better, but I'm suddenly willing to roll the G55 and deal with the consequences to prove a point.
For a while, this seems like a real possibility. The G55 feels barely narrow enough to fit up the patch of loose dirt on the north side of the water tanks and its heavy weight seems to be causing what bit of earth remains to flow down the sides. No longer content with tipping over I hit the gas and let the V8 do the work.
It climbs to the top of the first tank, proudly sitting atop its kill when Zerin screams for me to stop so he can take a picture. "Make it fast," I plead as I'm now wondering if I've got enough clearance to cross the the second tank. It turns out I do, but barely. I hear a slight scraping noise I at first think might be the rear diff but turns out to be a bit of frame rail. I think.
The Range Rover does the same trick, but Zerin doesn't want to risk crossing the tall British wagon and marring the clean exterior. Prissy, prissy, prissy.
To the ATV track
What do six-figure luxobarges and ATVs have in common? Nothing, really, so an ATV track is the perfect place to test out the former.
The Range Rover smoothly and effortlessly climbs on one end of a hill and then, using hill-descent-control, makes its way down the other. I've got Zerin's fiance Emily in the passenger seat next to me calmly texting her friends. Maybe it's just my personality, and not the vehicle, but I don't have the patience for this. I don't need any advanced computers to get up the hills, I just use the gas pedal. And hill-descent control? What's that? I have a brake pedal, so I don't need to use it.
Around the corner is a straight track of short humps. Zerin in the Range Rover crosses it carefully as it does its best to actuate the air suspension to keep the vehicle level — lest someone spill their tea.
"Fuck that" I yell out, turn off the diffs, and set the thing back in 4WD "High." I charge at the humps and nearly catch up with Zerin before he finishes. Sure, it bounces like Gemma Atkinson on a treadmill, but isn't that the damn point?
Tourists versus Conquerors
Ultimately, our brief test over moderate ground proves not only that you can off-road these two super luxury vehicles, but that you absolutely should. Why have the money if you can't enjoy spending it?
The vehicle in which you choose to do so will depend on what you want; no one needs either one. The Range Rover Supercharged is capable but prissy and expensive. The G55 is mean but impractical and about a Honda Civic more expensive than the RR.
Zerin says he he prefers the Range Rover, but I want the G55. The Range Rover is great because it'll let you go almost anywhere you want as a comfortable, lovable tourist. I don't want to be a tourist. I want to be a conqueror.
The G55 is still a completely unnecessary German murderwagon that should only be owned by people who are willing and capable of using it the way its designers intended: capturing bits of territory from frightened indigenous populations.
That few use it to its full potential makes me sad. Sad enough to cry. But I won't shed a tear, because crying is only acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.
Photos Zerin Dube, Video Matt Hardigree.