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ex machina

Decoding the nuances of human desire can be complex, especially when it comes to a machine like the Mercedes G-550, a.k.a. the G-Wagen. Why do so many love a slab-sided truck that was designed for military duty, only to be repurposed as a style accessory for the likes of Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears?

A week in the 2016 Mercedes G-550 4-Matic showed me how much people admire this oddball vehicle. It was thumbs-up all round. My son loved it. My nieces wanted a ride. People stopped on the street to compliment it. "Great truck!" said a young woman as I climbed down from the G-Wagen's lofty cabin.

Its history stretches back to the early 1970s, when the Shah of Iran suggested the design to Mercedes management (the Shah was a major Mercedes shareholder at the time). The first G-Wagens were utilitarian machines, but by the 1980s, the G had been larded with comfort add-ons like air conditioning and wood trim.

In the late 1990s, when the G-Wagen was discovered by celebrities looking for something more unique and butch than a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari, its destiny was determined by two radically different vehicle markets: the armed forces, and the Real Housewives crowd. By 2007, the G had been decked out with a chi-chi "Artico" interior to satisfy the Kardashian crowd, yet it still had the battle-hardened features required by the military.

As I cruised the streets of Toronto in the new G-Wagen, I pondered its conflicted nature. On one level, it could be construed as a luxury cruiser, with fine leather hides, Bluetooth and an upscale stereo system. But beneath the skin, it was a military vehicle, with a steel ladder frame and three locking differentials.

If you're expecting the kind of ride you get in something like a Mercedes GLS SUV, the G-Wagen will come as a rude shock; aside from the three-pointed badge on the front, these two have almost nothing in common. The GLS rides like a large car, but the G-Wagen feels like a road-going locomotive. The cabin was high and narrow, and the Mercedes V-8 rumbled away in the nose. It wasn't hard to imagine myself as a Canadian Pacific engineer, heading into the Rockies with a mile of boxcars behind.

The G-Wagen's military provenance wasn't hard to discern. The doors closed with a serious metallic thunk, and the cup holder was a mesh net that would look right at home in a C-130 transport plane. Even the central locking system was hard core: When the G-550's locks actuated, it sounded like an ammunition belt being dropped onto a steel floor.

On the dash in front of me was a row of polished buttons that controlled the G-Wagen's differentials. If I pressed them, the G-Wagen's four wheels would be locked in mechanical unison, clawing at the earth like the appendages of a primal beast. With the differentials locked, the G-Wagen turns into a Super Jeep, ready to haul its way up the side of a mountain. It's a safe bet that the majority of G-Wagen owners have never touched the differential lock buttons. In cities like Toronto and Los Angeles, the vehicle's most arduous mission is typically a trip to a luxury retail outlet, where the cargo compartment that was designed to haul C-rations and grenades is instead loaded with Prada and Gucci. The exceptions to this rule are the military operators and hard-core buffs who actually use the G-Wagen for its intended purpose – powering through hostile terrain. The G-Wagen can climb an 80-per-cent (36-degree) grade, ford rivers and plow through deep mud.

The G-Wagen is part of a great (or perhaps not-so-great) tradition: the military rig commandeered for civilian duty. The trend got its start with the Willys Jeep, a four-wheel drive utility vehicle that was commissioned by the U.S. military during the Second World War. After the war, the Jeep caught on with hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. By the 1980s, it had evolved into the Jeep CJ, a dude-ranch version of the original. The CJ's tough, no-nonsense look and off-road capabilities made it a coveted style accessory.

The military conversion fad got serious when Arnold Schwarzenegger came along. While filming Kindergarten Cop in the late 80s, Schwarzenegger watched as a convoy of military Humvee troop carrier trucks rolled past. With its gun turrets, armour plating and bulletproof tires, the Humvee wasn't exactly an urban runabout, but the star of The Terminator wanted one as his personal ride. GM finally agreed to build him one, and a terrible trend was born. Before long, fuel-guzzling Hummers infested the roads of North America.

Compared to a Hummer, the G-Wagen is an eminently sensible ride. But as my test drive continued, I was still struck by how weird it was to use the G-Wagen as a daily driver in the city. It weighed more than three tons, yet the interior space was merely adequate, and the fuel consumption scandalous. This wasn't surprising. My G-550 test machine was outfitted with a 416 horsepower, turbocharged V-8. This was more than enough power for me, but if you'd like to burn even more fuel, you can step up to the 563-horsepower AMG version. And then comes the ultimate G-Wagen: the AMG G-65, which is kitted out with a 621-horsepower V-12 motor and a starting price of $217,900.

The G-Wagen I tested had a price tag of $134,750 (tax not included). It burned about five times as much fuel as a Toyota Prius. I had less room inside than most SUVs. Unless you're a member of a combat unit or a surveyor who has to travel the back roads, it is an indefensible vehicle. But it's one that everyone loves.

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