Mercedes G500 review

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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

By Des Toups

2002 Mercedes G500
Base price: $72,500
Price as tested: $73,145
EPA mileage: 12 city/14 highway

         Think of the Mercedes-Benz G500 as a German version of the gargantuan, 
all-American Humvee. Both are utility vehicles preposterously overqualified 
for pavement, obscenely inefficient, priced for millionaires and possessed 
of such jaw-dropping presence to make a Range Rover seem downright discreet.
	
         Anybody with his eye on the road rather than on Jason and Jennifer 
squabbling in the back seat can’t help but stare at the G500, so tall, so 
butch, so magnetic. A road crew breaks into applause. Upstaged drivers in 
BMW X5s avert their eyes. Panhandlers on the exit ramp hold their sides in 
laughter at a proffered dollar. A man behind the wheel of an old Ford 
pickup stops in the middle of an intersection, waits until the light turned 
red, rolls down his window and bellows, “I have the power!”
	Indeed, the G500 is all about power: the power to buy, the power to 
consume. That it will scale near-vertical surfaces misses the point.

	The G500 -- known more catchily as the Gelandewagen or G-wagen -- traces 
its roots to Cold War Germany, where it emerged for military duty in 1979. 
It’s been built ever since by Steyr-Puch in Austria, but available in the 
United States until now only by gray-market importation, at prices well 
over $100,000. Now Mercedes has decided to claim this lucrative niche for 
itself, importing up to 2,000 a year to the United States at the 
coupon-clipper price of $73,165.

	Box-square lines, a flat windshield and beefy, exposed door hinges 
underline the G500’s Spartan roots, but you’d be hard-pressed to find 
anything less than opulent in the G-wagen’s gadget-laden interior. The 
Nappa seat leather is sumptuous, the maple on the dash and steering wheel 
is genuine and the COMAND system that controls the stereo, navigation and 
phone is every bit as infuriating as in any other Mercedes. The interior is 
hushed and the ride amazingly smooth for a solid-axle, 20-year-old 
platform. Nothing about the fit, finish or sturdiness says the G-wagen is 
anything less than worthy of the three-pointed star.
	
Sure, the squared-off dashboard screams 1980, the hard plastic door panels 
are a bit utilitarian and the clip-on cupholders are a tacky, but they do 
help remind the driver of what the rest of the interior so easily helps him 
to forget: This is a truck, bubba, and a serious one at that. The driver’s 
seat is a climb, easily six inches or so higher than that in the 
lightweight M-Class, but it affords a penthouse-quality view of the tarmac 
and surrounding traffic. The G-wagen feels much bigger than it is; while it 
darkens less pavement than a Ford Explorer, it stands a half-head taller. 
All the side-window glass is vertical and flat, improving the perception of 
space (there’s tons for five) but catching a dazzling array of reflections 
(cars to your right are reflected life-size on your left).

	Driving only reinforces the perception of mass. Steering is 
disconcertingly slow and numb on the road (twitchy steering is your enemy 
off-road, this truck’s intended milieu), and the turning circle is a 
whopping 43.5 feet. Despite huge windows, anything close to the truck 
disappears from the driver’s sight lines. All of which makes a trip to 
Starbucks quite the adventure, wondering how close that chrome-wrapped 
spare tire out back is to the Miata parked behind you.
	
        However clumsy the G500 feels in urban confines, it’s certainly not 
unwieldy, and the picture improves the worse the roads become. Two mountain 
bikes fit upright in back, seats are supportive and heated, the stereo 
rich. Until someone perfects teleportation, there’s no more comfortable way 
to get to and from your favorite wilderness area. The pleasingly firm ride 
deteriorates little on corrugated gravel as a long, 112-inch wheelbase and 
meaty, 60-series tires soak up the rough stuff. With traction control at 
each wheel, it’s tough to break the rear end loose even in hairpin turns, 
and a manual-shift feature on the automatic makes selecting lower gears for 
long descents easy.
	
        Blunder into mud or deep snow and there’s genuine low-range gearing – 
rapidly disappearing on more suburban-oriented machines – to get you out. 
Overhangs front and rear are minimal, making the most of the middling 8.3 
inches of ground clearance beneath the G-wagen.
	
        But true luxury means you never have to walk. A G500 driver stranded 
despite all-wheel-drive, traction control and low-range gearing still has a 
little something up his sleeve: locking differentials front, center and 
rear, ensuring that power goes to the tire with grip. Purely for testing 
purposes, of course, we straddled a gully that left two wheels hanging and 
another in soft sand, yet were able to climb out with the punch of a button 
using one wheel. When all else fails, there’s always the option of calling 
for help using the built-in Tele-Aid system.
	
          If your daily commute necessitates bunny boots and a winch, here’s your 
truck. Power comes from the same 5-liter V-8 that moves the S-Class sedan, here 
developing 292 horsepower and 336 foot-pounds of torque, the muscle that 
actually moves the vehicle. The G500, shaped like a brick and weighing as 
much as two Honda Civics, needs all the torque it can get. Even with the 
well-matched five-speed automatic, your forward progress is never anything 
but deliberate. Reach 80 mph and the G-wagen will cruise there all day, 
though, and there’s enough beef here to tow 7,000 pounds, a ton more than 
the M Class can haul.
	
        If you didn’t blink at the G500’s sticker price, you’re unlikely to wince 
at the cost of 25 gallons of premium unleaded every 250 miles or so. Expect 
single digits in town.
	
        As capable as the Gelandewagen is, as stout as it feels, as exclusive as 
it is likely to be, I wonder how many buyers will tire quickly of the price 
it extracts, finding in their search for the ultimate sport-utility that 
they have indeed bought a truck.

	Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in 
AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.
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