Review: 2002 Mercedes-Benz G500

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Mercedes-Benz has several new models this year, but the most interesting, not to mention attention-getting, is the G500. The G500 is the first officially-imported version of the legendary Gelandewagen (say guh-LAN-de-vag-an), a four-wheel drive utility vehicle developed for both military and civilian use in the late stages of the Cold War. First sold in 1979, the G-Wagen has a serious reputation backed up by solid performance in some of the worst road-optional conditions Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East have to offer. It wasn't the sort of machine that fit Mercedes-Benz's American marketing strategy in the Eighties and Nineties, but that was before sport-utility vehicles became mainstream. Some earlier Gelandewagens were brought to this country, Federalized, and sold well enough - at more than $100,000 each - to attract the official attention of Mercedes-Benz. As a result, around 2000 G500s will be available to American customers for the 2002 model year. G500 production is not being artificially limited. It is largely hand-made at the Steyr Daimler Puch plant in Graz, Austria. The U.S.-spec G500 has the 292-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 also found in Mercedes-Benz's premium luxury SL500 sports car, CL500 coupe, and S500 sedan, not one of the smaller gasoline or diesel engines found in older G-Wagens or those destined for other markets. To say that the G500 is off-road capable is a serious understatement, yet it offers the comfort and safety expected of a Mercedes-Benz on the highway and in everyday driving. I was able to drive a G500 on a difficult off-road course when it was introduced to the press last Fall, and have just spent a week with one at home. Illustrating the presence that trucks - and it is unabashedly a truck - have in this country, it also attracts an amazing amount of attention from people in all walks of life. Many will be bought for that effect, but that misses the point. With or without pavement, the G500 is an amazing piece of machinery, and combines ruggedness and comfort in a unique manner. APPEARANCE: The G-Wagen has classic non-styling. Form follows function in all respects, with no curves to be found on bodywork that looks like it could have been formed on basic sheet metal tools. Low aerodynamic drag was obviously not a consideration, emphasized by a nearly vertical, flat windshield. Even what on lesser vehicles (pretenders!) would be ``character lines'' on the sides are functional, as they add rigidity to the thick body panels. Door hinges are external, bumpers are separate from the body panels, although, in a concession to style they are covered with body-colored plastic, and the G500 even has rain gutters. The door latches are simple buttons on rigid handles, and the plain, round headlights look like they came from the 1970s, as do the small, rectangular taillights. The spare tire is mounted externally, on the side-hinged tailgate, where it has little negative impact on visibility through the small, flat, rectangular rear window. There is ample ground clearance, and the underside is well-protected. Alloy wheels are among the few civilian luxury touches. COMFORT: Despite its military heritage and serious off-road engineering, the G500 is actually a very comfortable luxury vehicle. Forget about cleaning the interior with a hose, because it's as well- appointed as any premium-quality Mercedes-Benz, with fine leather upholstery, burled walnut trim, and all of the expected power accessories, including a GPS navigation system. Although simpler in style than Mercedes's passenger cars, the instrument panel will not be mistaken for that of a military vehicle, and I doubt that soldiers in the German Army get seats as comfortable and supportive as the G500's power front buckets and 60/40 split rear bench. Headroom is no problem, and even rear seat legroom is good. Because of the relatively flat floor, the rear center position is not cruel and unusual punishment. Cargo capacity with the rear seat in place is good, but flip up the rear cushions, fold down the seatback, and there is much more. There are some strange quirks to the interior, like a front passenger cupholder made of mesh netting that looks like a miniature basketball net, but they merely add character to a unique vehicle. SAFETY: The G500 has four-wheel vented antilock disc brakes, ESP stability control with Brake Assist, the TeleAid emergency and telematics system, and more safety features as standard equipment. ROADABILITY: Road? Who needs one of those? The G500 has rugged solid axles front and rear, with longitudinal and lateral control arms and coil springs. The hand-welded, fully-boxed chassis is extremely strong and rigid. At the press introduction last Fall, I had the opportunity to drive a G500 on a tricky, highly-technical off-road course, with slippery water hazards, seriously deep holes, and a loosely-surface hill steep enough that I wished I had a periscope to see over the hood. The G-Wagen took it all in stride. With full-time four-wheel drive, shift-on-the-fly low range, and triple locking differentials, traction will find a way to the ground if there is any ground at all. This is an incredibly capable vehicle in conditions where few machines can tread, yet on the highway and around town it is quiet and composed. A tiny bit of solid-axle thump and bump is noticeable, but it's not intrusive. Mercedes- Benz has done a commendable job of mixing true off-road toughness with luxury. Despite the barn-door aerodynamics and rain gutters, the G500 is luxuriously quiet on the highway. PERFORMANCE: Earlier versions of the Gelandewagen had a variety of gasoline and diesel engines, but none more powerful than the G500's namesake 5.0-liter V8. Its 292 horsepower and 336-lb- ft of torque move the 5500-lb. G-Wagen remarkably quickly, and quietly. Although it's no competition for the ML55 AMG hot-rod SUV, the G500 has no problem keeping up with traffic up to 70 mph or so. At that point, the (lack of) aerodynamic efficiency makes itself known, but 70 is a good cruising speed, especially considering that the G500's ancestry is far from the Autobahn. The five-speed automatic transmission has adaptive shift logic, and although it can be shifted manually in ``TouchShift'' mode, there is rarely any reason to do so. CONCLUSIONS: The Mercedes-Benz G500 combines the ability to deal with truly barbaric roads and the poise and elegance of European luxury. SPECIFICATIONS 2002 Mercedes-Benz G500 Base Price $ 72,500 Price As Tested $ 74,945 Engine Type single overhead cam, 24-valve aluminum alloy V8 Engine Size 5.0 liters / 305 cu. in. Horsepower 292 @ 5500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 336 @ 2800-4000 rpm Transmission 5-speed automatic with adaptive shift logic and ``TouchShift'' manual mode Wheelbase / Length 112 in. / 183.5 in. Curb Weight 5423 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 18.6 Fuel Capacity 25.4 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline recommended for maximum performance Tires 265/60 VR18 Yokohama Geolander H/T Brakes, front/rear vented disc /vented disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear rigid axles with longitudinal and transverse control arms, coil springs Drivetrain front-engine, full-time multimode four-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 12 / 14 / 12 0 to 60 mph 10.2 sec (mfg) OPTIONS AND CHARGES Brush guard and headlight grid $ 1,800 Destination charge $ 645

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