2005 Mercedes-Benz G500
If you want a real-deal SUV that could tear up your neighbor's back yard better than a dozen dirt bikes - not some girly-man thing with a marshmallow ride and all-season tires whose "4x4" system is more for talking points than any kind of serious off-road use - but you just can't abide the idea of piloting something garish and commonplace like a HUMMER, there's another, more interesting choice: the Mercedes-Benz Gelaendewagen.
Not many people even know what a Gelaendewagen (loosely, that's German for "cross-country vehicle") is, or have even seen one on the road. Though it's been around since the late 1970s, Mercedes has only been selling them in the U.S. for a couple of years now, so they're still exceedingly unusual, drawing double-takes wherever they go. The nearly vertical windshield and upright, boxy planes are wonderfully retro, like a modern-day Land Rover 110 or '69 Bronco (albeit with far nicer paint). They're also exceedingly tough, no-nonsense machines, with the gear to stomp an ML350 roof-deep into the mud.
You want military levels of capability? How about permanent four-wheel-drive with a fully synchronized high and low range transfer case that lets you shift from four-wheel Low range to four-wheel High (and back) while you're still moving, with no need to stop the vehicle and go through the drill of shifting to neutral, putting on the parking brake and all that jazz? Thanks to this feature, the G-wagen can bully its way through varying terrain without losing momentum, making it all but unstoppable even in foot-deep mud or snow.
How about electric locking front, center, and rear differentials? Lock 'em all and engine power is distributed equally to all four wheels, exactly 25 percent at each corner, giving it the grunt to pull you through Stalingrad levels of muck.
Then there are the aggressive angles of approach and departure: 36 degrees and 27 degrees, respectively. This means you can ascend and descend abrupt inclines and drop-offs that would have most SUVS plowing their noses or tails into the dirt and going nowhere. (The HUMMER's got better numbers here, as well as more ground clearance, but it can only lock its rear and center differentials.)
Eighteen-inch wheels, skid plates, almost nine inches of ground clearance, and a 292-hp version of the 5.0-liter V-8 used in the S-Class and E-Class sedans (but tuned for dirt-digging torque; its peak output of 336 lb-ft comes in below 3000 rpm) complete the G-wagen's list of bicep-bulging off-road credentials.
The G-wagen also comes with the luxury appointments you'd expect of a $78,000 Mercedes-Benz vehicle: heated front and rear leather seats, GPS, Park Assist, power everything, sunroof. But girlie-men might not like this one. The G-Wagen's top-heavy ride requires full time and attention on-road; the tall profile makes it susceptible to crosswinds and it tends to wander a good deal at speeds over 60 mph. No one hand on the wheel, the other working a cell phone or fiddling with the radio. Its gas pedal and steering are also heavy and make you work. Meaty forearms and a right foot used to leg presses will have no trouble coping, but this is no car for the gentle wife or lotion-using city slicker. There are Land Rovers for them.
The way we used to be
The G-wagen, on the other hand, is still built the way SUVs used to be built, before they became mass-market people carriers. In other words, it is an SUV built for people who know how to use an SUV, and who don't need or want a vehicle that's been idiot-proofed for the masses who don't.
That means it excels off road, but won't give you that oblivious feeling of total security at high speed (70-plus) that other, more civilized SUVs have been toned-down to deliver. Driving the G-wagen is a lot like driving an old Bronco, Land Rover, or Land Cruiser. You have to adjust your driving style. Slow down; speed limits actually matter. Do not take that off-ramp any faster than the posted maximum. If you do, the G-wagen will not be happy.
Even though the stability control system can save the clueless, the fact that its indicator light comes on so often, so easily, if you drive this vehicle as you might a Lexus GX470 or even an ML350 is fair warning that the G-wagen does not like to be pushed and made to play sport sedan.
While the 5.0-liter V-8 will move the U.S.-spec G-wagen quite quickly - it'll nail 60-mph from rest in about 7.8 seconds - don't be fooled into thinking it's Autobahn friendly. Anything more than 75 mph on an open, mostly straight highway is really not a good idea.
But the G-wagen is absolutely fine if driven as any SUV should be driven - with respect for the tradeoffs in on-road capability you exchange for being able to go where billy goats dare not tread when the pavement ends. It's an ideal vehicle for affluent folks with a deep woods country place who want to drive something different, or anyone who likes the idea of a go-anywhere HUMMER H1 but doesn't need a vehicle that enormous and maybe wants something with a bit more class. A better-handling, more comfortable and road-friendly M-Class might be more realistic if you spend more than 90 percent of your driving time slogging into the office instead of slogging through peat bogs.
One small criticism: It'd be nice if Mercedes offered the diesel engine that can be had in European G-wagens; the low-speed pulling power would be as good or better than the V-8 and the fuel economy would be much better. Plus, the diesel engine is more suitable for this vehicle anyhow. But for American G-wagen buyers, it's the 5.0-liter V-8, period, unless you can ante up to the 469-hp, $101,400 G55 AMG.
Still, the Gelaendewagen offers a unique driving experience. As mainline SUVs become softer and more civilized, the G500 stands out like Lou Ferrigno in his green greasepaint and ripped jeans, flexing and scowling menacingly. If that level of off-road ferocity appeals to you and you are comfortable with an old-school SUV that needs to be driven with respect for what it is, the G500 is truly sui generis, a breed apart and totally its own thing.
2005 Mercedes-Benz G500
Base price: $78,900; $85,425 as tested
Engine: 5.0-liter V-8, 292 hp/336 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, full-time four-wheel-drive
Length x width x height: 185.6 x 71.3 x 77.8 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Curb weight: 5545 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 13/14 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, traction control, stability control, ABS with Brake Assist
Major standard features: Front, center and rear electric locking differentials; dual-zone climate control; 18x7.5-inch wheels and M/S tires; GPS; 10-way power driver's seat; power windows/locks/mirrors; tilt/telescoping steering wheel
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles, four years/unlimited miles roadside assistance
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