I must confess a certain familiarity with Mercedes-Benz's G500 sport/utility vehicle. I have, in fact, spent a good bit of time with her sister on two separate occasionsonce while camping beside her during a hike along Wales' Pembrokeshire coast and again this summer at a base camp among the Red Cuillin Mountains of the Isle of Skye.
She belongs to my British friend and co-scrambler, who calls her his G-Wagen. Her real name is Gelaendewagen, and this translatesloosely but appropriatelyas “trail buggy” in German. She's not particularly pretty; her figure is boxy, her shoulders square. Just the same, she's certainly not one to complain about a cabin full of muddy hiking boots and a cargo of wet, smelly golden retriever named Charlie. She makes the 14-hour drive from Gloucestershire to Skye with a good bit more hospitality than her Spartan interior might suggest. At the end of the trip, all she wants is a good hosing offinside and outto wash away the road scum and trail crud. She's a hard-tailed, clear-eyed trooper, is G-Wagen.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise to witness all the fanfare surrounding Mercedes-Benz's introduction of its G500 into North America for 2002. The boxy, square figure is the same, of course; likewise the hard-tail, go-getter attitude. The 24-valve V8 (from M-B's luxury S-Class sedans) is, of course, a nearly mandatory concession to U.S. preferences; but this is an upgrade that's more sensed than seen. Not so the interior, however. In contrast to her British sibling, with the rubber floor mats and exposed seat stanchions, North America's G500 boasts a country club interior replete with deep-pile carpeting, leather upholstery, burl walnut fixtures and electronic gadgets galore. Cozying up inside a new G500 means finding yourself in a very different sort of G-spot than my British friend's G-Wagen. It's no less a pleasure, yet it is fascinating to ponder what Mercedes intends to accomplish by kitting out this Brunhild of an SUV with lipstick and high heels.
Watching cost-unconscious customers pour anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 into luxo/utility vehicles like the Lexus LX470, Range Rover 4.6HSE and AM General Hummer can't have been too much fun for M-B in the last few years. Making matters irritably worse is the existence of G.WagenUSA (www.gwagenusa.com), which has been importing G-Wagens on its own, bringing them up to U.S. specs and selling them at $135,000 a pop. In responseperhaps even in retaliationMercedes is finally giving the G-Wagen an official sanction in North America. Its $73,165 price tag, which includes destination fee, strikes right at the heart of the luxo-SUV segment. More symbolically, it cuts G.WagenUSA off right at the knees.
Assuming that price is curiously irrelevant among potential buyers for this type of vehicle, there's a lot to like about the G500. It succeeds, invariably, in bringing a smile to the face of anyone who sees one for the first time, so curious is its blend of military bluffness and Tonka toy bravado. That smile takes an ironic twist as one slowly comprehends the full array of interior amenities at the fingertips. TeleAid provides wireless assistance for dealing with malfunctions and roadside emergencies. COMAND is M-B's proprietary (and sometimes confusing) system for integrating audio, climate control, GPS navigation and telephone functions. The leather and wood are stunning, of course; the cargo capacity is a bit less so, although 45 cu. ft. with the rear seat upright, 80 cu. ft. with it folded are at least adequate.
By far, the G500's most stunning features are its least visible. Take those 6,000 welds, for example, which render the handmade (in Graz, Austria) G-class vehicles so confidently indestructible. That 5.0-liter, single-overhead-cam V8 is a treat too: It makes 292 HP and 336 ft.-lbs. of torque, enabling this portly 5,400-pounder to hustle from zero to 60 in about 10 seconds.
But the powertrain, the powertrain. If the G500 has a G-spot of its own, the powertrain is where it resides. For starters, there are three independently lockable differentialsfront, center and rear. Although it takes an NFL playbook to catalog all the potential permutations, this degree of manipulable traction control is now unique in the U.S. During some particularly dicey off-roading in the Virginia piedmont recently, I had a ball scampering uphill with all diffs locked, then unlocking only the front during a downhill run that required the tightest possible turning.
With all differentials unlocked, the G500 remains in full-time four-wheel-drive, but Mercedes' extrasensory ESP stability control system ensures that all but the nastiest traction conditions are dealt with by computer. The transfer case can be shifted on the fly between high and low ranges up to 15 mph, and the five-speed automatic transmission incorporates TouchShift for manual-style sequential shifting.
In short, the G500 is darned sophisticatedso much so that it's probably at cross purposes with itself. I can't imagine, for example, coming down drenched and bespattered from the summit of Bruach na Frithe on Skye, only to drench and bespatter a G500's lovely leather and burl interior back at base camp. And yet this is precisely what the G-Wagen invites for itself by its ability to slog through hub-sucking peat bogs, to breast 36-degree grades and to keep its balance when tilted 24 degrees to its side.
Someday, Mercedes might devise a type of one-piece, waterproof, floor-to-headrest slipcoverpreferably see-throughfor protecting the G500's entire glorious interior. For now, good housekeeping in messy conditions remains the G500's principle vulnerability. It's capable of getting into and out of tight spots that lesser vehicles won't even consider. The interior must therefore flaunt its inevitable mud stains and wood scars as defiant badges of honor.
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