More than one automaker would like to believe that its sport utility vehicle is the ultimate one. Mercedes-Benz took a bold step in that direction with the G-Class (G500), which evolved from the no-compromises Geläendewagen that had been sold in Europe. Introduced during the 2002 model year, the limited-production G500 had a sticker price of $72,500 (not including the destination charge). Because of its midseason debut, only minor modifications are likely for 2003, but Mercedes-Benz has not yet released any information.
With its M-Class model on sale in the United States since 1998, Mercedes-Benz focused largely on road-going manners. The Geläendewagen, in contrast, is a hard-core offroad machine inspired by the demands of military service but transformed into a high-end luxury SUV. The German automaker claims that it will climb an 80-percent grade and remain stable on a 54-percent lateral slope. Handcrafted in Graz, Austria, the G500 faces such competitors as the V-8-powered BMW X5, the Land Rover Range Rover 4.6 HSE, the Lexus LX 470 and even the Hummer H1. Far more than the M-Class, the G500 is nearly in a class by itself.
A strictly utilitarian appearance is softened somewhat by body-colored bumpers, rub strips and rocker panels, as well as alloy wheels and a stainless-steel spare-tire cover. At 183.5 inches long overall, the G-Class is only an inch longer than the M-Class, which measures 182.6 inches long overall. The G500 uses 18-inch tires and rides a 112-inch wheelbase, which is approximately 3 inches narrower than the M-Class. The G500 also stands a half an inch taller than its SUV sibling.
Because this is a serious offroad vehicle, rigid front and rear axles with longitudinal and transverse links to coil springs are installed. The G500 is the only production vehicle with three locking differentials. In extremely low-traction situations, all you need is a little grip on one front wheel and thats enough to pull you through a trouble spot. The vehicle is also equipped with four-wheel electronic traction control to assist less experienced drivers.
The G500s leather upholstery is complemented by burl walnut interior trim. Standard equipment includes power windows and door locks, heated power seats, a GPS navigation system and Mercedes-Benz's Tele Aid telematics system that offers emergency and theft-tracking services. No options are offered other than the choice of exterior and interior colors and an integrated hands-free phone with electronic voice recognition.
Under the Hood
Adapted from the engine in the automakers S-Class sedan and SL-Class roadster, the all-aluminum, 5.0-liter V-8 in the G500 produces 292 horsepower and 336 pounds-feet of torque. Each engine cylinder uses a three-valve twin-spark setup. An electronically controlled five-speed-automatic transmission sends the power to a full-time four-wheel-drive system with a Low range, which is fully synchronized for shift-on-the-fly operation at up to 15 mph. Mercedes-Benzs Electronic Stability Program is also installed.
The G500s antilock brakes have Brake Assist for automatic full-power braking in panic stops. Electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) enhances stability when braking in curves.
Although its a lot smaller than the Hummer H1, the G500 delivers a comparably unique driving experience. Its hard to believe that this SUV is only slightly taller than the M-Class because it conveys the impression of looming height, which is emphasized by its relatively short, narrow body.
Everything about the G500 seems bolt-upright, including the seating positions. Even though the SUVs height is largely an illusion, theres a tendency to keep the vehicles speed way down when rolling through curves and corners. Its operation is defiantly trucklike, emitting plenty of sound and acceleration with a degree of sluggishness. Not only does the G500 look ready to tackle the most demanding terrain, but it also feels ready for such action, which detracts from its prowess and pleasure on ordinary paved surfaces.