- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

Mercedes-Benz G500 is a class-action sports utility vehicle.

The trail would have given a mountain lion pause. Rutted, craggy, narrow and winding it ended with a roller-coaster climb up a loose, dirt hill. Through it all, this boxy Benz proved to be a masterful off-roader, and the trail proved a point. The G500 is a vehicle that's at its best when conditions are at their worst. The irony? Almost none of its U.S. buyers will ever know this.

In Europe, the G500 is known by the mouthful moniker "Gelaendewagen." Manufactured in Graz, Austria, Mercedes' G-Class has been sold overseas since the late 1970s. Over the years, G-Wagen derivatives have been built for many purposes, from military maneuvers to mining operations. Given the strong sales in the American SUV market, Mercedes opted to bring its regal roughneck across the pond to compete in the high-end segment with Lexus, Range Rover and Hummer.

Although G500 sightings are quite rare here, strictly speaking this is not the first time that the G-Class has appeared on these shores. For several years, a small, Southwestern concern was importing, federalizing and selling G-Wagens here at a price roughly double the current $72,500 sticker.

Part of the G500's uniqueness stems from its downright upright design. Standing 6-feet-4 with a huge glass greenhouse, it's tempting to call the ultraboxy looks "retro," when in fact they just haven't changed much in the 20-odd years since the model was introduced.

Despite the troop-transport lines, the G-Class dresses up quite well. In a suitably conservative shade of black with dark glass, as well as with elegant, alloy rims and prominent Mercedes emblems fore and aft the G500 has a stately air.

Inside, drivers may be shocked to find nowhere to park their coffee cup up front, but every other luxury appointment is there to be found. Standard gear includes plenty of leather and burled walnut trim and power everything. Heated seats front and rear keep the occupants toasty, and standard Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation helps drivers stay on course. A nine-speaker sound system with six-CD changer holds enough tunes for an army of listeners, and an optional cell phone can be controlled by voice commands.

The huge glass area makes for fine visibility in all directions, except directly in back, where the rear-seat headrests and the crescent profile of the spare-tire carrier conspire to limit the view.

With its raised roof line, the G500 has headroom to burn and just enough rear legroom to hold 6-footers front and back. Storage capacity is top-notch, with 45 cubic feet of space expandable to 79.5, with the rear seat folded forward. The cargo area is accessed by means of a hefty, side-swinging door that, like every door on the G500, must be slammed in order to shut properly.

The G-Wagen's angular profile is deceptive. It looks tall and tippy, when in fact it is exceedingly stable. The reason lies within. Like many people, the G-Class carries most of its weight below the belt. Mercedes claims that the G500 can traverse lateral slopes up to a very steep 24 degrees because much of the 5,423-pound curb weight is found in the amazingly stout chassis.

Underpinning the G-Class are rigid axles front and rear, with coil springs and gas shocks at all four corners. Ground clearance measures 8.3 inches, and protective plates shield vital drivetrain components from injury.

Power is provided by Mercedes' 5-liter V-8. Rated at 292 horsepower and a burly 336 pounds-feet of torque, it offers bottomless pull in the boonies and enough push on pavement to usher the 2.5-ton G-Wagen from 0-60 mph in under 11 seconds. What price performance? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 12 mpg city, 14 highway.

The G500 is a full-time, four-wheel-driver, with the on-the-fly capacity to shift to low range at speeds under 15 mph.

It is capable of climbing grades up to 36 degrees, with three differential locks that can be engaged independently in extreme off-road situations. In addition, the G-Class is also outfitted with Mercedes' electronic traction control and ESP stability control, for added driving assurance.

Off-road, the G-Class breeds extreme confidence. It is hard to imagine what sort of conditions would be required to get stuck in this vehicle. On-road, the G500 has truck-stiff steering but fine-for-the-breed ride quality.

Few vehicles offer the combination of country-club cachet and bulldozer toughness that the G500 does. In the elite class of ultraluxury utes, the G-Class truly stands tall.


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