by Haney Louka
Top dog in the Mercedes-Benz SUV kennel is the new 2002 Mercedes-Benz G500 — an ex-military vehicle converted to a luxury sport-utility vehicle. The G500 Galaendewagen includes a 292 horsepower 5 litre V8 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission, a unique four-wheel-drive system with three locking differentials, solid front and rear axles, Electronic Stability Control, and the usual Mercedes-Benz interior luxury features. Price is $106,900.
A beast with a soft spot
Let me guess: you’ve always wanted a Hummer but it’s just too darn hard to park. Have I got the vehicle for you.
Hand assembled in Austria, the Mercedes-Benz G500 is a military grade utility vehicle that has been adapted for civilian use, much in the same manner as the Hummer H1 that Operation Desert Storm and Arnold Schwarzenegger made famous. Except that this Benz has been made a little bit more hospitable during its journey from the army barracks to the country club.
The civilian version of the G Class (the ‘G’ is short for ‘Gelaendewagen”) began life in 1979, and even back then boasted technologically superior features such as differential locks and four wheel drive that could be engaged while driving. While that original model made something between 72 and 150 hp, the G500, introduced in 1998 in Mercedes’ home market, is equipped with a 292-hp V-8 which has been transplanted from the German marque’s own S-Class sedans.
A more than capable off-roader
Mercedes now brings this civilian beast to Canada for 2002, and perches it high above the more mainstream ML-Class SUVs in its lineup, commanding a sticker price of $106,900. Now if you start asking whether it’s actually worth a six-figure price tag, there are a couple of arguments I can put
First, in this price range, exclusivity is king. Mercedes-Benz Canada plans to import just 150 G500s each year, which should keep the chances of pulling up beside one at a traffic light to a minimum. In fact, the G500 garnered its share of looks during my short test drive, owing to its
commanding presence and the aforementioned exclusivity that it boasts. And that is really what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Second, we need to get into the core capabilities of the G-Class, most of which will certainly not be required during the jaunt between the country club and the summer villa.
Click image to enlarge
The G500 boasts 211 mm-over eight inches-of ground clearance, and approach and departure angles of 36 and 27 degrees, respectively. These numbers represent the maximum change in slope that the big Benz will approach and depart from without scuffing those underbody scuff plates that protect the G’s innards. Approach and departure angles are a function of ground clearance and overhang lengths, and are important to any serious off-roader.
A look at the G500’s hardware might also help to underscore its off-road capabilities. The G rides on two rigid axles that are suspended by coil springs and gas shock absorbers at each corner. Rigid axles are one of the most telling indications that a vehicle was primarily designed for performance off-road rather than on. A rigid axle allows the vehicle to maintain the highest possible ground clearance when negotiating uneven terrain. Independent suspensions, while better at providing passenger comfort, allow the differential to be closer to the ground, reducing the off-road prowess of vehicles so equipped.
There are three differentials utilized in the G-Class’ four-wheel drivetrain-front, centre, and rear-each of which can be locked via dash-mounted buttons for maximum off-road control. This allows the driver to force power to all four wheels, maximizing the chances of getting out of a tough spot.
Mercedes says that the G can climb grades of 80 percent (roughly 38.7 degrees) and is laterally stable on slopes up to 54 percent, or about 28 degrees. Impressive.
But unless that summer villa is accessible only after traversing a bog and scaling a mountainside, the probability that new G-Class owners will use any of these features is slim to say the least.
Benz’s PR people refer to this as a “compact SUV,” but I’m not sure on what planet they’re referring to. Standing a hair under two metres tall, this giant towers over the competition. It’s even an inch or so taller than the mighty Hummer. Admittedly, the width, at 1,760 mm, makes this truck one tall, narrow stump-puller. For reference, a Nissan Pathfinder measures 10 mm wider.
Pure Benz inside
After stepping over the high doorsill (which, by the way, sports a cool “Mercedes-Benz” logo backlit in electric blue) any S-Class driver would feel right at home behind the wheel of the G-Class. The interior appointments are pure Mercedes, from the acres of leather and wood to the instrument panel that’s dominated by a semicircular speedometer. Many of the S-Class’ luxury touches have been carried over to the G as well. For example, the wipers have an automatic setting that senses water on the windshield and whisks it away as required.
G500 drivers will feel secure, too, knowing that ESP (electronic stability program) and Tele Aid are there to help them. ESP helps keep the G on its intended path. Tele Aid is similar to the OnStar system, in that it puts drivers in touch with a help centre in case of emergencies or when roadside
assistance is required. It also makes use of the navigation system’s GPS (global positioning system) tracking to pinpoint the location of the vehicle.
But with the good comes the not so good. As is the case with other M-B products, the trip computer and secondary functions are all accessed through four steering wheel-mounted buttons that navigate through various displays (on a screen nested inside the speedometer) in a way that’s not at all intuitive. I suppose if I owned the thing I would get used to it, but there must be a better way. Leaving some things, like the coolant temperature gauge, right there on the dash would not be a bad place to start.
Unique driving experience
Once moving, it becomes immediately evident that similarities with other Benzes ends with the interior treatment. Driving the G500 is a unique experience indeed. All of those sharp edges and flat panels mean that you know exactly where the corners of the vehicle are.
A side benefit of driving a vehicle that looks like the box it came in: I was driving the G500 during that nasty Winnipeg snowfall in early May and had it parked while the snow was falling. When it came time to get going, everybody else was brushing the snow off of their vehicles’ windows. And
the G500? Its perfectly vertical glass didn’t retain a single snowflake, save for the windshield, which is angled ever so slightly off vertical. A quick flick of the wipers and I was on my way.
Ride quality is better than I expected, given the rock-hopping hardware on the G500. Handling is also quite decent thanks to the 18-inch wheels and 60-series street tires that connect the big Benz to the road. I never had the feeling that I was navigating a barge through our city streets. My biggest carp regarding handling would be the slow steering. I found myself turning the wheel about 50 percent further than I had anticipated when negotiating tight corners.
The 5.0-litre V-8 has what it takes to move the two-and-a-half-tonne G500 around without seeming overwhelmed, but this beast will not be taking part in any stoplight grand prix.
Summing it up
While the Mercedes-Benz G500 is a hardcore military grade off-roader, I don’t think prospective buyers view it that way. In this class, it’s all about shock value, and the G500 provides no shortage of that.
The G500 is truly a unique vehicle. In addition to the Hummer H1 and upcoming H2, the G-Class competes against the Range Rover from Land Rover and the Lexus LX470.
|2002 Mercedes-Benz G500|
|Price as tested||$106,900|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger sport utility vehicle|
|Layout||front-mounted V-8, full-time four wheel drive|
|Engine||5.0-L V-8, three valves per cylinder|
|Horsepower||292 @ 5,500 rpm|
|Torque||336 lb-ft. between 2,800 and 4,000 rpm|
|Transmission||5-speed automatic with manual shift mode|
|Curb weight||2,460 kg (5,423 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2,844 mm (112 in.)|
|Length||4,660 mm (183.5 in.)|
|Width||1,760 mm (69.3 in.)|
|Height||1,977 mm (77.8 in.)|
|Cargo volume||1,280 L (45 cu. ft.) rear seat up|
|2,250 L (79.5 cu. ft.) rear seat down|
|Fuel consumption||City: 18.9 L/100 km (14.8 mpg)|
|Hwy: 15.0 L/100 km (18.6 mpg)|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/120,000 km|