Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
We'll admit that when it comes to buying luxury vehicles, rationality isn't always the most prominent purchase factor. When you've got the money and you want something, practicality and common sense shouldn't get in the way.
We tried to keep that thought in mind as we drove Mercedes' latest SUV, but it didn't help matters much. There's little rationale for the existence of the G500 on our shores other than the fact that a few thousand silly Americans are willing to pay for it.
With its military roots and subsequent all-around toughness, it's certainly a competent off-roader, but that hardly has anything to do with its appeal. In fact, its military roots are what make it a thoroughly unappealing vehicle in our minds, rendering it nothing more than a dressed-up troop transport that is worlds away from the luxury sedans Mercedes built its reputation on in this country. Other than better-than-average rock-crawling ability, the G500 has little to offer aside from its big V8 and a look that says, "Hey, I wasn't designed in this decade, isn't that cool?"
But looks are subjective, so we'll try to keep our observations focused on more quantifiable aspects of Mercedes' second sport-ute. The previously mentioned V8 is a good start, especially since it's one of the few aspects of the G500 that doesn't seem woefully inadequate in comparison to the competition.
Borrowed directly from the top-shelf S-Class, the G's 5.0-liter power plant produces 292 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to get the hulking sport-ute moving in a hurry. Compared to the overtaxed eight-cylinder in the Lexus LX 470, this torque-rich 5.0-liter snaps the G around town with authority, even more so than it does in the significantly lighter S-Class sedan.
Although we weren't able to extract official track times, our seat-of-the-pants observations suggest that the G500 is more than a match for the newly empowered Range Rover. The five-speed automatic transmission executes solid shifts and rarely gets confused, but it does take a determined stab of the pedal to get it to wake up and do something. This wouldn't be worth noting if it wasn't for the dreadfully heavy accelerator pedal that requires a serious lead foot just to maintain a steady speed.
Unlike the borrowed drivetrain, the suspension is an old design that employs solid axles front and rear and coil springs at each corner. Although this basic setup is the preferred design of hard-core off-road enthusiasts the world over, it's decidedly less impressive on the city streets where most Gs will spend the majority of their lives.
A few modern-day tweaks have made the live-axle setup bearable around town, but it's not enough to mask the low-tech design. The tall, upright body still exhibits significant body roll as you might expect, and road hazards come booming through the cabin with annoying frequency.
Even worse, parking lot maneuvers feel like a trip to the gym thanks to the recirculating-ball steering system that rivals the gas pedal for effort required and feedback returned. The one bright spot in the G's over-the-road repertoire is its ability to remain quiet on smooth roads at high speeds a trait that was hard to overlook considering the near total lack of aerodynamic design.
All the outdated machinery is there for a reason of course. It gives the G exceptional off-road ability should you ever feel the need to subject your new $75K sport-ute to the rigors of the trail. In addition to the stout underpinnings, the G500 also boasts three fully lockable differentials as well as electronic traction and stability control. Our short jaunts on varying terrain were met with nothing more than a yawn from the G's overly capable hardware. In order to properly push this Mercedes' limits, you'll need some extremely difficult terrain and some very cool nerves as the G wagon's tall stance imparts a feeling of tippyness whether it's deserved or not.
We had little doubt that the G500 was the real deal in terms of its off-road capability thanks to its working-class heritage. But as with some other former military vehicles we're familiar with, the transition to civilian life isn't always a smooth one. This is usually evident when it comes to more delicate matters like interior ergonomics and everyday drivability, and the G500 is certainly no exception.
A high step-in height and small doors make for a tight squeeze into the driver seat. The doors themselves feel insubstantial, closing with a meager "click" rather than the usual thud of a Mercedes sedan. The 10-way adjustable seats allow for a comfortable seating position, but the vertical windows and ultrahigh roof make you feel like you're sitting in some kind of high-class tour bus.
The instrument panel and climate control switchgear are pulled straight from Mercedes' sedans, a good or bad sign depending on how you look at it. The gauges are large and easy to read but there's not a hint of style in any one of them. The climate controls look slick but they suffer from a poor interface that makes them more confusing than they need to be. The sight of Mercedes' awful COMAND audio/navigation system never fails to elicit a cringe, as it continues to use outdated CD-ROM technology and radio controls that require too much fiddling during everyday use. On top of that, the CD changer is located in the cargo bay and getting complete navigational coverage requires you to pony up $140 for the full CD set.
The rear quarters suffer from the same access problems due to the small doors and high step-in, but there's plenty of room to stretch out once inside. The seats themselves are comfortable for three adults with individual headrests and heaters for the outboard positions. The seatbacks are split 60/40 and fold easily to reveal up to 80 cubic feet of total cargo capacity. The swinging rear door is a bit heavy and awkward, but at least the hinges are on the driver's side for easy curbside loading.
Although the cabin is swathed in plenty of leather and wood, there's still a lack of cohesiveness to the look of the interior. All the usual Mercedes hardware is there, but it looks a bit thrown together compared to the cabin in the M-Class. While this doesn't come as much of a surprise in view of the G's advanced age, when you consider the fact that the ML500 comes with the same engine and nearly the same size for $30K less, you can't help but wonder what you're paying for with the G500.
Of course, we're not naïve enough to pretend as if we don't know what the price premium is for. Mercedes will sell over 40,000 ML-Class sport-utes this year while only a few thousand G500s will roam the streets. The prospect of being the only one on the block to have the goofy-looking Mercedes sport-ute is enough to convince some buyers that it's worth the price.
We're not quite as convinced. For the same amount of money we would score a 2003 Range Rover that drives better on the street, is equally capable in the dirt and has an interior that looks as though it belongs in a luxury vehicle but that's just us.
Regardless of the little respect we foster for the G500, Mercedes will have little trouble selling out the several thousand it'll import this year. The fact remains that we're an SUV-addicted society, and even a vehicle as overpriced and underwhelming to drive as the G500 can still find willing buyers. Someday we'll look back on the G500 and laugh about it but not nearly as hard as the executives in Stuttgart.
System Score: 7.0
Components: Next to the Hummer H1, this has to be the most expensive box-on-wheels on the planet. But I suppose we'll leave that commentary to the vehicle review guys. And yet, the shape and size of this vehicle have much to do with the overall sound quality (or lack thereof) of the audio system, since stereos don't operate in a vacuum. So on to the system.
As with most Mercedes sound systems, this one is well-appointed on the electronics side of the equation. This particular system interfaces with the operator through a small navigation screen in the very center of the dash. What we like about this arrangement is the nav screen is not a touchscreen, which is oftentimes a pain in the derriere to operate. Instead, Mercedes has opted for the display to be just that a display. When operating fade or balance or bass, the LCD screen provides a visual cue for your adjustments. The system also has another welcome feature: two CD players, a single-play in-dash and a six-disc changer in the trunk (if you can call that a trunk), so the operator has the best of both worlds. Other welcome features include steering wheel controls for volume and seek-scan, rubberized knobs for volume and tuning and 10 AM and 10 FM presets.
Speakers in the G500 include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the bottom of the rear doors, plus a 6.5-inch pair of midbass drivers in the forward doors. Better still, the Mercedes engineers have positioned a pair of upward-firing tweeters in the corners of the dashboard, for effective dispersion of the upper frequencies. So how does it sound?
Performance: The, uh, uniqueness of the shape of this vehicle has much to do with the way it sounds. Quite simply, sound gets lost in the large passenger compartment. We found lower frequencies tight and punchy, but not particularly deep, while highs came across as hissy and screeching. As a result, the system has an artificial sound that is not helped by the shape and size of the vehicle.
Best Feature: Two CD players.
Worst Feature: Boxy cabin dilutes sound.
Conclusion: If you're interested in this style of vehicle but want better sound, you'd be wise to check out the Range Rover. That system made our top-10 list for 2002. Scott Memmer
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
This thing is entertaining long before you get it started. First, there's the shape, which is more akin to a Hummer than anything else you can buy in the U.S. (except, of course, for the new H2). The tall, thin stance makes you think the car will feel cramped and tippy inside. While not as roomy as a Land Cruiser or Navigator, the G500 has plenty of space for five adults, though center passengers in the second row should not be "Big & Tall" width. Legroom and headroom are abundant, and the comfortable (and heated) leather seats, along with the wood grain trim and navigation system, seem totally out of place in what is obviously a pure utilitarian chassis.
And the tippy driving aspect? Like any SUV, it's not as confident when cornering as a sedan or coupe, but the tight (and heavy) steering offers surprising feedback. There's lots of engine noise under hard throttle, but the 5.0-liter V8 makes excellent power, giving the G500 a far sprightlier feel than its office-building shape would suggest. The large, flat windows do create distracting reflections, and the lack of a third-row seat puts it at a disadvantage in this segment.
Sure, Mercedes took its sweet time deciding to import the Gelaendewagen, but the company has given its target audience exactly what it wants: A rugged-looking, high-riding, premium-badged SUV. A short off-road stint proved that it's even got the goods to back up that image, though most customers will likely never try the locking differential (or even know what that means).
To me, the G-Class concept is kinda ridiculous. So why did I hate giving the keys back?
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Admittedly, my view is a narrow one. While I'm sure those who buy the G500 a vehicle which, at 23 years, is older than the primary consumers of the truck will be using it to bring food to snowbound relatives in the Alps-like environment that isolates much of the United States, I didn't have much of a chance to use the transfer case, which is its forte. Rather, I immersed myself in what must be its weakness, which is its on-road demeanor. Top-heavy, tippy, heavy, outdated, unsophisticated and uncomfortable were the adjectives I came away with. The most striking aspect of my short test drive was that I passed three of them on Pacific Coast Highway, all of which were driven by delicate-looking matrons of Malibu.
In terms of bragging rights and a testosterone content that exceeds that of the entire monster truck industry, the G500 probably has very few equals. There were, after all, those willing to shell out $150,000 for it at one time. Its current selling price of half that amount must seem like a bargain-basement find, and it'll match splendidly with your private helicopter. By the way, I'd like to sell you a beautiful red bridge that connects San Francisco to Marin County.
"After about 2,500 miles, the G500 is perfect: comfortable, extremely capable off-road, built like a tank and civilized enough that I have to fight my wife for the keys. On-road performance is adequate in all respects with acceleration good, braking very good and handling, surprisingly, also very good. Moreover, it has remarkably good NVH isolation. The COMAND system is complicated, but I like having access to a GPS." Roxydad, March 5, 2002.
"Well worth the wait! There's nothing quite like it. It is a truck, and don't forget that! It wasn't just designed and made retro. It is a work of art, in progress, and it only gets better with age. I use it as a daily driver and can't say enough. It is truly what I expected and more. Waited 11 months, and the 'G' has not disappointed, both mechanically or in terms of drivability. If you are really honest with yourself as to what you are buying, you will not be disappointed." Very Happy, March 27, 2002.
"I admit, I had to order one and be one of the first. Yes, I made a mistake and will be selling or trading it in. While it's a respectable off-road vehicle and can run circles around anything except a Hummer (either one), it's just too 'goofy' to be seen everyday. Face it, call it retro, art or just plain ugly, it's not a good-looking vehicle. Interior quality is Mercedes all the way. Not sure who this truck is targeted toward, but it's not me." SCMAN, July 19, 2002.
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