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Born out of a joint venture in 1979 between Mercedes-Benz and two other companies, Steyr and Puch of Austria, the Steyr-Daimler-Puch Gelaendewagen was (and still is) virtually hand-built in Austria. It was first and foremost a heavy-duty off-road vehicle favored by various military groups and safari zealots. Loosely translated, Gelaendewagen means "tough terrain vehicle." Those familiar with this rig usually call it by its nickname, G-wagen. Usually propelled by a diesel engine, the early G-wagen was not luxurious by any stretch (manual windows and tartan cloth seats were the order of the day) but developed a reputation for being able to get through most anything, no matter how treacherous or steep the terrain.
These workhorses were offered with a variety of relatively frugal gasoline and diesel power plants. As with other Mercedes-Benz models, the numbers and letters indicated the engine's size and whether it was gasoline- or diesel-powered, e.g., the 230 G (gas) and 240 GD (diesel). Two gas models (the four-cylinder 230 and six-cylinder 280) and two diesel models (the 240 and 300) were available with horsepower ranging from 72 to 150. There were three body styles to choose from, a pair of short-wheelbase two-doors (hardtop and convertible) and a long-wheelbase four-door wagon.
Although the G-wagen was not offered for sale in the U.S., the so-called "gray market" of the 1980s made them obtainable by Americans with deep pockets. The gray market consisted of companies that brought European-spec vehicles over to the States and modified them to meet our government's safety and emissions standards. One such company, Europa International, became so successful at this that it struck an agreement with the G-wagen people to build the vehicles it ordered to U.S. standards — that way Europa International wouldn't have to deal with modifying the vehicles itself anymore. Advertising in such high-brow publications as Robb Report, Europa built up a nice business, importing the various G-wagens (two-door hardtop, two-door ragtop and four-door hardtop), customizing them for its clients and selling them for around $135,000.
The calling card of the G was its incredibly rugged nature; in 1983 a 280 GE (with Jacky Ickx and Claude Brasseur at the helm) won what is perhaps the most grueling race on the planet, the Paris-Dakar Rally. Not much changed for the next couple of years, but in 1986 the 50,000th G-wagen rolled off the line. That year also saw minor changes to the cabin that improved comfort, the addition of a catalytic converter that decreased emissions and the replacement of the 240 GD with the 250 GD. The next three years passed without anything newsworthy, save for the G's 10th birthday in 1989.
A revised chassis was found under the familiar (some would say classic) body for 1991. A pair of high-tech features topped the list of improvements that weren't readily apparent at a casual glance. Antilock brakes and three electronically engaged locking differentials made the G safer on road and more capable off. In addition to the standard locking center differential seen on most truck-based SUVs, the G boasted front and rear locking diffs that gave the Benz the grip and agility of a mountain goat when faced with treacherous terrain.
Recognizing that the G-wagen was being considered by some folks who cared more about power, luxury and foul-weather capability than all-out trail-busting ability, Mercedes brought out the limited-production, V8-powered 500 GE for 1993. As it was geared toward that aforementioned clientele, the 500 GE "only" had the center and rear differential locks, as the front one was typically employed only in the most severe off-road conditions. With 240 horsepower and a cabin trimmed in burled walnut and plush leather, the 500 GE was a precursor of what would be coming to America nearly a decade later. As with all other Mercedes-Benz models, the G-wagen's naming system changed for 1994. From this year on, the "G" would come before the model number (that is, "G500" as opposed to "500 GE"). For 1996 the G300 Turbo Diesel debuted, replacing the G350 Turbo Diesel. Although the 300 had a smaller engine, its output (at 177 hp) was actually greater than that of the larger engine it replaced.
A few new models debuted for 1997. One of those was the new cabriolet that featured a power-operated convertible top. Another was the 290 GD Turbo Diesel (120 hp) that replaced the non-turbo 290 GD. The G320 likewise kept its name but received a new engine, a 215-hp V6. After its brief run in 1993 and 1994, the V8-powered G500 made a comeback for 1998, and became more widely available. That year also saw the merger of Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler, giving rise to DaimlerChrysler.
To celebrate the G-wagen's 20th birthday in 1999, Mercedes rolled out a special edition of the G500, called the G500 Classic. This year also saw the fitment of multifunction controls mounted on the steering wheel that operated, among other things, the audio system and trip computer. The year 2000 marked a turning point for diesel-powered versions of the G. Featuring the latest diesel technologies (such as common rail direct injection), the powerful G400 CDI provided brisk performance equal to (or even better than) equivalently sized gas engines. The technology windfall continued for 2001 when stability control (called "ESP") debuted for the G-Class.
Finally, in 2002 after years of losing potential sales in America, the G-wagen came to the States. Actually, only one model was chosen for power- and luxury-hungry Americans — the G500. At nearly $75,000, the G500 certainly wasn't cheap, but considering that the gray market was getting nearly twice that over 10 years earlier (for six-cylinder models, no less), it must have looked like a bargain for G-wagen fans. A mild facelift, including mirror-mounted turn signals and lights, also occurred that year.
Mercedes' in-house tuner, AMG, performed its magic upgrades on the G-Class for 2003; the result was the 349-hp G55 AMG. The G55 sported engineering and styling tweaks over the standard G500 that included a slightly larger and modified V8 (with 57 more horsepower and 51 more pound-feet of torque), side-exit exhaust, a prominent aluminum brush guard and unique 18-inch wheels with meaty 285/55VR18 performance tires.
Time to celebrate. To mark the G-wagon's 25th birthday, Mercedes rolled out the "Classic 25" model for 2004, essentially a G500 with special wheels, brushed aluminum side moldings, silver grille color and of course commemorative badges. Later in the year, a celebration of horsepower takes place with the G55 receiving the same supercharged 5.4-liter V8 found in the pavement-scorching E55. Rated at an astounding 476 horsepower, the muscle-bound V8 catapults the G55 to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 130 mph, more than enough for a heavy SUV. Other changes this year included a trio of additional standard features — multicontour front seats, a Harman Kardon audio system and rear parking sensors.