Finally! Over 20 years after its introduction in Europe, the Mercedes-Benz Gelaendewagen is coming to America. Some (most?) of you are probably wondering what the heck a Gelaendewagen is, let alone how to pronounce its name (ga-lin-di-va-gon). Translated, Gelaendewagen means "tough terrain vehicle." Those familiar with this rig usually call it by its nickname, G-wagen.
Born out of a joint venture in 1979 between Mercedes-Benz and two other companies, Steyr and Puch of Austria, the Steyr-Daimler-Puch G-wagen was (and is) virtually hand-built in Austria and was first and foremost a heavy-duty off-road vehicle favored by various military groups and safari zealots. Usually propelled by a diesel engine, the G-wagen was not luxurious by any stretch, but developed a reputation for being able to get through most anything, no matter how treacherous or steep the terrain.
As the years went on, G-wagens were brought into the States via the gray market, that is, by companies that brought European-spec vehicles over to the States and modified them to meet our government's safety and emissions standards. Remember what Tom Cruise's character, Charlie Babbitt, did for a living in the movie Rain Man, bringing in those Lamborghini Countaches and having a devil of a time with it? 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 so Europa International wouldn't have to deal with modifying the vehicles itself anymore.
Advertising in such high-brow publications as the Robb Report, Europa built up a nice business, importing the G-wagens (two-door hardtop, two-door ragtop and four-door hardtop), customizing them for its clients and selling them for around $135,000. Now that Mercedes is going to bring the G-wagen in at little more than half that cost, fully loaded, it would seem that Europa International might have to close up shop. Not the case, as we learned in a telephone interview with General Manager Russell Leabch. He stated that E.I. will remain in business, offering service and custom modifications only limited by the client's imagination. Full armor plating and camper conversions are but two examples of what Europa International can do to a G-wagen.
To cater to our spoiled American tastes, Mercedes-Benz will bring over the premium version of the G, the G500. Although various body styles of the G are available in Europe, we'll only be getting the four-door version. Evidently, Mercedes realizes that Americans prefer their premium SUVs in four-door form.
Every luxury feature that any sane person could possibly desire is standard in the G500. A navigation system, heated seats front and rear, a nine-speaker audio system with six-disc CD changer, power everything, sunroof and enough leather and wood to make one think that he's sitting in an S-Class sedan all come standard. Of course, as with all Mercedes vehicles, there is the option of a fully integrated hands-free cell phone that can be worked via voice commands.
Built on a 112.2-inch wheelbase, the G500 is so called because of its 5.0-liter gasoline V8 engine that pumps out 292 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque. Peak torque arrives before 3,000 rpm, promising brisk acceleration and stout off-road grunt. Using two spark plugs and three valves per cylinder, the V8 operates cleanly, allowing it to meet even California's strict emissions requirements. A five-speed automatic gearbox with the Touch Shift automanual feature transfers the power to all four wheels.
Other vital stats for the G500 include rigid axles front and rear (preferred for heavy-duty use, as they are stronger than independent designs), suspension by coil springs and gas shocks at each wheel, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and 18-inch alloy wheels wearing meaty 265/60R18 rubber.
Greatly aiding the G-wagen's off-road capability are aggressive approach and departure angles (of 36 and 27 degrees, respectively), a low range that can be selected on the fly (up to 15 mph) and locking differentials for the front axle, center differential and rear axle. The triple locking differentials are unique and are meant for extreme off-road conditions. The G500 will be the only vehicle available stateside with this feature, and believe us, it works. During an off-road portion of our testing, we took the G500 through the woods, and after breezing through fairly level terrain, we were challenged by a narrow, rutted incline that rose skyward at more than 45 degrees. Switching on all three diff locks, which is done simply via three push buttons on the dash, we scrambled up that bad boy without a misstep, squeak or rattle from the G-meister.
On the blacktop, the G was surprisingly civilized. Prod the throttle from a stop and the V8 does a fine job getting 5,400 pounds of upscale SUV up to speed quickly. Midrange pull is strong, as well, and coupled with the smooth and alert automatic gearbox, furnishes swift passing response when needed. Bringing it back down from speed, the binders were strong and linear, with a firm pedal feel.
Also unexpected was the serenity of the cabin at freeway speeds. Despite the near-vertical orientation of the windshield and the blocky body style, the G500 cruised easily at 75 mph on the freeway without subjecting our ears to excessive wind or tire roar.
In the curves, it's no sport sedan, but neither was there excessive body roll admirable for a vehicle with a high center of gravity and generous suspension travel. Steering feel is fine as far as weighting and response, though (as expected in a serious off-roader) there wasn't much feedback. And in spite of the primitive live-axle setup fore and aft, the ride was compliant over broken pavement.
Priced at $73,165, the G500 is geared toward the upper echelon of luxury SUVs, such as the Range Rover 4.6 HSE and Lexus LX 470. Those who require their sport-ute to be as rugged as it is luxurious will want to consider this classic yet eminently capable Benz.
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