Mercedes-Benz G500 conquers all terrain as no-compromise SUV
Date Posted: 5/10/2005
GRAZ, Austria -- On the south side of Graz, Austria's second largest city etched along banks of the River Mur as it trickles out of the Alps, workers at the vast Magna Steyr automotive assembly plant construct Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz vehicles for markets in Europe and the Middle East.
Chrysler's minivans and PT Cruisers roll off these assembly lines, as do Jeep Grand Cherokees and the Mercedes ML Class of sport-utility wagons plus mid-size E-Class Mercedes sedans and station wagons.
In back of the sprawling Steyr plant, a separate structure houses a special facility. For the past quarter of a century, workers in this small shop have used hand assembly techniques to construct in limited quantities a unique and versatile sport-utility wagon for Mercedes badged by the cumbersome name of Gelaendewagen, a German word that means off-road wagon.
Built on a rugged steel frame and bearing a body composed of angular metal panels that come together to form a rather tall but boxy package, the Gelaendewagen has become an essential motor tool for mobile armies around the world.
It's an ultimate go-anywhere vehicle designed for the most serious off-pavement applications in military and police patrols, as well as governmental and industrial units -- and even the Vatican depends on Gelaendewagen, as the Pope-mobile is constructed off a G-wagon chassis.
In the private sector in certain elite circles among sportsmen, the G-wagon has also become the prized trophy vehicle for cruising remote backwoods regions so rugged that conventional sport-utility wagons would never work.
It can scamper up or down a grade as steep as 36 degrees, or traverse a slope canted to an angle of 24 degrees.
And it's the only four-wheel-drive vehicle equipped with three locking differentials -- one each for front and rear axles plus the interconnecting drive shaft. Add high and low gearing with full synchronization even for the low range so you may shift into low while moving up to about 15 miles an hour.
You might encounter privately owned Gelaendewagens prowling the autobahns of Germany, making tracks on sand dunes in Saudi Arabia or crossing the plains of Africa, but only a few have trickled into the United States because until recently Mercedes never imported them.
Such limitations change now that Mercedes has added a deluxe version of the Gelaendewagen to the North American product line for 2002.
In place of the tongue-twisting Gelaendewagen nameplate, this new wagon is labeled simply as the G500.
Production at the Magna Steyr plant virtually doubles to 36 trucks per day with a second shift added to accommodate the Americanized version. It's fitted with a plush leather-lined cabin, the complete Mercedes complement of sophisticated electronic vehicle controls and a powerful V8 engine.
The single-cam 5.0-liter aluminum V8 in G500 produces 292 hp at 5500 rpm and torque of 336 lb-ft spread between 2800 and 4000 rpm.
That muscle is channeled through a five-speed automatic transmission with the Mercedes clutch-less Touch Shift controller for one-tap shifting to one gear at a time.
Following a morning visit to the Magna Steyr assembly line, we selected a G500 prototype and spent the rest of the day steering it across diverse terrain in foothills of the nearby Alps.
Pavement courses varied from cobblestone streets in Graz filled with stop-and-go traffic to smooth asphalt on the A2 autobahn and bumpy patches on narrow two-lane back roads such as route 72 that winds from Weiz through picturesque villages of Oberrosenberg and Fasslberg.
A trek away from pavement occurred at the 3000-foot Schockl ski mountain situated some 30 kilometers north of Graz, where a boulder-littered sluice shooting up the mountain is used year-round by Gelaendewagen engineers as a test track for durability and agility studies.
At freeway pace our G500 felt strong and powerful, despite bulky body styling and the mass of more than two and a half tons of steel hurling along the autobahn.
At lesser speeds on curvy roads draped around the mountains, the wagon surprised us with an agility uncommon for such a tall and hefty vehicle. It zigged smartly through each turn with lateral body sway tightly checked.
However, it wasn't until we pointed the prow up the Schockl off-road chute that the most impressive aspects of G500 emerged. It's simply an uncanny off-road vehicle, capable of bumping and grinding its way across the most daunting terrain -- and without a squeak of protest from so many hand-fitted body parts.
On the roughest sections, we shifted into low gear while rolling, then played three toggles mounted side-by-side high center on the dash to switch the three locking differentials on and off as needed to maintain forward momentum. Despite a treacherously steep grade and too many boulders and sawed pine trunks littering the course, we eventually emerged unscathed on top of the Schockl.
Then Erwin Wonisch, a veteran Schockl vehicle test engineer, took the wheel and showed us on a plunge down the mountain how a G500 can cover the same course at three times the speed for our uphill run.
Picture a steep and twisted two-track trace cut through a thick grove of pines and filled with two-foot-tall rocks of unforgiving granite, then hold on with all you're worth as the speedometer on our G500 passes the mark of 40 miles an hour.
You'd have to see it to believe such a feat possible.
Despite its off-road superiority, the G500 employs a simple suspension with rigid axles front and rear braced by longitudinal and transverse control arms. Gas-pressure shock absorbers and coil springs cushion the ride as enormous 18-inch alloy wheels can travel abnormally tall distances vertically to scamper over rocks and roots on a trail.
Power-assisted disc brakes tie to anti-lock and traction control systems, with Brake Assist aboard plus electronic brake force distribution and an electronic stability control program.
In the spacious cabin, a center console separates two front bucket seats that stand in front of a bench for three.
Each G500 packs all of the features of a refined luxury car. Standards include leather upholstery and rich burl walnut trim, a wood-and-leather steering wheel, front seats that adjust ten ways through power controls with memory settings, heated seats in front and back, central locking for doors and an automatic climate system. Further, a GPS navigation system mounts in the console, as does a nine-speaker audio kit with six-disc CD changer.
The MSRP for a no-compromise G500 tallies to $73,165.
| Vehicle Specifications:
| 2002 MERCEDES BENZ G500 Specs
||Super sport-utility wagon
| Model Options:
||Super sport-utility wagon
| Overall Length:
| Engine Size:
||SOHC 5.0-L V8
||Auto/5 Touch Shift
| Gas Mileage: