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I find myself in a rather ticklish situation with regards to Mercedes-Benz’s 2003-model G500 sport-utility vehicle. It is unarguably stunning. It is clearly iconic. It is very expensive. It is most inscrutable. I am tongue-tied, however, when it comes to declaiming upon Merc’s ostentatious “G-wagen.” There is so much about it that I find simply indescribable.
It was the venerable Dr. Samuel Johnson who declared, “When a man has experienced the inexpressible, he is under no obligation to try and express it.” Because this exhortation dates some 250 years before the obligations imposed by a regular weekly auto column, I simply have no alternative but to try and express what I think it means to drive — not to mention own — Mercedes’ hulking beast of an SUV that costs $76,220, as tested.
Awe and anxiety
It’s hard not to feel a frisson of awe, even anxiety, when first setting eyes upon the G500. It was born as a military vehicle, after all; and no matter how shiny the chrome, there is a reflex within all settled souls that triggers a double-take whenever a martial intruder approaches peaceful precincts.
2003 Mercedes-Benz G500Enlarge Photo
The G-wagen, in fact, first appeared in 1979 as a joint creation of the Austrian Steyr and Puch firms and Germany’s Daimler. NATO, for one, loved the early Gelaendewagen, which roughly translates as “all-terrain vehicle”; and various militaries from throughout the first to third worlds consider their diesel-powered G-wagens as legitimate rivals of the all-American Humvee for many cross-country tasks.
I’ve had the pleasure, as it turns out, to have spent fifteen hours driving with chums from the West Country, England, to the Isle of Skye in Scotland in a barely civilianized, early-’90s-model G-wagen that knew no obstacles. Featuring six-cylinder power and military (i.e., virtually non-existent) creature comforts, our G-wagen was the ideal mount for terrorizing the Highlands. Its rugged four-wheel-drive powertrain fairly snickered at the rocky scree littering the bases of the Red and Black Cuillin mountains we climbed. When we had made our way back to the Cotswolds, we simply washed the ten-day’s accumulation of glop and gorse out of the cabin with a hose.
So to have another crack at the latest G-wagen, all decked out in its military dress uniform for an American parade review, is to undertake something of a surreal experience. As credentials go, the G500 is impressive in many ways: It boasts 292 horsepower and 336 ft-lb of torque from a single-overhead-cam, 24-valve V-8 displacing 5.0 liters. The powertrain is a full-time four-wheel-drive system using front and rear rigid axles and employing not one, not two, but three separate locking differentials. They’re push-button operable, and in combination with the five-speed automatic transmission, they’re capable of traversing any kind of terrain.
I have, for example, tackled gummy, slippery, rock-pocked inclines of probably 65-plus degrees with all diffs locked, only to negotiate the inevitable descent through serpentine trails so tight that I had to de-couple the front diff to regain maximum steering maneuverability. I have also forded foot-deep streams; wriggled over alternating deep moguls; and slithered through gumbo muck in a G500 that just kept begging for more. There appear to be few if any mountain-goat feats too challenging for the G-wagen to master.
Until you lead the mountain goat to town, that is. Think of it this way: Here’s a pricey jewel, bedecked with leather and burl and pale, plush carpet so deep it leaves handprints when you touch it. And here you are, with mud-slimed Wellies and sweaty brine drenching the back of your shirt and pants seat. If Momma’s in the house, she definitely ain’t lettin’ you through the door. What are you gonna do? Did you remember to pack a change of clothes? And just how are you gonna explain all the brush scrapes and body dings and bumper nerfs that come part-and-parcel with any decent day of off-roading? This is a $75,000 vehicle, for crying out loud. Do you really want to bash it around like that? More to the point: Are you really Stoic enough to blow it off when your $75-grand army truck winds up wrinkled outside and indelibly stained inside? Believe me, circumambulating off-road in a G500 is a circumstance much easier to contemplate than to endure.
As it turns out, however, endurance is a prerequisite for appreciating G-wagen’s city charms. Those live axles, for instance, are just great for rock-hopping. But for cruising the ’burbs? Not. If ever you’ve been unsure what advantage there exists for on-pavement handling with a fully independent suspension, you can certainly discover for yourself by enduring the G-wagen’s lack of one. With its twin live-axle setup, body roll is very distinct. Bumps and potholes produce thuds and shudders.
You should brace yourself, moreover, for truly dismal fuel-economy. In this G500, Mercedes’ spirited 5.0-liter V-8 is rated a laughable 12 miles per gallon city, 14 mpg highway — requiring premium fuel, no less.
I found the G500's interior an inspired combination of inventiveness and self-indulgence. All the luxury do-dads typical of Mercedes-Benz are there: COMAND audio/telephone/navigation service; TeleAid remote assistance; power everything. But you’re reminded this is an army truck everywhere you look. The driver’s batch of power window buttons are squeezed into a small flat spot on the window sill under the A-pillar. The driver’s six-way adjustable air cushions for lumbar and side support are controlled by a little flexible stalk that sprouts up from beside the center console like a wild grapevine.
Which brings me back to my ticklish situation: Is an admittedly capable vehicle worthy of high price and praise if it can master daunting challenges that its very price and luxury render unrealistic? And if, in meeting severe off-road challenges, compromises are made in basic civilian ride and handling, do the means somehow justify the ends? Well, of course, the answer is an exultant “Yes!” in both cases — so long as there’s money to burn.
Price as tested: $76,220
Engine: 5.0 liter V-8, 292 hp/366 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 112.0 in
Length x width x height: 183.5 x 69.3 x 72.3 in
Curb Weight: 5423 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 12/14 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, head curtain side airbags
Major standard features: GPS navigation system, leather interior with burl walnut trim and a wood-leather steering wheel, power windows, 10-way electrically adjustable front seats with memory, front and rear heated seats, cruise control, central door locks, and automatic climate control
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles