GRAZ, Austria — Austria’s not known for massive exports to the U.S. — that is, except for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who they have shared with us, and the Gelaendewagen, which they did not.
Both are highly evident in this small mountain town with a sports stadium named after the protein-based tough critter, and a remarkably flexible manufacturing plant bearing the name of Steyr, the contractor/builder of the steel framed G-Class rugged beast, as well as the European version of the M-Class as well as a brace of Chryslers: the Euro version of the minivan, the Grand Cherokee, and PT Cruiser.
Initially this highly engineered G-Wagen people’s truck was intended for only serious off-roading application such as industrial, military and police groups, and when the first ones rolled off the line in 1979 they went to the Argentine government. Over the years only about 9300 trucks per year over have been built, 150,000 total to date, and they are most common in rougher areas of Europe, Africa and Latin America.
A small firm in Santa Fe contracted for the U.S. rights, and had to individually modify and federally certify each vehicle that came in our country. Still, there was enough demand that they processed and sold a handful of these tough MBs here, despite a price tag as high as $150,000.
The MBUSA folks kind of sneered at this grass roots importer until the American truck market kept climbing in volume and price, and they found that one of every four Mercedes sold here was a M-Class truck. They bought out the visionary entrepreneur, and now the G500 will be in your tri-star store with a lot more safety and convenience features for about half the price.
Why even consider a G-Class? Well, besides the impressive tough guy appearance and bragging rights, it has one of the most capable and easiest to use switchable drive systems in any sort of vehicle. As with most off-road capable vehicles, the driver can select variations of the full-time four-wheel drive system through three convenient switches in the dash and a lever on the floor. When the going gets rough, they select locking differentials in front and rear axles and in the interconnecting drive shaft, plus a low range. That’s where the Schockl comes in.Der Schockl
Schockl is a mountain prominent over the valley town, and as can be expected, it has ski slopes and resorts that are usually reached via switchback roads. When Steyr wanted to challenge their tough vehicles, they created a test road, basically by ignoring the twists and turns, and bulldozing a path straight up the mountain. The G-Class can climb or descend 36-degree grades, and it’s even stable on lateral slopes up to 24 degrees. If this doesn’t sound like much, try it in your SUV. Mercedes will be glad to sell you a replacement with your insurance settlement.
The G500 harnesses its power through an electronic five-speed adaptive automatic transmission with Touch Shift and electronically controlled high and low ranges. The fully synchronized low range can even be engaged on the fly up to about 15 miles per hour. We thought we were getting pretty good, rolling up the mountain, punching differentials in and out as needed and flipping into low on the tougher bits without pausing. Got humble pie for dessert after a hearty mountain top meal when the test drivers took us down the mountain using the same techniques but at about three times the speed. We kept wondering how wide a swath we were going to clear through the robust pines on our way to the valley.
2002 Mercedes-Benz G500Enlarge Photo
When Mercedes did the recent federal testing they found that the 25-year-old SUV met all crash standards despite not being specifically designed for them. The G500 also comes with four-wheel electronic traction control integrated with ESP stability control that will help less experienced drivers. Standard anti-lock brakes provide directional control during emergency braking, while Brake Assist automatically ensures full-power braking in panic stops. Electronic Brake Force Distribution ensures stability when braking on curves.
If a collision deploys an airbag, the TeleAid system automatically establishes contact with local police, fire or emergency services, relaying all pertinent information including the location of the vehicle through GPS tracking. Customers can arrange travel reservations, concert, sporting event and other entertainment tickets, hotel reservations, golf course information, dining reservations, plus many other services.
Any Mercedes owner with TeleAid and the in-dash COMAND display can subscribe to new web-based Info Services. By using a PC to customize personal Web page preferences (part of the Mercedes-Benz USA website at www.mbusa.com) owners merely push a button beside the display to get their selected stock quotes, news topics, sports and weather from CNN Interactive displayed on the color LCD screen.V-8 grunt
The G500 sport utility is powered by the same all-aluminum 5.0-liter V-8 as the S-Class sedan and SL roadster. It uses a twin-spark/three-valve-per-cylinder arrangement with a dual-path intake manifold that boosts torque at low engine speeds for quicker acceleration. Other markets will get the C320’s V-6 or the 238-hp G400CDI diesel.
Standard equipment includes a full 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. Additionally, the G500 is equipped with a standard GPS navigation system with center console display. It’s age shows with things like the clumsy push button door handles but we may only have to wait another 2 ½ decades for a redesign.
For about a quarter the price you can get a super stripped model without windshield, top, windows or just about any other features for underground salt mining -- an environment where lesser vehicles only last months. And when you get your military surplus Osprey hybrid airplane/helicopter, you can ferry you G-Class to your remote fishing camp while your neighbor with the Hummer is out of luck.
Dealers expect that 1000 to 2000 annually will be sold in the U.S. Its primary competition includes the Range Rover 4.6 HSE and Lexus LX470, while secondary competitors run the range from the V8 BMW X5 to the AM Hummer H1 and H2.
2002 Mercedes-Benz G500
Engine: 5.0 liter V-8, 292 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 112.0 in
Length: 183.5 in
Width: 69.3 in
Height: 72.3 in
Curb Weight: 5423 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 13/15 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