2003 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
2003 Mercedes-Benz G-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
This one will go just about anywhere on the planet.
Mercedes-Benz has officially introduced its Gelandewagen to the U.S. The G-Class presents a utilitarian appearance with flat glass and flat body panels made of thick steel. It backs that up with its truck-based ladder-frame, permanent four-wheel drive, and a heavy-duty off-road suspension. The G prefix comes from the German word 'Gelandewagen,' which roughly translates to off-road car. The U.S. gets the top model, loaded with luxury features and the Mercedes 5.0-liter V8.
Its progenitor was born from a request by the Shah of Iran for some military vehicles. The Shah's existing military vehicles were too slow and cumbersome on normal roads, so Mercedes designed a sturdy utility vehicle that was ready for production by 1979. By then, however, the Shah had been deposed. Next, the Argentine army came to Mercedes, looking for an off-road car. Strained relations with Britain had prevented the Argentines from buying British Land Rovers, so there was pent-up demand. The current generation began production in 1989 and was revised last year, but overall, the looks haven't changed.
G-Class is available as one model: the G500 ($72,500).
The top model in Europe, it comes with leather seating, wood-and-leather steering wheel, power windows, seats, locks, heated front and rear seats, automatic climate control, navigation, six-disc CD changer, hands-free phone, and arc-discharge headlamps. It's powered by a V8 that generates 292 (DIN) horsepower and has permanent four-wheel drive, a low-range transfer gearbox, traction control and stability control. Equipment for the U.S. model is basically everything that Mercedes is currently putting on all its European top-line models, with the exception of the occasional specially built 5.5-liter hot-rod AMG-built engine. The G500 has got every power accouterment on it that the factory can add without slowing the already meandering production line.
The G500's square-box styling is almost unchanged from the first prototype Mercedes designed in 1976, with flat glass and flat body panels. Exposed door hinges underscore the utility image, but when you close any door it sounds like you closed a bank vault. The heavy-duty latches are designed to shed sand from trips through the Sahara, and the ribbed, thick steel panels successfully resist vibration. Because the G500 is relatively tall, it gives you the impression it's larger than it's compact SUV dimensions reveal.
If you get down on hands and knees and examine the separate ladder frame, you'll find it's a box section (the strongest type) with seam welds that would please an aircraft inspector. Even though it's the size of a compact truck, it weighs the same as a full-size truck, and so its suspension control arms, axles and attachment points are as beefy as those on a monster truck.
The instrument panel has been updated in European G-wagens to house the gauges from the latest C-Class sedan and coupe, and the layout of the center console also reflects the C-Class design. These updates carry over to the U.S. models, too. If it weren't for the flat windshield and tall seating position, you'd feel like you were driving a Mercedes sedan. The front seats are separated by a wide armrest, another clue your eyes translate to tell you it's a big SUV. Three seating positions in the rear are tight for full-size adults in the shoulder and hip, but headroom is generous. The G500 is as tall as some full-size SUVs inside.
Our off-road enthusiasm is dampened a bit by the small transfer case switch next to the handbrake lever on the center console. We think it should be awarded greater size status than, for example, the same-size rear wiper switch. Historically, off-roaders with this much capability have had substantial levers on the center console to actuate the transfer case gears. But all controls and switches are logically placed and easy to find and operate.
The key to the G-wagen's behavior is its excessive weight. The G500 casts a shadow about the same size as a Nissan Pathfinder's, and that statement makes it sound like a compact SUV. But the G500 is taller, closer to the height of a Dodge Durango. Add to that its nearly vertical sides. That combination gives you the impression the G500 is a big SUV inside. It weighs about as much as a big Lincoln Navigator, at more than 5400 pounds, which is 1100 pounds more than a Pathfinder.
The G-wagen is heavy for some important reasons: The body sheet metal is 1mm thick compared to the 0.75mm thick metal more common on SUVs today. Suspension components are sized to match those in full-size pickups. In addition, the G-wagens are practically hand-built in the Magna Steyr plant in Graz, Austria. Wall-to-roof welds are done by hand, as are the thick seam welds that box the robust ladder frame and join most body parts. The result of the heavy-duty construction is a ride that feels as solid as a state-of-the-art S-class superluxury sedan. If you bounce the G500 over an eight-inch boulder you won't hear a squeak or rattle, nor will you feel any twisting or jiggling motions.
All four wheels are powered by a 5.0-liter V8 engine through a five-speed automatic transmission. Because of the extra weight, acceleration feels casual if you're accustomed to the relative hot-rod performance of, for example, the much lighter V8-powered Jeep Grand Cherokees. The 5.0-liter V8 is ultra smooth and sounds distant under its flat hood.
(We've seen 5.5-liter AMG-powered G-wagens in Europe, but they are not on the list of U.S.-bound models because Mercedes-Benz USA says the sales volume would be too small to justify importation. Other engines available overseas are a 3.2-liter V-6, as well as two diesel engines, though we suspect Mercedes Benz USA fears these models would be left in the dust of every V6 Suzuki in the SUV-crazed U.S. market.)
The suspension is live axle front and rear, with extra-long longitudinal control arms and thick panhard rods, and coil springs that look twice the size of a Jeep Grand Cherokee's. The G500 feels firm on pavement, which is not what you'd expect for a dedicated off-roader, where long wheel travel and compliance mean better performance on deep ruts and large rocks. Body rolling motions feel less wallowy than they do in a Range Rover (which has a 4-inch shorter wheelbase), but the tradeoff for the firmer G500 is that you feel more bumps. This setup, however, means the G-wagen can go off-road faster than pure rock-crawling off-roaders. The G-wagen feels tuned more for Baja racing than climbing the Rubicon Trail. Regardless of this choice of suspension tuning, the G500 feels as capable as a Land Rover in the rough stuff, while also being as solid as an S-Class sedan on the pavement.
The four-wheel-drive system is permanently engaged. The driver can lock and open each of the differentials front, center, and rear, by pressing three switches on the top of the center instrument panel. It requires some training to use these switches properly. (However, the switches won't work unless you select low range on the transfer gearbox. The differentials allow power to be sent to all wheels all of the time. When all three differentials are locked, however, then all four wheels are locked together, giving maximum traction and enabling the G500 to climb grades steeper than it could without all wheels locked together. Overseas versions of Toyota's Land Cruiser also have this function, but U.S. models of the Toyota forego the feature because a locked front differential alters steering response, which can surprise inexperienced drivers.
The traction control system works in both high range and low range, similar to the system on a Range Rover. Wheelspin is automatically controlled by individual application of the brake on each wheel.
Enormous vented disc brakes front and rear are excellent, bringing the heavy G500 to a stop quickly.
Our appreciation for craftsmanship attracts us to the G-wagen, which is nearly as hand-built as a Rolls-Royce sedan. Even though hand assembly doesn't always guarantee high quality, all of the G-wagens we've driven, both overseas and in the U.S., appeared to have had very high assembly quality. This is reflected in the G500's well-controlled behavior on nasty surfaces.
The G500 compares in concept with the Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover, and the Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX470. Those are the intended competiton for the G500. The G500 is overbuilt, over-capable and, like most heavy-duty trucks, it gives you the sense it will last three times as long as a mundane passenger car. Like every vehicle with roots in military design, it's expensive and heavy and stiff.
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