Out of the Box

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2008

Look, let's be honest. If things get any worse, this column will soon review a Brinks armored truck.

I mean, people are stealing diesel fuel from farm fields, decade-old house pets are being given to Humane Society shelters, banks own more foreclosed homes on some streets than residents, violent crime is up, driving is down with the national mood, a renewed Cold War is fraying nerves, global warming might be causing more frequent and stronger hurricanes, and I'm thinking “What's a person to do?”

Fortunately, for the person of sufficient means, there is the Mercedes-Benz G500, known affectionately as the G-wagon. Think of it as the ultimate escape machine.

A box on wheels, you say. You are correct. But a more luxurious box doesn’t exist this side of the owner’s suite at Raymond James Stadium.

Basically, the G-wagon is a sport utility that can be purchased for a few cents less than $90,000. Obviously, money will not be an obstacle for any would-be G-wagon buyer, nor will that person likely be deterred by city mileage of 12 mpg. Set the cruise control on the interstate and the wagon reaches 15 mpg.

And it's a bit of understatement to say you won't "see yourself" at every stoplight. In fact, you'll stand apart in any vehicle gathering. You will be special, in the best sense of the word. Only about 1,000 Americans will buy a G500 this year.

And that group likely will call it by its full name: The Mercedes-Benz Galaendewagen, pronounced ga-lin-di-va-gon. It made its initial appearance in the M-B lineup in 1979, but none were sold by M-B in America until 2002. A few could be seen on American roads in earlier decades, but those came from a “gray market,” where importers brought in G models, modified them to meet American requirements, and sold them for as much as $135,000 each.

The vehicle, much like the equally boxy Hummer, has a military history. It was designed for off-road use in the worst terrain; each G-model is virtually hand-built in Austria. The first ones were a joint venture of M-B with Steyr and Puch of Austria. Today it's just Mercedes-Benz. And if you're wondering what that funky name means, it translates roughly to “tough terrain vehicle.”

Europe has been able to buy Jeep-like open-top versions of the G-wagon, but the only model sold in America is our tested G500 four-door, five-passenger sport utility with a side-swinging tailgate to which the spare tire is attached. It’s not as smooth or sophisticated as some competitors, but few, if any, can match its off-road capabilities. To that end, it comes standard with three locking differentials, full-time four-wheel drive, a seven-speed automatic transmission, a two-speed transfer case and four-wheel electronic traction control.

If you don't know what some of that means, then you probably don't need to spend $90,000 on a mountain-climbing goat of a vehicle.

You might be more interested in standard items like a GPS navigation system, a rear-view camera, satellite radio as part of the seven-speaker audio system, a garage door opener, a push-to-talk telephone unit, bi-Xenon headlights and little fog lights that light up when turning a corner. All luxury items are standard equipment; our tester had no optional items at all.

The downside of owning a rugged all-terrain vehicle like the prestigious G-wagon is that it's not as comfortable as less-capable vehicles. That’s a really minor quibble. It's plenty comfortable for cruising and the flying box doesn't generate expected wind noise. Still, for anyone not making pilgrimages to North Carolina mountaintops each summer, a lesser Mercedes sport utility might have more utility. It will cost less, too.

I'd choose this one, however. I want to drive the vehicle that, until very recently, was the underpinning of the Popemobile. I want to drive a German vehicle that was ordered and used by the United States Marine Corps. I want to drive the vehicle owned by a king and pictured on the Internet with one of his guards jutting through a sunroof and aiming a roof-mounted machine gun.

In small details evolved over its 28 years of continuous development, the Mercedes-Benz G500 outflanks competitors like the Hummer. The Hummer is a bummer by virtually every measure, unlike the G500. Just look at the door handle height on a Hummer. A child can't even reach a Hummer handle to open a door. On the G500, the handles are at least a foot lower, easy to reach by the after-school set in your carpool.

And the sound those doors make when they shut is unlike any other in the automotive world. It's a bank-vault solid thunk. Not the reassuring thud of the other M-B sport utes, but a thunk that says, “I have been perfectly machined to close this precisely.” Manufactured precision is the hallmark of the G500.

A would-be buyer might choose or reject a G500 based on driving position. This sport utility sits a driver in an upright, trucklike posture, unlike the sloping posture of many cars and most sports cars. Everything about the G500 is more trucklike, in fact. Its construction is body on frame and its suspension is not for performance driving, but for driving over the worst terrain. Some like that erect driving posture; some hate it enough to pass on any vehicle mandating it, as the G500 does.

Me? I like it. I love this G500, in fact. I'd love to own one and might consider it if I win the lottery and M-B offers a hybrid cabriolet model so I can be both mean and green in my Ultimate Escape Machine.

I won't hold my breath.

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