AT THE WHEEL REVIEWS: TRUCKS
2006 Mercedes-Benz G500: 4x4 before 4X4 was cool
By Frederick Staab CruiseControlRadio.Com
More than 20 years ago, before civilians owned H1s and Hummers were even a gleam in Arnold’s eye, Mercedes was churning out the work-a-day truck known as the “Gelaendewagen,” a name which equates to “Tough Terrain Vehicle” in the Anglo world. Square and plain by design, it was available in a number of variants from a four-door wagon to a weld-your-own model supplied with just a hood, front fenders and cab. In 1979, its first year of production, the G-Wagen was the biggest, baddest hombre to ever traverse land that was thought to be un-traversable by any vehicle.
Jump ahead to the year 2006: we wanted to put this aging retro SUV through its paces. Had it grayed and mellowed and maybe gained a bit of flab? Perhaps it went on to bigger and better things just like Governor Arnold?
My first experience with the modern G-Wagen, now sporting the G500 nameplate, came on a dark foggy night. Its square hulking form, painted in a brilliant silver hue, loomed large as I approached. After firing up the 5.0-liter V-8 engine, I was greeted with the message that read “driveline damage would occur” if I drove on a paved road with all three differentials locked. A quick call using the standard Tele Aid system resulted in the proper button sequence to electronically free up the front, center and rear differentials, thus avoiding big-dollar damage.
You see, the G500 is not your typical light truck pretending to be an off-roader – it has all the gear. While many modern SUVs use lightweight full-time fluid coupled all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems, the G500 gets three electromechanical differential locks, a two-speed transfer case and a four-wheel electronic traction system. Some trucks get wimpy and weak when their design ages; the G500 has maintained and added to its arsenal of off-road goodies which you may never need but will undoubtedly tell your friends about. Try an 80-percent-grade climbing/descending capability – that gives you bragging rights for sure.
While early G-Wagens’ interior accommodations were adequate at best, for 2005 the story has changed significantly. Dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, front and rear heated seats and a booming Harmon Kardon premium sound system with six-disc changer plus the Command cockpit management system with GPS navigation all reside in the standard equipment column. Oddly, you have to pony up an extra $150 to get the navigation map CDs.
Sitting in the driver’s position, I was struck by how flat the windshield was, a cue that this design has plenty of miles under its belt. The dashboard extends only about a foot from the firewall, but its instruments and switch gear are up to date. Seating position is high and the door glass beltline is low, offering an excellent view of the road. The G500 is a bit ergonomically challenged however. I found the inside door levers to be mounted a bit too low; finding them in the dark was not easy. The navigation system and climate controls were mounted low in the dash and probably would be better positioned up high where the seldom-used differential locker switches currently live.
Seats, while comfortable and supportive, looked a little too large for the cabin, as if they were added to a vehicle for which they were not originally designed. And one more interior observation: since the front and side glass is basically flat, I noticed a great deal of light reflection during nighttime driving.
Dry pavement road performance was enjoyable and actually a bit surprising. The 292-horsepower, 5.0-liter, 24-valve V-8 flows 336 lb.-ft. of torque through a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. While its 5.0-liter displacement may seem a bit too minuscule to propel this 5,545-pound behemoth, I found plenty of power on tap for all driving situations. The G500 wears 255 60 R 18-inch Yokohama Geolander tires that kick up a bit of road noise but offer a good compromise between on- and off-road traction. Mileage is not a strong point, registering only 13 city and 14 on the highway.
The body, which has created a legion of “Gelaendewagen,” is slab sided with a stratospherically high roofline. Rear storage access comes in the form a large hinged gate that swings out of the way to reveal 45.2 cubic inches of space with the rear seats in use. Perhaps you will find it a bit strange, but after taking a long look at the front sheet metal, I saw a striking resemblance to the Volkswagen Thing due to the triangular hood, low fenders and surface-mounted turn signals.
The year 2007 was to be the end of the line for the G Class to be replaced by the brand new GL that forgo’s the military-styled body for kinder, gentler modern swoop. However life is funny sometimes, the folks at Mercedes heard the uproar from the fans of the boxy G and put its demise on long term hold. Somewhere G-Wagen fans are cheering.
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