Mercedes-Benz began importing its long-running, European-market off-roader, the Gelandewagen, here as the G500 for the 2002 model year, and the first time I took the wheel, in September 2001, I was utterly enchanted. Here was a REAL Mercedes-Benz, with doors that shut like those on bank vaults, lock buttons that sunk into the doors with a steel-on-steel THUNK, and an overall feeling of uncompromising solidity and build quality. Impressive, too, was the 24-valve, 5.0-liter SOHC V-8, whose 292 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque propel this 5423-pound silver brick with surprising verve. I was also taken by the fact that, even with the aerodynamics of a house, the G500 suffers less wind and road noise than many a more svelte automobile. And, of course, anybody who's ever ventured off the pavement will appreciate the G500's unparalleled off-roading abilities, aided by three locking differentialsfront, center, and rear. For the U.S. market, Mercedes has lined the previously austere G-wagen's interior with leather seats, a quality headliner fabric, wood trim, navigation, and lots of other toys from the corporate parts bin. Lest anyone forget what they're driving, there are blue-lit "Mercedes-Benz" badges on the stainless scuff plates when you open the front doors, a huge three-pointed-star medallion on the grille, and a large badge on the cover for the spare tire, which is mounted on the rear cargo door.
But last night, I drove our G500 on a variety of errands around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan, hauling my dog, my niece, her boyfriend, and my friend Charley, and I was soon very tired. Tired of the effort needed to turn the steering wheel, which is akin to steering a ship, even if it's quite precise and has good feel. Tired of the stares of pedestrians, other drivers, and the folks at the Dairy Queen. (Most, I admit, seemed excited to see the big G.) Tired of the overwhelming sense of heaviness that this vehicle imparts to its driver. It's a different kind of heaviness than one detects in other big SUVs, like the Toyota Land Cruiser, which itself weighs well over 5000 pounds but manages to feel much lighter on its feet. The G500's weight and solidity are reassuring when you first drive it, but, trust me, you'll very quickly become weary of it. Certainly, anyone who can afford this $70,000 vehicle will also have lighter, more sensible vehicles in their garage, and that's a good thing: I can't imagine anyone being able to drive this all the time, every day. But I confess that the next time a big blizzard blows through Michigan, dumping a foot or two of snow, I'd love nothing more than to have a G500 in my garage.
Speaking of garages, I didn't even attempt to park the G500 in mine last night. I think it would have fit, but it's so tall (about 6.5 feet), I didn't want to take a chance of scraping the roof. And, this morning, while driving up to the sixth floor of our parking structure, I had to creep very slooooowly under a particularly low roof beam on the third floor. I opened the G500's huge sunroof and peered up at the rusty beam as we passed underneath. My relief at having made it through unscathed was diminished by an angry beeping from a car stuck behind me. I pulled over, put on my hazards, and motioned for them to pass. The little red Honda del Sol zipped by, and I fell in behind it, still moving slowly. As I rounded the next corner, the del Sol was right in front of me, sideways, as its driver maneuvered it into a parking spot. I had to brake, and as I did so, I realized how easy it would have been simply to shove the del Sol out of the way with the big G500: I'd hardly feel a thing, perched up in my magnificent Mercedes throne! But I pushed those anti-social thoughts out of my head, trundled up to the sixth floor, and gave the G500 driver's door one last satisfying CLUNK shut.