Graz, Austria - Since its introduction in 1979, the Mercedes-Benz Gelndewagen has been deployed on many arduous missions. With stints in military service, as UN ambulances, as the armored Popemobile, and as set dressing for music videos, the G-wagen is a luxury SUV with one impressive rsum. The G-wagen has been employed on every continent and in virtually every country but, incredibly, has never been sold officially in the world's biggest, SUV-lovingest market of all: ours.
Finally, Mercedes makes the most obvious of moves this January, putting the Gelndewagen in its U.S. dealerships. Only the G500 model will be imported, powered by the same 5.0-liter V-8 and five-speed automatic in the S500; in this application, the engine makes 296 horsepower. This impressive powertrain has its work cut out for it with the 5423-pound G500, but it prods the hefty SUV from 0 to 60 mph in just over ten seconds. The strain of the G500's weight and its brick-outhouse aerodynamics begins to show only at extralegal highway speeds. (If the G55 AMG we saw during our factory tour makes it Stateside, its 355 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque should allow for truly rapid deployment).
Like all true off-road vehicles, the G500 feels slightly out of its element on pavement. With solid front and rear axles and tremendous unsprung weight (the trailing arm could double as Paul Bunyan's ax), the G500 can be ponderous. Still, it exudes the old-school Mercedes solidity that the company's newer products do not. It's no BMW X5, but Mercedes engineers have done a tremendous job stifling most body roll and impact harshness through skillful suspension tuning and chassis electronics.
Off-road, however, the G500 reigns supreme. With permanent four-wheel drive and four-wheel traction control on hand, G500 owners will think nothing of forging through blizzards for a Starbucks run. Engaging the transfer case should be sufficient if an avalanche comes between the driver and a caramel macchiato. If the best cuppa joe is on the far side of the Rockies, one can always start locking differentials. The G500 is the only production vehicle in the world with three locking differentials, and it becomes exponentially more impressive with each push of a button. Lock the center differential, and the G-wagen has more off-road capability than most four-by-fours. Lock the rear axle, and the G-wagen scales mountains in a single bound. Lock the front differential, and the G500 yanks Abrams tanks out of sand pits.
Yet most owners are far more likely to activate the standard Tele Aid system than the locking differentials. Fortunately, the G500's military roots are camouflaged under a blanket of luxury amenities that includes stability control, anti-lock brakes, a CD changer, leather upholstery, wood trim, a navigation system, a moonroof, four seat heaters, and a galaxy of three-pointed stars. At $73,145, the only option is paint color.
The combination of luxury and capability makes the G500 the most desirable of the status sport-utes. The Hummer may rival its off-road prowess, but it lacks the sumptuous interior. The Range Rover may equal the G500's luxury but lacks the three locking differentials and the military truck styling. Demand for the G500 is certain to exceed the supply of 2000 allocated for this year. The only question is: What took Mercedes so long?