2003 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Mercedes-Benz never figured when it built its G-Class vehicle for the German military in the 1970s that the truck would be transformed into a trendy, posh sport-utility vehicle decades later.
For one thing, the idea of Mercedes offering a luxurious sport-ute would have seemed ridiculous at the time.
The fairly new G-Class comes as the $73,600 G500 and hot rod $89,900 G55 models. It's replaced the Hummer and Cadillac Escalade as the trendiest sport-ute among Hollywood celebrities and music world stars.
Hummer fan Arnold Schwarzenegger is said to own two G500s, and a rap star has one with an ostrich-skin interior and amazing sound system. Even the pope has a (bullet-proofed) one.
Competitors to this Mercedes include the BMW X5, Hummer H2, Lexus LX 470 and Range Rover. All classy—and all pricey. The G-Class is boxy but imposing because it's huge—and a second glance reveals that it carries the esteemed Mercedes logo. It stands so tall that it helps to have Schwarzenegger-type muscles and the vehicle's running boards to enter the leather-bathed, wood-trimmed interior.
However, as with its costly rivals, it's doubtful that many G-Class owners will do serious off-road driving with the G-Class. For one thing, you wouldn't want to get the posh interior dirty. But the main point is that a G-Class owner knows that he could tackle rough off-road terrain if so desired.
Mercedes decided to sell the G-Class here after it discovered that a private American outfit was making more than $100,000 a vehicle after importing the "G-wagen" and making it comply with federal regulations.
"Why not make those profits ourselves and add to our sport-utility prestige in truck-crazy America?" Mercedes figured.
Hot Rod Version
The AMG hot rod G-Class version is called the G55. Besides a more powerful, hand-assembled engine, the G55 has unique chrome trim, dual chrome side-exit exhaust pipes and special AMG slotted wheels with wider tires.
The G500 arrived in America in 2002, and the G55 has been added for 2003. Don't look for signficant changes for 2004.
Both G-Class versions are exclusive. Mercedes only has sold a few thousand here. Both are "hand-crafted" at a special Mercedes facilty in Graz, Austria.
The G500 is fairly fast with its 5-liter, 292-horsepower V8. The AMG version is faster with its 5.4-liter, 349-horsepower V8. The G500 hits 60 mph in 9.6 seconds, while the G55 does 0-60 in 7.2 seconds. That's moving for such a big heavy sport-ute.
Good Ride and Handling
The power steering is heavy in town, but is quick enough. The G-Class sweeps through curves at fairly high speeds without much body sway. Helping keep the two G-Class sport-utes stable are a traction control system for slippery roads and a stability control system that detects an impending slide or spin and helps keep the vehicle on track.
The ride is comfortable, and the brake pedal has a nice progressive action. The anti-lock brakes have a brake-assist feature that ensures full-power braking in emergency stops.
The 5-speed automatic transmission up-shifts fairly smoothly and downshifts quickly.
Low Fuel Economy
There's comfortable space for four tall occupants, who sit high and will see curious stares from common folk that translate to "What is that thing?"
The big cargo area can be enlarged by a split-folding rear seat.
Both models have a navigation system with a large console display, which also controls a 9-speaker audio system and optional phone that can be operated hands-free.
Side air bags are unavailable, but safety features include Mercedes' Tele Aid system, which offers safety and security features. It summons help if the G-Class is in a serious accident and helps make hotel reservations—presumably only at the very best places.
The G-Class sport-ute is one of those vehicles that should last practically forever, and it probably won't be changed much for a very long time. Resale value thus should be high if an owner eventually sees another trendy sport-ute he or she likes better.