Laughing All the Way to the Bank It's Johnny 5! By Ed Hellwig We'll admit that when it comes to buying luxury vehicles, rationality isn't always the most prominent purchase factor. When you've got the money and you want something, practicality and common sense shouldn't get in the way. We tried to keep that thought in mind as we drove Mercedes' latest SUV, but it didn't help matters much. There's little rationale for the existence of the G500 on our shores other than the fact that a few thousand silly Americans are willing to pay for it. With its military roots and subsequent all-around toughness, it's certainly a competent off-roader, but that hardly has anything to do with its appeal. In fact, its military roots are what make it a thoroughly unappealing vehicle in our minds, rendering it nothing more than a dressed-up troop transport that is worlds away from the luxury sedans Mercedes built its reputation on in this country. Other than better-than-average rock-crawling ability, the G500 has little to offer aside from its big V8 and a look that says, "Hey, I wasn't designed in this decade, isn't that cool?" But looks are subjective, so we'll try to keep our observations focused on more quantifiable aspects of Mercedes' second sport-ute. The previously mentioned V8 is a good start, especially since it's one of the few aspects of the G500 that doesn't seem woefully inadequate in comparison to the competition. Borrowed directly from the top-shelf S-Class, the G's 5.0-liter power plant produces 292 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to get the hulking sport-ute moving in a hurry. Compared to the overtaxed eight-cylinder in the Lexus LX 470, this torque-rich 5.0-liter snaps the G around town with authority, even more so than it does in the significantly lighter S-Class sedan. Although we weren't able to extract official track times, our seat-of-the-pants observations suggest that the G500 is more than a match for the newly empowered Range Rover. The five-speed automatic transmission executes solid shifts and rarely gets confused, but it does take a determined stab of the pedal to get it to wake up and do something. This wouldn't be worth noting if it wasn't for the dreadfully heavy accelerator pedal that requires a serious lead foot just to maintain a steady speed. Unlike the borrowed drivetrain, the suspension is an old design that employs solid axles front and rear and coil springs at each corner. Although this basic setup is the preferred design of hard-core off-road enthusiasts the world over, it's decidedly less impressive on the city streets where most Gs will spend the majority of their lives. A few modern-day tweaks have made the live-axle setup bearable around town, but it's not enough to mask the low-tech design. The tall, upright body still exhibits significant body roll as you might expect, and road hazards come booming through the cabin with annoying frequency. Even worse, parking lot maneuvers feel like a trip to the gym thanks to the recirculating-ball steering system that rivals the gas pedal for effort required and feedback returned. The one bright spot in the G's over-the-road repertoire is its ability to remain quiet on smooth roads at high speeds — a trait that was hard to overlook considering the near total lack of aerodynamic design. All the outdated machinery is there for a reason of course. It gives the G exceptional off-road ability should you ever feel the need to subject your new $75K sport-ute to the rigors of the trail. In addition to the stout underpinnings, the G500 also boasts three fully lockable differentials as well as electronic traction and stability control. Our short jaunts on varying terrain were met with nothing more than a yawn from the G's overly capable hardware. In order to properly push this Mercedes' limits, you'll need some extremely difficult terrain and some very cool nerves as the G wagon's tall stance imparts a feeling of tippyness whether it's deserved or not. We had little doubt that the G500 was the real deal in terms of its off-road capability thanks to its working-class heritage. But as with some other former military vehicles we're familiar with, the transition to civilian life isn't always a smooth one. This is usually evident when it comes to more delicate matters like interior ergonomics and everyday drivability, and the G500 is certainly no exception. A high step-in height and small doors make for a tight squeeze into the driver seat. The doors themselves feel insubstantial, closing with a meager "click" rather than the usual thud of a Mercedes sedan. The 10-way adjustable seats allow for a comfortable seating position, but the vertical windows and ultrahigh roof make you feel like you're sitting in some kind of high-class tour bus. The instrument panel and climate control switchgear are pulled straight from Mercedes' sedans, a good or bad sign depending on how you look at it. The gauges are large and easy to read but there's not a hint of style in any one of them. The climate controls look slick but they suffer from a poor interface that makes them more confusing than they need to be. The sight of Mercedes' awful COMAND audio/navigation system never fails to elicit a cringe, as it continues to use outdated CD-ROM technology and radio controls that require too much fiddling during everyday use. On top of that, the CD changer is located in the cargo bay and getting complete navigational coverage requires you to pony up $140 for the full CD set. The rear quarters suffer from the same access problems due to the small doors and high step-in, but there's plenty of room to stretch out once inside. The seats themselves are comfortable for three adults with individual headrests and heaters for the outboard positions. The seatbacks are split 60/40 and fold easily to reveal up to 80 cubic feet of total cargo capacity. The swinging rear door is a bit heavy and awkward, but at least the hinges are on the driver's side for easy curbside loading. Although the cabin is swathed in plenty of leather and wood, there's still a lack of cohesiveness to the look of the interior. All the usual Mercedes hardware is there, but it looks a bit thrown together compared to the cabin in the M-Class. While this doesn't come as much of a surprise in view of the G's advanced age, when you consider the fact that the ML500 comes with the same engine and nearly the same size for $30K less, you can't help but wonder what you're paying for with the G500. Of course, we're not naïve enough to pretend as if we don't know what the price premium is for. Mercedes will sell over 40,000 ML-Class sport-utes this year while only a few thousand G500s will roam the streets. The prospect of being the only one on the block to have the goofy-looking Mercedes sport-ute is enough to convince some buyers that it's worth the price. We're not quite as convinced. For the same amount of money we would score a 2003 Range Rover that drives better on the street, is equally capable in the dirt and has an interior that looks as though it belongs in a luxury vehicle — but that's just us. Regardless of the little respect we foster for the G500, Mercedes will have little trouble selling out the several thousand it'll import this year. The fact remains that we're an SUV-addicted society, and even a vehicle as overpriced and underwhelming to drive as the G500 can still find willing buyers. Someday we'll look back on the G500 and laugh about it — but not nearly as hard as the executives in Stuttgart.