I once owned a 2002 Mercedes G500. This was – obviously – a horrible idea that we’ll cover in detail in the ensuing review. But first, a little history about one of the most instantly recognizable vehicles on the road.
While most people think the G-Wagen (“G” for “Gelandewagen,” German for “cross-country vehicle”) was designed as a German military vehicle, that isn’t strictly true. Instead, it was suggested in the early 1970s by the Shah of Iran. And by “suggested” I probably mean “commissioned under threat of death.” Eventually, the German military did use the G-Wagen, which meant it wasn’t long before wealthy people wanted to drive it on paved roads.
While Europeans started buying G-Wagens as posh fashion statements in the 1980s, Americans didn’t have that option. Instead, a New Mexico-based company called Europa imported them primarily for wealthy Aspen residents, while Mercedes dragged its feet on getting the G-Wagen certified for sale. Finally, the four-door G-Wagen came stateside in 2002, providing an ultimate aspiration for the “bling” set.
Indeed, the G500 has found favor primarily among basketball stars and five-foot-tall women with handbags the size of sofa cushions. This is a bastardization of its original purpose, but what does Mercedes care? Virtually every unit is pure profit, since the tooling was paid off about the same time Reagan implored Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Hell, a G-Wagen probably drove him to the speech.
Why Did I Want It?
Answering the question of why I wanted a G-Wagen is a bit of a challenge. I freely admit that part of it is because I just knew it would make me look cool. In retrospect, of course, this is rather embarrassing. Instead, I looked – as described by one former colleague – “like a total douchebag.” But it seemed awesome at the time, sort of like those kids who wore a cape to class picture day in second grade.
There were also two highly functional reasons for the G-Wagen. One was that I live in Atlanta where it snows, on average, approximately 0.1 inches per year. But one year, it snowed a lot. And because I had a Porsche (and because the city’s snowplow fleet appears to consist solely of a ’99 Silverado with a fuel leak), I couldn’t venture outside for days. So I bought the G500 in early December, vowing this year would be different.
The only possibly legitimate reason for buying the G500 was that it is, as a point of fact, the ultimate off-roader. With three locking differentials, it can un-stick itself from basically any situation – a fact owners tend to discover when they run over a parking curb at Starbucks. But I had grander plans: after off-road adventures with an old Land Cruiser I briefly owned, I wanted to enjoy the G-Wagen on some rough terrain.
On The Outside
The G-Wagen’s styling is opinion-splitting and greatly depends on how attractive you find a file cabinet. That’s because the G-Wagen’s design is based on one, sharing things like right angles and protruding door handles. Actually, given the G-Wagen’s age, the file cabinet may have come second.
There are three things I love about the G-Wagen’s design. One is the satisfying click of the doors closing – a sound that simply says “job well done,” whether it’s to German troops who just destroyed an enemy village or Beverly Hills housewives who just bought some Prada shoes.
I also love everything about the spare tire cover, which foregoes the canvas or cheap plastic used by rivals. Instead, it’s a heavy, body-colored piece of metal that spells out “Mercedes-Benz” in fine printing. This gives the peasants something to read when they’re stuck behind you in traffic. They certainly won’t see over you.
But the best exterior element is the front turn signals. They’re not integrated into the headlights; instead, they’re mounted on top of the front fenders, serving as a constant reminder that your car is so hardcore that it didn’t originally come with turn signals. On AMG models, they’re covered in tiny little brush guards, which makes about as much sense as bringing a baseball glove to an MLB game. Of course, AMG owners would probably offer similar logic as the glove wearers: you never know when you might need it.
Considering the G-Wagen’s militaristic exterior styling, its interior is surprisingly tame. For the most part, you’d think you were sitting in any other Mercedes – that is, once you make the steep climb to the interior. Small people must take a running start. But it’s OK, because they’re rewarded with that lovely door latch sound.
Naturally, there are a few vestigial military items inside. For example, the grab handle in the passenger-side dashboard is so firmly welded in place that it may be structural. And the turn signal stalk requires the strength of a German soldier to push. This is largely a non-issue, since it’s not like most G-Wagen drivers plan on using their turn signals anyway.
Mercedes has, however, taken a few steps to give the civilian G-Wagen’s cabin less of a “United Nations peacekeeper” look. For example: the grab handle includes a strip of fake wood. Quaint.
Driving the G-Wagen
Driving a G-Wagen is one of the single worst experiences the very rich must have to endure on a day to day basis. I’ll get to the fuel economy, the handling and the acceleration. But the worst part about the G-Wagen is the sheer terror created by its vertical side windows.
Here’s what happens. You’re driving along in the middle lane and you want to change lanes to the right. At the same time, a car is passing you on the left. No big deal, right? In a G-Wagen, it is a big deal. That’s because you see the left-passing car reflected in your passenger side window. Suddenly you have no idea where you’re being passed, or by who. All you can hope is that it will end soon without making you do anything crazy, like use a turn signal.
And it will, because you will quickly have to stop for fuel. I know this is well-covered territory in a G-Wagen review, but holy crap is this thing thirsty. There are two reasons for this: one, in addition to sharing styling and door handles with the aforementioned file cabinet, it also borrows wind resistance; and two, it weighs about as much as Honduras. Seriously: the G-Wagen’s curb weight is nearly three times that of the Lotus I had before it.
Interestingly, this doesn’t cause a major problem on twisty roads. On the contrary, I was stunned to find the G-Wagen to be unusually maneuverable in nearly all circumstances. Going in, I expected the G-Wagen to handle like a Lake Powell houseboat, or possibly worse, like a 1990s Chrysler. But really, it steers like a big E-Class. That may not sound like a compliment, but it’s high praise for a vehicle that came out when the 17-foot Lincoln Versailles heralded “entry-level luxury.”
In fact, the weight is more of a problem when you’re driving in a straight line. The big issues start around 35 miles per hour, when the G’s perpetually increasing momentum and massive weight forces you to take an entirely new look at the personal responsibility of driving. If someone walks out in front of you, they’re dead. If someone drives out in front of you, they’re probably also dead. And the brakes aren’t up to the task of saving them.
The G-Wagen is scariest on a downhill, where it picks up speed as if you’re about mid-stab on the throttle. Actually, it’s probably worse in AMG form, since that adds sports-car acceleration to dangerous visibility, tremendous weight and limited braking power. But at least it includes brush guards for the turn signals.
I understand the G-Wagen’s allure. It’s ready for anything. It’s unusual. And it makes you look cool. But having owned one, I can dispel each of those rumors.
For one, it’s not ready for anything. Mine came from Boston, and it had so much rust on the undercarriage that it looked like Robert Ballard had brought back my G-Wagen frame as a souvenir from the Titanic. Before I could ever do any real off-roading, I had to sell mine to CarMax, where it probably disintegrated.
Beyond the rust, G-Wagens are surprisingly fragile. Window regulators break every eleven weeks and cost about a grand to fix. The door locks work as if they were designed by Land Rover. And with every trip off road, you’ll worry that you’ve just broken something that will cost $1,800 and requires a special part from Germany. One positive remark, however: except for the rust, the above doesn’t apply to old school G-Wagens, which can really handle just about everything you can throw at them. Like the Polish terrain.
The other common misconception about the G-Wagen is that it makes you look cool. It doesn’t. In fact, I’ve never been more self-conscious driving a vehicle in my entire life. You may like the idea of everyone assuming you’re a rich asshole. You probably also fake tan and wear Ed Hardy T-shirts that depict a fire-breathing dragon riding a motorcycle and fighting with a turtle skeleton with red eyes. For me, the G-Wagen’s image didn’t match my personality.
Of course, you may not have the same problems as I did, whether it’s rust, image, or driving experience. Indeed, as with anything, your mileage may vary. Unless we’re strictly speaking about gas mileage. Then it won’t vary. It will be dismal.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.