Galloping across the country in the Galaendawagen
Anyone who considers even a full-sized, military-issue Humvee a little ordinary for daily commuting or backcountry travels may be in luck: We’ve just found the most distinctive off-road luxury vehicle on the market, perfect for motoring iconoclasts everywhere.The Mercedes-Benz G500, sometimes known as the Galaendawagen (German for “cross-country vehicle”) has long been one of Mercedes’ most iconic vehicles. With a body style that’s practically unchanged since the vehicle’s debut in 1979, the G500 – sporting old-school round headlights, large, free-standing, hood-mounted turn signals and more sheet metal than a garbage truck – is still the biggest, boxiest and most imposing four-wheel drive in the world.Or so it seems, especially when you first set eyes on the G-wagen’s mixture of gigantic, flat window surfaces and sheer mix of right angles. In reality, while it’s still a huge vehicle – used by military forces around the world and even adapted as the Popemobile – park the G500 next to a Land Rover Discovery or even an old, full-size Ford Bronco and you’ll see it’s not quite the FedEx delivery truck-sized machine it feels like.Not everyone is quite as easily convinced, however.
Tool around town in the G500 and you’ll get loads of mixed reactions from folks who don’t quite know what to make of the rather audacious troop hauler. We even had our first act of random vehicular mischief while the G500 was parked outside of our home. Someone pelted the six-and-a-half foot tall, 5,400 pound machine with, of all things, chocolate milk – still not sure if they disliked the size, color or perhaps the vehicle’s association with Hollywood opulence (Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton apparently use them to battle Beverly Hills traffic). Maybe it was disgruntled earth-firsters concerned about the admittedly embarrassing 13 city/14 highway mileage rating. Who really knows.Despite the milk-tossing incident, we had a glorious time in the G-Wagen. Frankly, I’ve wanted to drive one since I first saw them for sale in Santa Fe, N.M. at what once was the only G500 dealer in the Western Hemisphere. M-B began officially exporting them to the U.S. in 2001 (the price dropping from $135,000 to a more affordable $78,000) and they’ve become a popular niche vehicle for those seeking a serious alternative to SUV anonymity. Forget catchphrases like “professional grade” and “trail-rated;” this is one vehicle that’s as tough as they come. Large, heavy and totally flat doors have to be slammed closed with a resounding thunk; like the Discovery, anyone shorter than Shaq will have to take a running leap to jump into the cabin, scrambling up the running boards and using the steering wheel to help hoist themselves inside.Powered by a 292-horsepower five-liter V8 (a slightly over-the-top, 476 horsepower supercharged AMG model is also available for about $20K extra), the G500 has loads and loads of oomph for the hills and the highways. It’s still clearly designed with Paris-to-Dakar or Rubicon Trail expeditions at its core, with full-time four-wheel drive, switchable high and low ranges and three different differential lock controls atop the center stack. Boasting more than eight inches of clearance and some very healthy angles of approach and departure, the G-wagen can absorb almost anything you throw at it in the backcountry.I suspect, however, that the muddy trip I took on slightly snowy country roads around Boulder’s Gross Reservoir was about the most off-road time this particular G500 had ever seen. And I’m happy to report that even with some highly urbane touches – particularly, a shiny set of five-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels riding on comfortably grippy Yokohama Geolander H/T tires – the vehicle was smooth, responsive and comfortably powerful when it needed to be.
The G500’s interior is a delicious juxtaposition of classic ruggedness and modern Mercedes comfort. Full leather seating and trim (plus an abundance of hardwood highlights, making for a slightly slippery steering wheel) are accompanied by Mercedes’ user-friendly Comand navigation, information and entertainment system. The computer-synthesized voice of the Navigation Lady becomes rather insistent on following her directions, so be forewarned. Owing to the tall, shallow truck-style dash, the nav screen is positioned lower than it is on other vehicles and poses a bit of a distraction while driving.Seating is positively Peterbilt-worthy, with tall, supportive front seats featuring door-mounted electrical controls and a second set of pneumatic lumbar adjustments for the driver’s back and bottom. Rear passengers get broad, stadium-style seating; everyone has clear views of the road thanks to those very large windows (although they can produce plenty of headlight reflection at night). The cube-like back contains loads of cargo space (80 cubic feet, with back seats flipped forward) and features a relatively small rear window, with rear sight lines further obstructed a bit by the large, chrome-capped spare tire cover.Keep your eyes on the road while roaming in the Galaendawagen. You’ll be in rare company in one very unique SUV. 2005 Mercedes G500
Best featuresBeautiful, understated interior finishNothing else like it on the roadTruly trail-capable 4WD system Worst featuresDifficult entries and exits for everyone
13 mpg on premium gasSheer size may frighten animals and small childrenPrice as tested: $78,570Includes: 292 horsepower five-liter V8 engine, five-speed automatic transmission with Touchshift, permanent four-wheel drive with three-way differential locks, 18-inch alloy wheels, dual zone front and rear climate control, Comand GPS navigation and information system, leather seating with power driver’s seat, rain-sensing wipers, harmon-kardon premium sound system with six-CD changerStated mileage: 13 mpg city, 14 highway
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