Is the Mercedes-Benz G-Class G500 the ultimate 4×4? Well, it is plush, powerful, sports loads of off-road gadgets and turns heads wherever it goes. But can one truly justify spending R1 494 000 on a vehicle that’s been around for decades?
Here is an interesting question: what does actress Megan Fox and the Croatian army have in common? Both are proud Mercedes-Benz G-Class owners, of course. The G-Class, you see, enjoys an interesting position within the global automotive market. Not only is it used by the armed forces of countries such as Germany, Australia, Denmark and Canada, but it is also phenomenally popular amongst celebs such as Hilary Duff, Kim Kardashian, Renee Zellweger and, as mentioned, Megan Fox.
How does a vehicle manage to be both an assault vehicle and a trendy celeb wagon? It is, to put it mildly, an impressive achievement. And it is made even more impressive by the fact that the G-Class’ basic structure has remained unchanged for decades.
But is the G-Class good enough to warrant its R1 494 000 price tag? To be fair, the vehicle still looks about the same as it did twenty or thirty years ago, but a lot has changed behind that recognisable exterior. In a lot of ways, the latest G-Class is a very modern 4×4. The G500 model that we tested, for example, sports a very modern and powerful engine that is mated to an equally impressive automatic gearbox. Its cabin is also filled with all the modern accoutrements one could ask for.
So, then, is the G-Class the ultimate 4×4 – the perfect combination of old-school off-road ability and modern comfort and refinement? Well, not quite.
*** FEATURES AND EQUIPMENT
Lurking under the bonnet of the G500 is a 5461cc engine that develops a healthy 285 kW of power at 6000 r/min and 530 Nm of torque at 2800 r/min. That sounds like an awful lot of power, and the G500 is certainly brisk for its size, but not even a 5,5-litre V8 powerplant can’t hide the fact that the G-Class is a tremendously heavy vehicle.
To be sure, the G500 does not lack power. It is definitely not under-powered, and sets off at a very decent pace when you put your foot down, but the SUV is simply too heavy to be truly fast. You won’t find sportscar-like performance here. When you consider its price, you can’t help but feel a bit disappointed by its performance.
As mentioned, the 5,5-litre engine is mated to a seven-speed automatic gearbox. And as with engine, it does not perform badly at all, but it is still a tad underwhelming. Gear changes are at times a tad slow for a vehicle that suggests incredible sportiness. At times, the engine/gearbox combination just doesn’t seem capable of forcing the G500 into action quickly enough.
When compared to the vast majority of SUVs, the G500 is incredibly sporty and impressive, but a vehicle that is priced at the R1,5-million mark should certainly be held to a higher standard, and here it fails somewhat. Its performance alone is not enough to justify its price.
There is no shortage of comfort and entertainment features in the cabin of the G500. The seats are comfortable and clad in leather. The dash is covered in luxurious soft-touch materials. There is an impressive entertainment system with a Harman Kardon sound system and touch-screen displays in the front and rear. The list goes on and on.
The problem, however, is that no amount of fancy gadgets and high-quality materials can hide the age of the cabin’s design. Yes, it looks very luxurious at a glance, but once you spend some time in the cabin, you realise that it is a bit of an ergonomic mess.
The cabin feels quite cramped and legroom in the rear isn’t great. The load area is also quite small. Moreover, there is a definite lack of storage space. The centre console is narrow and small, and doesn’t have a convenient spot for keys or a cellphone. For lack of a better spot, the cup holder has been relegated to the footwell of the passenger seat. A silver strip behind the steering wheel kept reflecting in the windscreen, reducing visibility during our test as well.
That said, Mercedes-Benz’s engineers and designers have done an admirable job of updating the vehicle, but it remains clear that this was not a vehicle created with modern conveniences in mind. The company has been forced to place dials, buttons and screens wherever a spot could be found, and the results have been predictably hit-and-miss.
*** GRAVEL PERFORMANCE AND HANDLING
With its 5,5-litre powerplant, the latest G500 might boast the engine of a performance car, but it still has the old-school underpinnings of a hardcore off-roader. Its body is built on a ladder-frame chassis and it has rigid axles both in the front and the rear. All of this bodes well for off-road driving, but on road the combination of a powerful engine and old-school underpinnings can be a problem.
The G500 clearly has a stiff suspension set-up, presumably to reduce body-roll in corners, but this also results in a surprisingly harsh ride. The vehicle can be downright uncomfortable on bumpy tar roads. Once you hit the gravel tracks, it only gets worse. For such an expensive vehicle, the G500 does a bad job of smoothing out ugly dirt roads. Handling is another problem. The Merc feels skittish on gravel roads. In fact, its performance is more on par with that of a modern double cab than a luxury SUV.
The fact of the matter is, a tall, heavy vehicle with solid axles can’t live up to modern expectations. Modern luxury SUVs – including Mercedes-Benz’s own M-Class and GL-Class – with their independent all-round suspensions have set a high standard that older designs can’t compete with. The G500 does as well as can be expected, but it can’t compete with other luxury SUVs when it comes to performance and handling on gravel.
**** TRAIL CAPABILITY
Like its predecessors, the new G500 is one of the best off-roaders available. It has absolutely everything one could ask for in a hardcore 4×4. As mentioned it has solid axles, but it also has permanent four-wheel drive, low-range gearing and three differential locks.
The engine predictably boasts loads of power, making it easy to climb up steep inclines. The steering, which can feel slightly unresponsive on the road, is perfect for slow rock crawling.
The G500’s narrow wheelbase and boxy design also allow it to perform well on tight trails. Manoeuvring the 4×4 through tight spaces is surprisingly easy. Thanks to the high riding position and square front end, you never have to wonder where exactly your front wheels are headed.
Does the G500 have any shortcomings off road? Not many. The only thing worth keeping in mind is that a vehicle such as the G500 requires a different driving style to a 4×4 with an oilburner. If you are used to a diesel vehicle that can quite happily chug up inclines under its own steam, it will take you a while to get used to the Merc, since you’ll have to work the throttle a bit. You also won’t be able to rely on engine compression as much when descending.
Overall though, the G-Class is an astounding off-roader, but one can’t help but wonder how many owners will actually takes their G500s off the beaten path.
*** OVERLANDING SUITABILITY
The G500 is tough and capable, but is it suited to overland travel? As mentioned, its ride is a bit harsh, but it is still more comfortable than the majority of other hardcore 4x4s out there. There is also no question that it will be able to handle any obstacle you might find blocking your path.
The first problem that the G500 has, however, is that it doesn’t boast as much packing space as many other overland vehicles. However, if your overlander is a G500, it is probably fair to assume that you will be spending more time in five-star lodges than campsites, so a lack of space is probably not that big a deal.
Unsurprisingly, the G500 is also very thirsty. We averaged around 19 litres per 100km, though our test did include a fair bit of low-range driving. Once again, though, fuel consumption is probably not too much of a concern if you drive a G500.
The G-Class would perform respectably as an overland vehicle, but the fact of the matter is, very few will ever leave the city.
If your forget for a moment that the G500 costs around R1,5-million, it is a very impressive vehicle. It has retained the old-school underpinnings and go-anywhere capability of the original Gelandewagen, but also has those luxuries one would expect from a modern SUV.
If you are looking for proper 4×4 that is also stylish and attracts attention wherever it goes, you’ll struggle to find a better vehicle than the G500. When it comes to hardcore off-roaders, few are as plush as the G-Class.
That said, very few G500 owners will actually use their vehicles off the beaten path. This is a shame, since that is what the G-Class is made for. If you’ll mostly be cruising around town, vehicles such as the M-Class or GL-Class are far better options. Unless, of course, you want to feel like a celebrity.