I spent a day with a crazy Austrian driver behind the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz G500 SUV and it was amazing.
A chase scene in just about every action movie has our hero, be it James Bond or Jason Bourne, racing along in something light and fast while the bad guys lumber after in a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. And you scoff and say, "There's no way that big SUV could keep up!"
I thought so too, until I experienced the speed and capability the 2017 Mercedes-Benz G500 can bring to even a rough and rocky trail.
As we got nearer to Mercedes-Benz's proving grounds at Schöckl Mountain outside Graz, Austria, in the G500, I could sense my driver, Gunter, getting excited. The G500 runs the same engine as the G550 offered in the States, namely a 4-liter twin-turbo V8. We turned off the pavement and onto a gravel road traveling at what I would consider to be a moderate speed. Suddenly, Gunter floored the gas and jerked the steering wheel to the left, entering a rocky and rutted trail, carrying enough speed to make me grab the oh-shit bar in front of me.
It only got faster from there.
With 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, the least powerful G-class in the States still has enough oomph to get up and over nearly anything in its path. In fact, it's not necessarily the capabilities of the G-class that make it impressive. After all, it's got solid front and rear axles, the locking differentials and plenty of ground clearance. You'd have to seriously work to get this thing stuck. No, it was the speed at which it performed on the Schöckl that astounded me.
Apparently, Gunter had never heard the old off-roading adage, "As fast as necessary, as slow as possible." Instead, we hurled up the steep track, bouncing over rocks and scampering over obstacles at speeds that seemed enthusiastic to say the least.
When it came my turn to drive, I started by locking the center differential, ensuring the front and rear wheels would always be turning at the same speed. I shifted into low gear and started climbing the same route Gunter had done, albeit much, much slower. As the G500 let me select low gear at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, I shifted from high to low and then back to high again as the terrain warranted.
When I arrived at a particularly rocky section, I didn't even have to stop the car to lock the rear differential. I just pushed the button and scrambled over the obstacle.
Midway through my drive I realized why Gunter was such a speed demon. The G500 makes it very easy to drive fast over the rough stuff. It's got 8-inches of wheel travel, which isn't close to the over 11-inches that the independent suspension set up gets on the Ford Raptor, but it's nothing to sniff at, either. You can lock the front, rear and center differentials with just a touch of a button and those lockers engage within a half a wheelspin. The solid front and rear axles provide all kinds of articulation and you can put the thing sideways up to 54 degrees and it won't tip over. Trust me, we did it.
Mr. Austrian's Wild Ride continued after lunch as we went down the mountain. I'm not saying I was scared, but I will say I held on for dear life and possibly closed my eyes a few times.
This must be what driving in the Dakar Rally feels like, I thought as Gunter accelerated through a turn, sliding the G500 a bit sideways. I have plenty of off-road racing experience, but in purpose-built race vehicles. It makes sense that a trophy truck could blast through the dirt at what seems like a million miles an hour, but a pavement queen like a G-class? If anything this trip taught me that G500 owners should find their way off the tarmac occasionally.
Or is it? The adventure continued at the test track at the Magna Steyr factory in Graz, the company that builds the G-class. I was prepared for Gunter's heavy right foot, and he did not disappoint. Down the straightaway we flew until he hit the brakes hard, bringing the G500 to a very composed stop.
"See, the ABS, it works." Well, thank God, Gunter, or else we'd be in a world of hurt.
He took us over a wet tiled surface simulating ice. A push on the brake and the G500 still had enough traction on the front tires to steer, and then it came to a complete stop. The next go-around he locked the center differential, which turns off the ABS. Without electronic help, the same braking maneuver put the G500 into three (really fun!) spins.
Yes, Gunter, the ABS, it works.
Next he sped down the track so fast I thought we might hit 88 miles per hour and go back in time. Instead, Gunter executed a perfect avoidance maneuver with the help of electronic stability control, slotting the car left and then neatly back into the original lane.
"The ESP, it works."
"The steering, it works," said Gunter as he took a hairpin turn at speeds that Mario Andretti might find egregious. We exited the turn, barreled up a 60 percent grade, made a sharp left and he screeched the G500 to a halt.
"The G-Wagen, it works."
In all my pavement track time, I never exited a ride-along with such a huge smile on my face. You look at a G-class and think it will be terrible at high speeds. You think that heavy, boxy thing will be the worst thing on the road. Don't get me wrong, it still rides like a body-on-frame SUV, but the limits are so amazingly high. You shouldn't be able to throw it into a turn at 60 miles an hour, just like you shouldn't be able to toss it down a rocky slope at 40 miles an hour, yet somehow the G500 managed to do both.
It's a shame 99 percent of G-class drivers never really experience what their vehicles can do. The base G550 starts at $119,900, while the midrange AMG G63 adds $20,000. The bonkers AMG G65, with its 6-liter V12 engine, adds nearly $100,000 to that price. If I'm going to drop that kind of coin on an SUV, you better be damn sure I'm going to use all its capabilities, from drag racing to dune bashing. Pity the fools who do not.