x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Mercedes G 500

Rugged and ready, this serious off-roader remains popular thirty years after Mercedes launched into the market.

A capable performer in the desert, the G 500 is more of a handful on twisty tarmac.
A capable performer in the desert, the G 500 is more of a handful on twisty tarmac.

Thirty years ago was a turning point in hard rock and heavy metal music. Deep Purple, an early innovator in the genre with a long and impressive oeuvre that included the seminal Smoke on the Water, was in the middle of an eight-year hiatus. But Motörhead was beginning to make its mark, releasing its second and third albums a year before Ace of Spades sealed their worldwide reputation as committed rockers. And, making a name for themselves with live music was a young English band called Iron Maiden, still yet to release their first LP but garnering heavy play on the UK metal scene.

Motörhead and Maiden went on to become powerhouses in the 1980s, and Deep Purple finally reunited in 1984, but all three suffered through internal spats, break-ups and the usual turmoil you would expect from any ageing rock band. But they're all still around today. In fact, Maiden played a sold-out show in at Dubai Media City last month, and Motörhead were scheduled to play yesterday, while Deep Purple will be here in two weeks.

If you're a bit cynical, you could say they're in it for the money. I prefer to think their longevity is because people still listen to - and love - the music. Hey, man, it's about the fans. Thirty years ago, another new kid came onto the scene. Mercedes-Benz had secured contracts to produce a military vehicle it called the Geländewagen (cross-country vehicle) in the 1970s; it was an extremely rugged, off-road, 4x4 truck. Just like Jeep did, Mercedes decided to make a civilian version, and started selling the G-Class in 1979.

Today, the G-Class is still a fan favourite. But forget the squabbles or other troubles you might associate with an entity so long in the tooth - apart from a redesign in 1990, it carries on its roots as a military vehicle with aplomb. And that's the reason it's been such a fan favourite for so long: it does what it says on the tin. This is a serious and legitimate off-roader, one that militaries around the world rely on to get them in and out of hot spots in the worst terrain.

The G-Class is still built with a body-on-frame construction, a hallmark of ruggedness. It also has three electronically locking differentials, a feature associated with only a few off-road production vehicles in the world. Short overhangs and a ground clearance of 21 centimetres give it a good chance of not getting hung up on dunes or rocks. And, of course, it has low-range gearing. It feels rugged, too. Heavy doors give a sharp click when slammed closed. The whole truck feels solid, like you'd expect from any Mercedes. And a tall, upright driving position, with plenty of glass around, gives good command of the driver's surroundings.

I had a chance for very limited sand driving with the G 500 in Liwa, and it did not disappoint. But without another support vehicle, I stuck near the road, which meant I couldn't bring the truck close to its off-road potential. Which is a shame, because it only instilled a sense of confidence driving in the shifting sands. Where it did not instil confidence is on the road. This is where the G-Class really feels like a 30-year-old vehicle. High-ratio steering adds to the work needed to keep the car in between the white lines. It wafts around the road and needs constant input through the steering wheel. And it doesn't like the corners - the tall vehicle begins to lean and bob when taking a turn at any kind of speed, throwing occupants and cargo all over the interior. With its softer suspension, the straight-ahead ride is comfortable, but its handling is actually very unpleasant. It also has the widest turning circle I've ever experienced in a vehicle. Apart from the tall position, it reminds me of 1970s American cars, famous for their own soft suspension.

The engine can't be faulted for power, though. The 5.5-litre V8 gives a satisfying, burbly roar and a good kick when pressed. It is rather thirsty, however - the 14.7 litres per 100 kilometres fuel economy is rather optimistic, especially at speed. It's hooked to a seven-speed automatic gearbox, which gives smooth, imperceptible shifts at higher speeds. But it seems to shift late under heavier acceleration; an annoying trait.

Inside, Mercedes has certainly taken it away from the bare-bones military truck it is. You'll find any luxury the car maker offers on its saloons and coupés, such as power everything, a great stereo system, cruise control, an automatic climate control system and a hard-disk satellite navigation system (the last of which is unsurprising, considering a good sat nav is essential in the heart of any wilderness, where you'd expect this vehicle to be). The leather seats are firm but comfortable, and I liked the two-tone, black-and- orange look.

Something else it was good at is attracting attention. Lots of it. With the white G 500 parked within view of the road in Liwa, vehicles slowed down and occasionally stopped to see who it was. On the motorway, vehicles ahead would invariably move over to let the G-Wagen through. It's not the biggest SUV on the road, but this truck does have a certain presence and prestige, especially in this part of the world.

If you spend much of your time in any kind of wilderness, and you demand a certain level of luxury (and have the means to attain it), the G 500 should be on your list of vehicles to look at. Its strength, sturdiness and off-road capabilities should be able to get you out of any mess. In staying with its original military concept, the G-Class has managed to last this long without becoming a parody of itself. You know, like what happens to some older rock bands.

But, for my money, a more practical solution would be to buy a Mercedes E-Class, even the AMG E63, to spice up your daily commute, and pick up a good, tricked-up, heavy duty Jeep dedicated to your off-road shenanigans. nvorano@thenational.ae