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2011 Mercedes-Benz G550: Cold War relic kept relevant

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  February 20, 2011 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff; Except interior: Mercedes-Benz). Click photo for larger version.

Part of a man's Viagra-induced impulse to buy a sports car is that it just may distract a woman long enough from his imperfections. He might think, with sound reason, that red Corvettes make the ladies go vroom-vroom, or that a Porsche Boxster can drop two tops at once. And why not? James Dean didn't go unnoticed in his Porsche 550 Spyder, nor were NASA astronauts begging for dates in their Corvettes. Just look at what Jerry Seinfeld accomplished in a Saab.

There is no such thing with my girlfriend. I showed her my white Porsche Boxster Spyder last summer: "Looks like an egg. I hate low cars." Went to Whole Foods in a Mercedes-Benz CL550: "What is this ugly car?" Picked her up in a Corvette ZR1: "Ghetto."

Eliana was raised with Jeeps in south Texas, where pickups and SUVs stuff every strip mall parking lot to the Mexican border. She owns a 2002 Wrangler hardtop, her mother a white Commander, and her brother a four-door Wrangler Unlimited. Even Range Rovers are "too round."

To her, love is all rough edges and exposed hinges. That makes the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen — the "G-Wagen" as she affectionately calls it — the most beautiful car in the world.

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Her sentiments echo the US market, where the G-Wagen doesn't attract the hardcore off-roader it was designed to lure 31 years ago. For $106,000, you could buy three Wrangler Rubicons with enough left over for winches and a year's supply of granola bars. The 919 G-Wagens sold here in 2010 either ended up on a driveway in Beverly Hills or a $300,000 brick-lined parking space in the Back Bay.

In the rest of the world, the G is the preferred choice for police agencies, militaries, the Pope, and the average Latin American dictator. It's as much the Cold War relic as it is an enlightening refresher of the "U" in SUV: Three locking differentials, two-speed transfer case, permanent four-wheel-drive, and incredibly slow recirculating-ball steering. It'll ford several feet of water, approach a 36-degree slope, and pitch 24 degrees sideways, just as the original plaid-lined 230G did in 1979. No height-adjustable air suspension or friendly "terrain response" dials line the console. A 2011 G550 is hand-built one way — without options, without side airbags — with industrial-grade stampings left over from the East German regime.

Thick rubber side moldings line the G's flanks, school bus turn signals lie atop the fenders, and the power seat controls, headlamp switch, handbrake, and gear selector live on from the eighties. Further evidence of the G's prowess as troop transporter come from its tall roof, flat rear seats, and left-hinged rear hatch, which cracks open like a safe. It takes brute force to clack the doors shut — there's heavy resistance in each detent — and the sound of the locks bolting into the latches can be heard from the next county. The Berlin Wall didn't crumble without a fight, and neither will the G-Wagen.

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Mercedes planned an official burial when it introduced the seven-passenger GL-Class in 2006. But battle cries and thousands of deposits changed that, and the G's Austrian builder Magna Steyr was ordered to crank them out through 2015, if not longer.

But while the basic shape, structure, and rugged underpinnings have hardly changed, the G550 is a surprisingly modern Mercedes. Everything is powered and heated, including the windshield, steering wheel, and washer nozzles. Wood and leather cover the dash and seats, which also cool and offer adjustable bolstering. Steering wheel controls, Bluetooth, and a thumping 7-channel harman/kardon sound system keep things civil. The dated COMAND navigation and infotainment controls, shared across all Mercedes products, are even harder to use on the G's upright console.

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It's hardly a bother, what with the telepathic 7-speed automatic and melodious 382-horsepower V-8. Thanks to minimal sound deadening and dual exhausts spitting out the sides, this engine erupts the most deep, impolite vocals of any eight-cylinder Benz. It's freakishly fast: 60 mph arrives in six seconds. For fools, a 500-horsepower G55 AMG with paddle shifters can be ordered for 20 grand more. Despite all the grunt and my devastating 11.4 mpg, the G550 is exempt from the federal gas guzzler tax since it's classified as a truck.

And it is one. Bank a corner with the 5,622-pound G-Wagen and it'll promptly back you off with a steady, mildly frightening lean. There's no reason to expect any semblance of handling, although the ride is mellow and well-controlled even on rough surfaces. The G's brakes are sports-car powerful, with a firm, reassuring bite. But even with the gentlest stops, rainwater collecting on the flat roof spills all over the windshield.

Other urban hazards await. Our G550 almost became a limited-edition convertible as we drove into the Prudential Center garage. As we approached a hanging red clearance bar shouting "6 ft," I cracked the sunroof and ran my hand over the cement ceiling. Palms sweating, I threw the G into reverse and tore through the owner's manual. At 76.8 inches, we were higher than a Land Rover LR4 with the shocks raised. If someone ever tells you a few extra inches don't matter, make them shut up and park.

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The G-Wagen's exotic appeal, though lost in my preference for those ugly, egg-shaped sports cars, is a bronze-cast dream for most automakers, who are forced by the market to redesign their models every five to six years. It's both a timeless design and a rolling statue, a wild excuse to push old, crusty habits against nannying legislators. I love the G-Wagen for that, if only that.

Ending up in a world without one would be tricky. I've got a handful of dream cars, but with Eliana, it starts and ends with the G. For my sake, I hope Mercedes does the right thing and builds it until we're both too old to drive. Do you really want to upset a woman?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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