Imagine rolling up to your high school reunion on a golden throne carried by your servants, like some pharaoh who thinks he’s a living god. That was the glorious awkwardness parking the Mercedes G500 4x4² at a Denny’s. That was only the beginning of a surreal weekend at the infamous Mint 400 off-road race with this preposterous truck.
(Full disclosure: Vehicle loaned to us by Mercedes-Benz. Hotel paid for by the Mint 400 race organizers. Sixty-something gallons of high octane gasoline purchased by Jalopnik. That was not a fun expense report to file.)
The dateline is Primm, Nevada, a tobacco-soaked pustule of a settlement with a shameful electricity bill right across the border with California where we steamrolled over with three tons of German truck at around 1 a.m. on a recent Saturday in March. When we—my friend Andrew, our photographer friend Mark, and myself—arrived in town, it was five hours to green flags at the Mint 400.
You may have heard that event described as “better than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one.” True statement.
It’s basically a fantastical display of rich rednecks turning gasoline into noise—the perfect environment to stretch the legs of our quarter million dollar Mercedes-Benz with portal axles, twice the normal number of shock absorbers and a paint job so bright it hurt your eyes to look at for too long.
Even at the Buffalo Bill’s Resort & Casino parking lot, thick with bonafide racing cars, the G500 4x4² stood out like something from a waking dream, or a hallucination—it made more than a few onlookers wonder who spiked their drinks.
After climbing down from the truck we rambled through the main floor of the casino, foggy like a harbor with tobacco smoke and kept at a perpetual “5 p.m.” all day, every day by the consistently dim light setting and complete lack of windows or clocks.
Of course the only real way to tell time in a place like that is by your bar tab, which eventually informed us we should get to bed if we wanted to keep up with a world-class racing event by the fast-approaching dawn.
After a brief sleep, three unwashed men sharing a 100 square foot living cell had not done much to improve our hotel room’s smell. But the rest was good.
I couldn’t have been any happier to return to the G’s heated quilted leather. We had a race to run around and quite possibly the most capable off-road luxury vehicle in America to do it in.
After returning from this place, legendary lunatic journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote “in a town full of bedrock crazies, nobody even notices an acid freak.” Normally I’d agree with the sentiment, but there was no mistaking the presence of our freak; the highlighter-yellow luxobrick on dubs and a lift kit like a lifeguard chair.
The proportions are ridiculous. The color simply could not be louder. That hue is called “High-Gloss Electric Beam” (“Hochglanz-Elektrolichtstrahl”) and by the way, it’s a $20,000 option.
The G500 4x4² doesn’t look... possible. It does look like the quintessential Hot Wheels car you played with and put in your mouth as a kid, and for that reason alone there’s just no way to ignore this truck’s awesomeness.
The hardcores will notice a few gimmicks betraying this 4x4²’s earnest off-road-worthiness, namely road tires on polished wheels (a missed opportunity for improved traction) and carbon-fiber fender flares (an expensive and somewhat fragile adornment squarely in harm’s way.)
But the 4x4² is not some cockamamie half-built Jeep design concept. Eight long-travel shock absorbers as opposed to the usual four make charging over washboard ground surfaces smooth as a nice ski run.
The portal axles push the truck’s precious bits up into the body to maximize ground clearance, while skid plates like storm drains protect parts when shit really hits the fan hard.
Take a look at this visual breaking down the basic difference between a portal axle and a regular one.
There’s a gear where the normal axle would connect to the wheel, allowing the whole axle tube and differential to be moved up. The height advantage is immense; the 4x4² has an unbelievable 17.7" of ground clearance and a breakover angle of 47º. That means it can scale an obstacle almost twice as steep as what a Jeep Wrangler could scamper over.
These axles can also offer increased track width. In the case of our G, wheels are bumped out from 58 to 69.8 inches apart which provides significantly increased stability.
You may have seen a similar setup on the six-wheeled G63 AMG 6x6 that Mercedes unleashed on the world a few years ago. This is kind of that, minus two extra wheels.
Now we ran into a couple German guys in Nevada, who claimed to run a G-Class fan club back in their home country. According to them, the “backstory” of these nutso off-road super-versions is that Mercedes created the design for the military. Once they’d spent the money to do development and make the parts, they realized rich maniacs would probably buy these things for fun.
That’s conjecture of course; Mercedes’s official response to “Why?” is a coy “Why not?”, but I like the theory.
Also, the truck can swim. Water fording depth is over three feet.
Steering is heavy, but direct at low speed. On the highway you have to work pretty hard to keep it from wandering off and eating a car in another lane. Top speed is a claimed 130 mph, and to test that would be unbridled idiocy. The “sailboat in a storm” sensation gets pretty overwhelming around 80 mph on flat road.
And while acceleration is well short of “explosive,” the truck moves out of its own way easily. The 4.0-liter turbocharged gasoline V8, an engine you should expect to see in versions of the G-Wagen somebody who’s not a Middle Eastern oil baron might actually buy, is smooth and assertive with just the right amount of growl dripping from exhaust pipes that spike out in front of the rear wheels.
Shifting is either completely automatic in “D” or whip-cracking responsive with the paddles behind the steering wheel.
The brakes... work, but a panic stop is a scary proposition when your seat is this high off the ground and your face is headed toward a totally flat windshield.
Bumping the tight, beautifully stitched steering wheel around in an off-road setting is a strange sensation. Your hands think you’re in an AMG GT race car; your inner ear disagrees.
Other than that, the biggest challenges to operating the 4x4² are its proportions (the height is not parking-garage friendly, egress is hopeless for women in jeans) and dodging onlookers filming you on their iPads in traffic.
Inside the 4x4² is 100 percent Mercedes-Benz. Doors shut like guillotines. Surfaces are perfectly finished. The carpet in the floor mat is nicer than the beds most people go home to. Materials and build quality are exceptional. With the sole exception of the front passenger cupholder, which is made from one of those trash can basketball hoops your dad has in his cubicle.
The 4x4²’s immense ground clearance and relatively short wheelbase would make it a solid candidate for rock-crawling duty, but the shocks are soft enough and wheels spaced out far enough that the truck took to desert blasting blissfully as a dog running after a slobbery stick.
Nothing stops the 4x4², be it an off-road obstacle or velvet rope.
Out in the desert, an “Official Media” sticker in the vertical windshield got us around every race marshal. The drivetrain got us over everything else.
Under the pretense of getting good photographs we camped out at one end of a dusty track parallel to a straight away. The sun was disappearing as we waited for the shape of a helicopter in the sky, which wouldn’t be far from a fast race car.
When they came, I poured on the gas.
Through first gear I thought we’d have a chance of keeping up, like an idiot. Into second the racer we were pacing pulled away, and as we got to full-noise in third we finally found the limit of what our suspension was willing to handle without breaking our backs.
Nevadans are surprisingly concerned about the condition of the scrubgrass in their southwestern desert, so you can’t exactly “cut your own path” like you can in Johnson Valley.
No worries; that just adds the exciting challenge of navigating the two-tracks and cattle paths crisscrossing the wasteland.
We were a one-car media machine with a co-driver trying to parse directions off a map on his iPhone, a shooter in the back seat hanging out of a cracked window snapping away furiously and myself cackling like The Joker pushing tin through one big billowy sand heap after another.
From 15 to about 30 mph, and this G is a magic carpet completely unbounded by the limitations you’re used to. That might not sound like a lot of speed but to give you some context, a Ford F-150 on off-road tires would shake it aluminum body right off its frame at 30 mph in these conditions.
With the G, well, even without desert-purpose tires, I got uncomfortable long before the vehicle did. I’d promised to return the thing in pristine condition, after all.
I know the 4x4² is not invincible, but it’s nothing short of incredible.
The 416 V8 horsepower sailed it through soft sand. The shocks soaked up rocks and holes way too quickly without sweating. With the wheels moving as much up and down as forward, the G’s short and fat stance that makes it loose on the highway gets its time to shine. The truck feels like it could shimmy over just about anything with the right application of throttle.
A set of dedicated off-road knobby tires on this truck would unlock a plane of capability you’d have to be Robby Gordon to properly exploit.
Back in town the truck has another exciting ability; instant celebrity status.
Sure, it’s easy enough to impress Primm. The whole joint smells like a carpet that’s soaked up too much blood and cigarette smoke. But even in the heart of razzle-dazzle avenue through the middle of Las Vegas, our machine gleamed as hard as every attention whoring edifice perverting the state’s power grid.
I rolled down the window to soak up responses from people on the sidewalk; which ranged from “Check out this asshole!” to “Oh my god, who is that?” A bachelor party eating dinner on a patio stood up to give us a sarcastic ovation. Women in ridiculous shoes suddenly wanted to hitchhike.
The G500 4x4² is a high-performance parade float. Logic says to hate it, but the novelty is so far over the edge that it falls off, comes back around and ends up being fun.
The build quality is good enough to trick you into thinking this is a truck you might actually be able to live with, and the off-road performance is good enough to make any goon feel like a hero in the sand.
More than anything, the truck is an experience. Anything it does is an event. And spending too much time in it will turn you into a crazy person who fanciest themselves at the center of the universe.
The truck we drove was the only beast of its kind in America, here on a publicity tour. Mercedes still hasn’t decided if this country is officially ready for it but at least “some” small production run has already been confirmed for Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Japan where it will start at $219,000. Call it $240,000 in this color with a destination charge.
I know, it defies logic, but believe it or not people really do buy things like this.
These days no writer should try to be Hunter S. Thompson. Even the drugged out Brooklyn hipster-journalists who try and emulate his shtick in the digital era are shades, pale imitations of the real thing. Plus, consuming enough drugs to pull off a proper tribute while holding a job is pretty well impossible these days. Even in journalism.
Instead I’ll merely quote the good doctor, because one more line of his from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wraps up the 4x4² so perfectly. The truck truly is:
“One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”