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Off-Roading in Luxury Vehicles

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Miranda Lightstone
You work hard for your money. You've built a career, you have a nice house; a family. You enjoy your weekends, especially in the country, so you decide you want to buy a vehicle that can handle your rough country roads any time of the year. But you also want a bit of sophistication and luxury along with it. What to do?

Well, you purchase a luxury SUV of course. And I don't mean one of those posh, I'm-better-than-you vehicles you see parading down the freeway “pretending” to be off-roaders. I mean a high-end, highly capable AWD vehicle that will swaddle you in leather and wood trim as it tackles the deepest ravines and almost vertical inclines.

Take for example, the 2013 Mercedes G 550 off-roader. Not designed to everyone's taste, I used to think it was a bit of a brute and not attractive in any way. That was until I got behind the wheel of one and was up to the bumpers in slippery, traction-less mud. Then it suddenly became the most glorious, most attractive SUV I'd ever come across.

2013 Mercedes G 550 off-roader
Photo:Miranda Lightstone

Oh, yes, I got it dirty. I even took it across boulders, fallen trees, down sandy embankments and across grassy, bumpy fields.

And, yes, it cost more than $100,000.

Here's the thing: Luxury SUVs can get just as dirty as the next low-cost off-roader. The question is: Will you want to?

While off-roading with Mercedes-Benz in their brand new 2013 lineup of G Class vehicles, we were taken on some pretty rough trails and terrain. Throughout the entire adventure, we were guided along via CB radio in order to maintain the right speed, gear and trajectory. We were also warned (on more than one occasion) to watch out for “scratchy branches” or obstacles that could potentially rub up against the side of the $100k+ vehicles.

And that got me thinking: Sure, these SUVs are meant to handle anything and everything, but when you spend that much money on one of them, will you really want to risk it in those conditions? The cost of repairs if you do might not be worth the fun you'd have behind the wheel.

I was duly impressed with the capabilities of the Mercedes-Benz G 550, and subsequently the rest of the G-Class lineup as well, but I wasn't sure they'd ever really be used the way the manufacturer hoped they would be. Proving to us that their cars can handle deep ruts, grip-less sand and 70-degree grades is all fine and dandy, but telling a consumer to go out and tackle said obstacles in their brand new luxury SUV is another thing entirely.

Mercedes-Benz currently does not offer an off-road driving instruction program, and I really think they should. From understanding the differential locks on the G 550 (slightly confusing, trust me) to simply being able to raise the ride height on the GL 550 4MATIC, a few tips and tricks on how to keep your Merc roof-side up and in one piece would be helpful to the average consumer.

I learned that off-roading is about more than guts and a set of steel balls, it's about precision and understanding your limits and the limits of your vehicle (however capable it claims to be) -- much like race track driving.

Mercedes-Benz GL 550 4MATIC front 3/4 view
Photo: Miranda Lightstone

Miranda Lightstone
Miranda Lightstone
Automotive expert