The favorite truck of the world’s armies is the Mercedes-Benz Unimog. And the toughest Unimog of all is the U500 series. But you’ll have to be quick if you want to buy a U500-based ‘extreme RV’ in the USA.
For around $380,000, Global Expedition Vehicles can sell you a Unimog U500 that’s tough enough for the most demanding military applications (see pictures below). But it’s kitted out with a luxurious interior and self-sufficiency systems designed to take you off-the-grid for years to come.
Unfortunately, the two U500s that GXV has in stock will be the last ‘new’ Unimog expedition vehicles sold in the US. Because this mightiest of all trucks has been felled by new fuel regulations.
It’s sad, because the GXV Unimog is a seriously competent vehicle. A couple of months ago, Truck Trend ran a GXV test report and declared it the “most incredible purpose-built off-road machine we have ever seen.”
GXV is based in Ozark, Missouri, and is the only US manufacturer that builds a big, all-wheel-drive ‘extreme RV’. Which makes it a serious home-grown competitor for the European Unicat and Action Mobil behemoths.
GXV’s two remaining ’Mogs are powered by 6.4-liter turbodiesels running through 16-speed transmissions. They’re built to last: GXV boss Mike Van Pelt says, “All of our electrical, from wiring to connections, is marine grade to resist corrosion. All our appliances are marine-grade. Everything used in the vehicles is yacht quality. With proper care, a GXV will last many, many years.”
In some cases GXV fits triplicate electrical systems: 12v, 120v and 230v, giving aircraft-style redundancy. It also installs solar panels on the roof that charge a humongous 510 Ah gel battery bank.
The fuel situation that’s finally finished off the U500 in the USA is ironic. Hardcore expedition vehicles offer their drivers an extraordinary amount of freedom—between gas stations, that is. And in the remotest corners of our planet, fuel quality isn’t exactly consistent.
That’s one reason GXV and armies love the Unimog U500: it’s not a fussy drinker. It can run on pretty much any kind of diesel, irrespective of the sulfur content.
Your U500 can drink the ULSD (Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel) being sold in the States, as well as the regular low-sulfur diesel that’s common in Europe and South East Asia. It tolerates the dirty, old-style diesel found in Russia and less-developed countries—which can contain up to forty times as much sulfur. And you can even fill it up with biodiesel if necessary.
But in 2007, the US emission regulations changed, to require a catalytic converter and a particulate filter. On a Unimog, this new combined unit would be over five feet long. And if you’ve ever dug around the innards of a ’Mog, you’ll know that the chassis is packed real tight.
The tiny 31-foot turning circle doesn’t leave much room between the axles, and fitting a combined converter and filter would require some serious spannerwork. So Freightliner, the official importer, has pulled the Unimog out of the US market.
Mike Van Pelt is now planning to base his future GXV expedition vehicles on the Western Star, International and Freightliner truck platforms. All three manufacturers build “million mile” medium-duty trucks that come with 4×4 or 6×6 from the factory.
The Western Star 4900 SA also has locking front and rear differentials, and you can even get the same tires as the Unimog—giving it an equally towering 20 inches of ground clearance.
“Essentially, anything that the military gets can be installed on the Western Star,” Van Pelt says. “Snorkels, larger engines … you name it, they can be built.”
An extreme RV based on a Western Star will be more expensive than an International- or Freightliner-based vehicle, but you do get a more powerful 450 bhp motor. Which would be perfect for racing mad sheiks over the Dubai sand dunes.
Still, we’d rather take one of the Unimogs. After all, they have a history going back to 1947 and in the 80s, they used to win the truck classes in the Dakar Rally—while acting as support vehicles to cars and motorbikes!
That’s class, and if you’re quick, money can buy it.
Check out our profiles of GXV’s main competitors, Action Mobil and Unicat (which has also built expedition vehicles on the Unimog platform). Another US-based extreme RV maker is Earthroamer, which favors Jeeps.