First Drive

2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class

Mercedes SUV behaves like a premium sedan

2013 Mercedes Benz GL350 action
AT A GLANCE
PRICE
$73,700 base.
POWERTRAIN
3.0-litre diesel V6; 4,6-litre V8; 6.3-litre twin-turbo AMG; all with 7-speed autos

2013 Mercedes Benz GL350 rear seat.jpgSANTA FE, NM – If you were riding along blindfolded in the all-new 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL, you’d swear you were being driven in the prestigious German brand’s most luxurious S sedan, certainly not in a big SUV. That’s the level of performance, ride comfort and handling Mercedes has built into its flagship utility vehicle. Of course, its luxury, amenities and technological advances are right up there with its premium sedan sibling as well.

The GL-Class is the market leader in the large luxury SUV segment. In the U.S., it holds down 30 per cent of the premium category, while in Canada, sales of 1,660 GLs last year made it No. 1 here as well. This newest generation is intended to build on that solid track record, offering seven-passenger capacity and true off-road capability with all the luxury, safety and comfort of the S-Class.

The road manners of this utility vehicle are so impressive you forget it is a full-size “truck” – a beefy 2,455 kg stretched over a 3,075-mm wheelbase. Overall, the GL is 5,120 mm long and 1,934 mm wide, with a height of 1,850 mm. Obviously, with those kinds of dimensions, cabin space is certainly generous, with three rows of seating plus 295 litres of cargo space with the back-row bench upright; 2,300 litres with the seats folded flat. Yet its dynamic capabilities aren’t limited to the highway – it’s equally impressive off-road as well, readily clawing its way through rough terrain while coddling its occupants in total comfort.

The GL will be offered in three iterations when it arrives in showrooms in the fall: the GL350 BlueTEC diesel, the gasoline-powered GL450 and the top-of-the-line GL550. (A higher-performance AMG variant, the GL63, will be offered next year.) All come equipped with a seven-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddles for manual shifting plus 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive.

I had the opportunity to experience all three powertrains over three days of driving over desert roads and high mountain trails north of Santa Fe, as well as interstate routes between that beautiful city and Albuquerque airport. All three GL variants were truly impressive, yet each had its own personality as well.

The GL350, which will start at $73,700, was so quiet you’d never know a 3.0-litre V6 diesel was percolating under that expansive hood. While there was just a hint of diesel clatter audible while standing beside the engine bay, inside the cabin the environment was totally serene. Mercedes engineers have worked hard to ensure GL occupants are isolated from any noise intrusions. High-insulation side windows and windshield glass combine with other special features, such as injectable acoustic moulds, plastic engine mount and insulated front plate, also made of plastic, to minimize the transfer of noise and vibration into the cabin.

The GL’s electronically controlled Airmatic dampening system and aluminum axle components also contribute to the quietness, as well as help reduce unsprung weight to enhance ride comfort. Even over washboard dirt trails, there was minimal transfer of sound and vibration – one hardly noticed the roughness of the road surface. The suspension soaked up the bumps so effectively, especially in the “comfort” setting I had engaged. (Colleagues noted that traversing the same section of trail in “sport” mode heated things up a bit, but the ride was still tolerable.)

During a descent into the Rio Grande gorge, the GL picked its way through washouts and over rocks without a wimper, while things in the cabin remained totally comfortable. When it came time to climb up the other side, the 240 horses under the hood – and more importantly, the 455 lb.-ft. of torque available with the turbocharged DOHC BlueTEC diesel – made the ascent a breeze. There’s nothing quite like a diesel’s raw grunt.

For those who prefer gasoline in their tank, the GL450 (starting at $75,900) will deliver plenty of spirit. Its 4,663-cubic-cm, DOHC, twin-turbo V8 generates 362 hp and 406 lb.-ft. of torque (using premium gas) and was smooth and responsive. I found it had more than adequate acceleration when passing, yet was nearly silent in cruise mode. From a standstill, the GL450 could reach 100 km/h in
6.3 seconds, compared to the diesel’s time of 8.4.

The hot performer in the GL lineup – at least until the 557-hp, 6.3-litre twin-turbo AMG version arrives next year – is the GL 550 (starting at $95,900.) With 429 hp and 516 lb.-ft. or torque on tap at just 1,800 revs, this GL will step out smartly. It does the launch to 100 km/h in 5.6 seconds and, like all GLs, it peaks at an electronically limited 210 km/h. What these statistics don’t reveal is the authoritative bark that emanates from its twin chrome-tipped exhaust outlets – sweet music and definitely a signal this is not a puppy to be messed with on the road. In fact, your best friend could be the adaptive cruise control as this GL will easily creep into serious ticket territory with nary a hint you’re speeding. So smooth and serene, I found myself more than once surfing along far beyond the posted limit before finally engaging the cruise button.

As you would expect, all three GLs are suitably appointed with rich leathers and brushed aluminum or select wood trim – from real trees. There are neat touches, like the dual cupholder in the centre console with an available warming and chilling function. The power-adjustable (with memory) multi-contour front seats are so comfortable you could drive for hours, as I did, without ever squirming, but if your back does start to ache, there’s a massage function for both driver and passenger.

For families making frequent use of the rear two rows of seating, an electronic easy entry system is available that makes access to those seats easy from either side of the vehicle.

A parking package 2013 Mercedes Benz GL350.jpgis available that features active parking assist if you’re not comfortable trying to parallel park, but one new feature that will be appreciated by all is a 360-degree camera system that blends shots from four individual cameras to create an overhead view of the vehicle that’s displayed on the centre COMAND screen. I found it especially helpful while maneuvering through some tight spots off road that were littered with paint-scratching boulders. With help of the cameras, I was able to bring the GL back scratch free.

Safety innovations are a priority on the new GL, including a standard attention monitoring system that warns when the driver is showing signs of drowsiness. Also standard is a collision prevention assist system, while an available driving assist package includes blind spot warning and an active lane-keeping assist that literally nudges the vehicle back if the driver happens to drift out of the lane. This system can be a bit disconcerting the first time it kicks in, but you quickly become comfortable with its intervention.

After this initial experience with this new-generation Mercedes model, I can confidently predict all its luxury, comfort, performance, safety and efficiency should ensure the GL-Class continues its role as the leader in the large luxury SUV segment.

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