Yes, peevish readers, you are right. Mercedes-Benz is a wee bit late to the full-size sport-ute hoedown. But with the new GL-Class, they have reason. They've been doing their homework, which explains why the GL450 threatens to pull away high-demographic types from their Suburbans, 'Slades, and Navigators, just like the original M-Class wooed drivers from their newly déclassé Grand Cherokees and Explorers.
And while GM and Ford have plenty to worry about with the price of gas crunching big-ute sales, the GL probably doesn't have much to fear. There's still a party going upmarket, and it probably won't shut down until gas hits $5 a gallon. Range Rover Sports are sailing out of showrooms and the new Escalade is getting ordered around more than a Marine grunt. That's because, no matter how much greenie weenies and hybrid devotees might kvetch, there will always be a need for big wagons with stout engines and four-wheel drive for buyers less concerned about fuel economy and more concerned about towing their three-horse trailer.
Casual observers might see the GL-Class as the "oops" baby of its family, but Benz comfortably predicts that families will turn to it for its "big-toy ability" - pulling boats, carrying lots of kids, and doing it all with badgework a little more upscale than the usual oversized gold plus sign or blue oval. And they're betting those folks will pay a price starting in the upper $50,000 range for the privilege.
Love American style
Privilege is a pretty good word to describe the patrons who need full-size utes in the first place. And as the first full-size European-brand SUV, the GL450 ladles on the power, features, and trim you'd expect from an uppercrust-type wagon outfitted to carry the SUV standard for the brand.
That wasn't always the plan. At first, the GL-Class was intended to replace the G-Class war wagon still being built inEurope for military contracts and a handful of hardcore off-roaders. The G-Class was given a reprieve and will soldier on in basically its current form, with updated powertrains. The GL not only slots beneath it in price but beneath the pricey R-Class crossover that, along with the ML-Class ute, shares its production facility along I-59 near Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The trio of Alabama-built SUVs shares some mechanicals among all three, but the unibody GL-Class is more closely related to the R-Class crossover than to the ML. The GL is two inches shorter than the R-Class but seven inches taller; it sits 200 inches long, 75.6 inches wide, and 72.4 inches tall, with a drag coefficient of 0.37.
And to a lot of eyes - including mine - the GL is the best-looking of the three 'Bamas. Like an elongated Honda Pilot but with better detailing, the GL has a classic SUV side profile that the hearse-like R-Class eschews. The ML looks small and zippy in comparison - and not very traditional. The GL would be happily assimilated among American utes, even the impressive new Tahoe.
Churn, churn, churn
You'd think Mercedes wouldn't be found wanting for V-8 power, but the GL-Class found it necessary to develop a new V-8 for use in the new GL and no doubt, a whole variety of vehicles after. The GL's powerplant is a 4.6-liter V-8 with 335 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque - about 15 hp more than a Tahoe in a body that's a few inches shy in all directions from the big Chevy. It makes different noises too - the Tahoe's 5.3-liter utters a throaty baritone, while the GL's V-8 is a surefire tenor, with a better upper range.
The plus-sized power is coupled to a seven-speed automatic is the GL's only transmission. The automatic has paddle shift switches behind the steering wheel for driver inputs, a better solution than the side-to-side sport shifting that Benz used to prefer. Through the automatic - and through more than 5000 pounds of football-player build, the GL450 hits 60 mph in 7.4 seconds and a limited top speed of 130 mph.
At the auto shows this year, Mercedes has been trumpeting the fact that it wants to build the most fuel-efficient full-size SUV. The GL320 diesel will be available next year, with undisclosed fuel economy. But the bigger news comes in a year or so, when the new Bluetec diesel arrives, fully compatible with the new low-sulfur diesel hitting the market this fall. Stay tuned for more on those.
Invoking the Pottery Barn rule
The GL's natty wagon body cloaks a set of on- and off-road gear that gives the big ute Pottery Barn comfort and REI ruggedness.
For the on-road crowd, the GL comes with four-wheel independent suspension, with double wishbones up front and rear multi-link suspension isolated on a subframe. Benz's Airmatic springs (with comfort and sport modes) and adaptive-damping system are responsible for endowing it with more carlike ride and handling, as is the speed-sensitive hydraulic power steering.
Tethering the GL to the ground are 18-inch, 265/60-series all-season tires (19- and 20-inchers are available), and big, responsive 14-inch front and 13-inch rear disc brakes slow it back down from freeway speeds without a hint of drama. We didn't have the chance to test out the GL's systems taxed to its 7500-pound tow limit.
Remembering that the GL was once intended to replace the stalwart G-Class, engineers granted it 7.9 inches of ground clearance and all the hardware for hardcore off-roading. Like the M-Class, the GL has three open differentials front, center, and rear that combine with anti-lock braking to stop wheelspin - a lighter-weight method of achieving off-road control than some other heavyweight systems. However, the GL also adds on a generation of technology that's intervened since the M-Class made its debut in 1998 - hill-start assist, downhill speed regulation, and a 50:50 torque split that can vary front to back, and side to side, to accommodate the need to control slip. For off-roading, the GL also has a special program mode selected by button that retunes the anti-lock brakes' response, allows more wheelspin with traction control, remaps the throttle for slower tip-in, and raises shift points to prevent wheelspin and hold lower gears.
Benz reserves the really extreme dirt gear for an Off-Road Pro package, which includes a two-speed transfer case and locks for the center and rear differentials. The Pro setup also revamps the air suspension to allow twelve inches of ground clearance.
All the all-weather traction devices provide a safe cocoon for up to seven passengers. They're complemented by dual front airbags, side airbags for the first and second rows, and curtain airbags that cover all three rows. Stability control with integral roll stability control, Brake Assist, and active front headrests are standard as well.
Wait, is that vinyl?
Oddly enough, the GL450 comes standard with off-road-worthy vinyl upholstery, too - explained by product planners as catering to the needs of vegans and animal-free militants like Paul McCartney. Color us with the dubious crayon; leather should be standard in a $55,000 car regardless of politics, since there's also real wood trim slathered on the dash and doors. While we're killing trees, what's a cow or two? (Answer: tasty, usually.)
Once you opt up to leather upholstery, you'll find the GL's three rows of seating unusually hospitable for something with Germanic roots. It practically folds over itself to accommodate any cargo you want to hustle along at 100 mph: the second-row bench is split and folds down, while the third-row seat splits in half and folds at the push of a button for a flat cargo floor. The third-row seats are the first I've tested with so much foot and head room, I could move around and hunt down the coloring book I dropped.
The copious interior room is stuffed to its limits with standard fun stuff. There are power front seats flanking a console decked out with an MP3-capable, six-disc-changing audio unit (a Harman/Kardon Logic 7 setup is an option). Two-zone climate control and a third-row sunroof allow you to fine-tune cabin temperatures and if you're so inclined, photosynthesis.
The GL450 does a fine job of tackling traditional SUV chores, from seating adults in adult fashion (read: no chins on knees) to tugging the Airstream to Yuma for the winter. And like the R-Class and new ML, the GL has a vivid streak of power and handling to complement its core goodness.
It's smartly done, from stem to stern, with the steering and ride qualities of the jetlike R-Class but with better visibility, styling, and the all-important seventh seat. Scout leaders know what I mean. Our chief complaint with the GL's dynamics is a slight one, easily corrected. The side-to-side motions are too tight for this class. The air suspension needs retuning to allow a little more slop so that carsickness bags doesn't move from the options list to standard equipment. Imagine six Scouts erupting all at once. The horror!
More broadly, the GL has clearly been designed with victims of affluenza in mind. And it enables them with features like rear-seat DVD video, a power tailgate, and a rearview camera - stuff that nobody really needs but will undoubtedly be standard equipment in the next-generation vehicle.
The GL450 arrives at dealers in May.
2006 Mercedes-Benz GL450
Base price: $57,500 (est.)
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8, 335 hp/339 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic, four-wheel drive with optional differential locks
Length x width x height: 200.3 x 75.6 x 72.4 inches
Wheelbase: 121.1 inches
Curb weight: 5249 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, stability and four-wheel traction control
Major standard equipment: Three-row seating; AM/FM/CD changer with Sirius pre-wiring; climate control; power-folding third-row seat; third-row sunroof; power front seats
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles