Click above for high-res image gallery of the GL320 BlueTec

Like the big Two-Mode hybrid SUVs from General Motors, the Mercedes GL320 BlueTec is designed to be a more efficient kind of brute. It's designed for those who still feel that they need to tow a boat or trailer and have room inside for seven passengers and get significantly better fuel efficiency than a straight gasoline engine counterpart. Like the GM hybrid SUVs, this one provides a 36 percent boost in EPA combined fuel economy ratings. Also like the GM hybrids, the GL is quite pricey: base price is over $58,000. This is where things start to get interesting.

While the GM hybrids command a substantial price premium over their conventional siblings, the GL320 is actually the least expensive of the three current models in the Benz lineup. The GL320 is powered by a 3.0L V6 diesel engine while the GL450 and GL550 both have gasoline V8s. Some of the features that the top dog GL550 gets as standard, such as the navigation system and an upgraded audio system, are extra cost options on the 320. In terms of equipment and appointments, the closest comparison for the GL would actually be the new Cadillac Escalade hybrid rather than the lower-rent Chevy/GMC equivalents. Find out what the GL320 is like to live with after the jump.


Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

The GL shares much of its architecture with the smaller ML and is built in the same Alabama assembly plant. Like its SUV siblings in the Mercedes stable, the mid-size ML and new compact GLK, the massive GL's styling has sharper creases and angles than most cars that wear the three pointed star. The front of the GL certainly can't be described as sleek, but it is more swept back and less overbearing than some of the more upright competitors from Detroit and Japan. The grille is clearly Mercedes and no one will miss the star in the center. The hood features the two longitudinal ridges that figure prominently on some other sporting models from Stuttgart and go back to at least the first 300SL.

Overall the look is fairly attractive back to the B-pillar. At that point, it seems the designers couldn't quite figure out what they wanted to do with the roof-line. The D-pillar area, in particular, is rather clumsily executed. The garish graphics on the GM hybrid SUVs scream out to the world, "look I bought a hybrid! even though I'm still driving alone in an a 6,000 lb, seven passenger SUV!" The Mercedes, on the other hand, only has discreet BlueTec badges on the front fenders and the tailgate. Aside from that and the GL320 badge, there is no other indication that this vehicle can get mileage in the mid-20s.

Inside, the GL is generally fairly nicely executed with that German luxury look that appears relatively expensive yet doesn't bathe you in the decadence you might find in something built in Italy. The tan-over-beige color scheme gives a lighter feel that doesn't seem as oppressive as a darker setup might. Inside the glove box is a 1/8" audio connector and an iPod dock connector. The latter provides for direct control of an Apple branded player from the audio head unit. The user interface for the navigation is common with all other contemporary Mercedes models (which means it's a bit clunky but still usable). Mercedes, like it's German compatriots, has a lot of work to do to match the smoothness and ease of use of the latest-generation Ford system that is at the top of the class

Once a cell phone is paired up with the GL via bluetooth, the voice commands do work fairly reliably for dialing. However, trying to select a destination was not as robust. Buttons on the steering wheel spokes let the driver select among the pages of available information in the information display between the gauges in the cluster. The start button on the dash to the right of the steering column allows the GL to be started without pulling out the fob. Even on a day when the temperature dipped down to about 20 F, the GL fired after a pause of only a couple of seconds.

The column mounted shifter does take some getting used to. Like the units in many recent BMWs, this is simply an electrical switch. From park, a tap down with the brake applied engages drive while going up sends the GL into reverse. Getting back to park requires pressing the switch on the end of the shift lever. Selecting individual ratios from among the seven available in the transmission can be done sequentially with the paddles on the back side of the steering wheel, although in a vehicle of this type, this just seems superfluous.

The second and third rows of seats both offer ample room for three and two passengers respectively. The third row in particular is superior to the corresponding position on the GM SUVs because the floor is lower. The GL has an independent rear suspension, meaning the floor does not have to be moved up to provide clearance underneath for the movement of the differential. The GM vehicles, on the other hand, leave third row passengers sitting with knees in the air. Getting to the third row is also easier since passengers don't have to climb over the battery pack that resides under the second row seat of the GM hybrids.

The GL arrived in the ABG garage just ahead of the first non-negligible snowfall to hit southeast Michigan this season and the all wheel drive behemoth handled the situation with aplomb. The heated seats definitely came in handy on cold mornings and the overall impression inside is one of higher quality than even the Escalade. The seats are upholstered in Mercedes' MB-Tex faux leather although real hides are available and the test vehicle had the package adds heating circuits to the steering wheel and second row seat. The same independent rear suspension and lower floor that allows for a more natural seating position in the third row also means those seats can fold flat. The third row seats in the GM SUVs are removable but when folded they still sit up above the floor.

Part of the nearly $11,000 in options on this particular GL320 was the adaptive damping system. Unlike some systems, switching from normal to comfort or sport modes actually made a noticeable difference. While the comfort was perhaps a bit wallowy feeling on some undulating surfaces, it was definitely helpful when dropping my son at school. What was at one time considered a road in front of the school is now little more than a series of asphalt patches at varying heights and frequencies. On this "pavement" the sport mode was simply too stiff to provide a comfortable ride, although on smoother surfaces with brisker driving it worked quite well.

For an engine with only 3.0L of displacement, the Mercedes diesel makes excellent use of its 398 lb-ft of torque. At 5,313 lbs, GL320 is nearly 850 lbs lighter than the Escalade hybrid. That means acceleration in the Mercedes feels considerably more brisk than the hybrid and it's always available rather than being at the whim of the battery state of charge. One of the primary arguments for even having such a large vehicle is the need to tow trailers and boats. Here the German SUV also wins out handily over the Cadillac with a 7,500 lb capacity compared to the 5,600 lbs of the American brand.

The diesel also offers superior fuel consumption to the hybrid in this class. In a week of mixed driving we averaged 22.8 mpg and never had to leave the heater turned off to see if we could get auto-stop to engage in cold weather like we did with the Tahoe last winter. We haven't spent a full week with an Escalade yet, but the Tahoe only managed about 20 mpg in similar conditions and its weight falls in between the GL and the Cadillac.

The economic environment in the US right now has clearly has a lot of car buyers reconsidering their real needs and deciding that a big SUV simply isn't that important anymore. Sales of the GL, like all other big trucks (and pretty much everything else), are down in recent months, with November 2008 showing a 33 percent decline. If you actually find yourself with a need to carry up to six other people with you and tow nearly four tons, and you have a budget commensurate with this level of luxury, the GL320 may be your best option. It offers fuel consumption that's equal to or better than anything with its capabilities. The GL is not inexpensive with an as-tested price tag of $69,815 including delivery. Even at that elevated price point, it's still nearly $4,500 less than the base price of the all-wheel-drive Escalade hybrid. Plus you won't have to pester the dealer to remove those silly stickers.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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