First Ride

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 First Ride Review | Dunes, oversteer and some trick suspension

Our initial look at Mercedes' biggest model is very promising

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 / Image Credit: Mercedes-Benz/Michael Schaffer
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  • Engine
    4.0L Twin-Turbo V8
  • Power
    483 HP / 516 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    9-Speed Auto
  • Drivetrain
    Four-Wheel Drive
  • Engine Placement
AMARGOSA SAND DUNES, Nev. — It's been about two weeks since the new 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class made its debut in New York, and we've already gotten our first bit of seat time in the new biggest Benz. Unfortunately, it's not the seat we'd like to be in — we'll have to wait a few more months before Mercedes lets us get behind the wheel. For now, we'll have to settle for a riding shotgun while Dr. Andreas Zygan, the Chief Engineer Development SUVs, and Stefanie Schmitz, Senior Project Manager Development SUVs, blast around some massive sand dunes and uneven dirt roads about 100 miles west of Las Vegas near the California state line.

Mercedes' main goal with this event was to showcase the off-road capabilities of the new GLS, including the new four-wheel-drive system and trick E-Active Body Control air suspension that debuted last year on the 2019 GLE-Class. Zygan and Schmitz focused on building an SUV that was as comfortable and opulent as the S-Class sedan without giving up anything in terms of off-road prowess. The new four-wheel-drive and air suspension systems should improve the GLS in all situations. Mercedes knows that most customers won't ever go drifting up and down sand dunes like we did, but — as with Range Rovers and Mercedes' own G-Class — part of the appeal is knowing you can.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580

Like the last GLS, the 2020 model is built in Alabama at the same factory churning out the new GLE as well as the W205 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. It will come in two basic flavors when it hits dealer lots later this year: the GLS 450 and GLS 580; Expect an AMG variant sometime thereafter. The GLS 450 is powered by a turbocharged inline-six making 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, while the GLS 580 comes with a 4.0-liter V8 making 483 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. Both engines are paired with the EQ Boost 48-volt hybrid system. Notably, this is the first time Mercedes has offered a version of its EQ Boost system on a V8, improving power and fuel efficiency versus the outgoing GLS' 4.7-liter V8. All GLS models come with a nine-speed automatic and four-wheel drive.

The old GLS' four-wheel drive system had a fixed 50:50 front to rear torque split. The new GLS sends 100 percent of the power to the rear in most scenarios and up to 50 percent to the front when needed. The system also can also transfer power from side-to-side, though it's not true torque vectoring. In principal, the GLS packs improved traction in all situations; In practice, the GLS will perform some pretty sweet drifts all around these dunes. Sitting in a massive, 17-plus-foot-long SUV while it kicks up giant waves of sand was pretty entertaining.

There's also an option off-road package for the new model. Somewhat surprising is that Mercedes doesn't offer the package on the smaller, arguably nimbler GLE. The package adds a low range for the four-wheel drive, hill-descent control, special tuning for the ABS and stability control, additional functions for the regular Off-Road drive mode to improve traction on sand and an Off-Road+ drive mode that's tuned for steep and/or rocky terrain. You also get skid plates underneath. If you get stuck, a special Free Driving Assist mode used the air suspension to bounce and rock the GLS to get it free. One note: tire pressures were reduced to 17 psi on all vehicles.

The suspension really is quite special. We did a few tests where we swapped back and forth between vehicles with and without E-Active Body Control, and the benefits were immediate and obvious. The system is powered by the 48-volt EQ Boost system. The standard GLS rode about as well as you could expect an SUV to ride on uneven dirt roads, but bounced up and down over the dips and crests. With E-Active Body Control, the sizable imperfections were nearly imperceptible. The system uses the camera to scan the road several hundred feet ahead of the vehicle and adjusts the suspension based on what the camera sees. Basically, it predicts how soft or firm the suspension needs to be, keeping the body nearly flat. We expected it to work well on pavement, but were surprised about how well the system works on poorly-defined dirt paths.

Other changes to the GLS include a 2.4-inch longer wheelbase to improve space in the rear, optional seating for six with second-row captain's chairs, the latest version of Mercedes' MBUX infotainment system, heated seats and USB ports for the third row and available five-zone climate control. It also gets the company's latest and greatest driver assistance tech. While we didn't get to test it on the GLS, the GLE we drove to the dunes from Las Vegas had its adaptive cruise control shut off in some extremely heavy rain on I-15.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580

The initial impressions are promising, but we can't make any final judgements until we get a chance to drive it ourselves. We're interested to see if the improved off-road ride translates well to the pavement, and if the extra room and new tech really make this feel like the S-Class of SUVs. Stay tuned for a full review sometime in the next few months.

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