CALISTOGA, California - From behind the wheel, Mercedes-Benz's new GL doesn't look or feel like a full-size sport-utility vehicle. Even from outside, it appears smaller than any of the domestic full-size SUVs.
Dimensions tell the tale, though. Measurements with a ruler would demonstrate that the GL-Class really is an authentic full-size model, comparable to the American-built competition.
Like other luxury automakers, Mercedes-Benz has been concerned that its customers who wanted a roomy sport-utility had to turn to other brands. Many Mercedes sedan owners also have a full-size model. "They've got to have a full-size SUV" for growing families, said Ron Mueller, manager of product management.
Typical GL buyers will "like the persona of an SUV," Mueller said, exemplified by its "two-box styling," but they also need its family-oriented versatility. With its "squared-off rear end" and other design attributes, which suggest "a sort of girth, a sort of beef," there's no question it's an SUV. Likely prospects are "community involved" people who take a "lot of trips with their family, and take the car with them."
Built on a 121.1-inch wheelbase, the seven-passenger GL measures just over 200 inches long overall and stands 75.6 inches tall. Ground clearance with the four-corner, adjustable-height air suspension can reach 10.9 inches. In its lowest position, this model sits lower to the ground than most full-size SUVs. The GL may be fitted with 18- or 19-inch tires, and dealers can even install 20-inch rubber.
At 5,300 pounds, the GL is 300 to 600 pounds lighter than most rivals, according to Mercedes-Benz. The company claims this is the first full-size SUV to employ unibody construction. It's also the first full-size European-brand SUV, as well as the first from Mercedes-Benz.
An optional Off-road Package raises the maximum clearance by 1.5 inches. The option group includes a two-speed transfer case (which is not otherwise available) and locking differentials.
An all-new 4.6-liter V-8, with four valves per cylinder, generates 335 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque, driving a seven-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes-Benz's 4Matic (ETS+) all-wheel drive is standard. Rated for Class IV towing, the GL can haul up to 7,500 pounds, in the form of a 30-foot boat or three-horse trailer (complete with horses).
Rear seating includes a 60/40-split second row and a 50/50 third row, with a tumble-forward feature on the 40-percent side for access to the backseat. For greater seating comfort, the third row has a footwell. Switches in both the cargo and passenger areas can lower the third-row seat in 4.9 seconds. Cargo space totals more than 83 cubic feet, and a stationary rear sunroof (with sunshade) is standard.
Eight airbags are standard, including rear-door airbags and three-row side curtains. Electronic tensioning retractors are installed in all outboard positions. Active front head restraints are mounted, too.
Brown birds-eye maple wood decorates the interior, which is equipped with eight-way power heated front seats, eight drink holders, and a six-CD changer in an 11-speaker, 140-watt harman/kardon sound system. Options include a wood/leather steering wheel, power liftgate, Keyless Go operation, rear-view camera, and Parktronic parking assistance. Sirius satellite radio and dual-screen rear video also are available.
Not many SUVs of any stripe are as smooth and civilized as this latest Mercedes-Benz luxury liner. For the most part, the GL450 feels and performs nothing like an SUV; and most definitely, not like a truck or a typical full-size sport-utility. In fact, it almost comes across like a serious European-brand sport wagon, which just happens to sit taller than usual.
Engine response is energetic and confident. Even though it runs through seven gear ratios, you can hardly tell the transmission is shifting at all. Apart from a touch of road or driveline whine at times, the GL is enjoyably quiet.
Handling ranks close to exceptional. Despite modest steering effort, there's nothing particularly light about the response to driver inputs. Even better, the GL's ride comes close to glassy smooth on regular roads, and nearly all bumps are dealt with adeptly. Few bumps or holes will be perceived as more than minor irritants.
Hooded gauges are especially easy to see and to read, including the nicely lighted trip odometer. In the past, Mercedes-Benz navigation systems haven't been among the best, but this one has improved considerably - though it remains a bit balky.
Steering-wheel shift buttons are confusing at first, until you affirm which one is Down and which is for upshifts. Other steering-wheel buttons are too easy to activate accidentally, too.
Superior craftsmanship is immediately evident in the handsome interior, which doesn't look too much like a typical Mercedes-Benz model. Passenger space is abundant, and even the third row is acceptable. Snugly bolstered seats contain ample cushioning, while the low cowl yields a superior view of the road ahead.
Through a short off-road drive that included muddy ruts and several mushy inclines, the GL behaved admirably. Only once or twice did it "bottom out," and only barely so. The downhill-assist system did its job well, maintaining low speed without the need to touch the brake. Ordering the $4,600 Off-road Package is the only way to get Low range, which is virtually essential if you plan to take the GL off the pavement.
When it goes on sale in early May, the GL450 will be priced in the upper $50s. Early in 2007, Mercedes-Benz will launch the first luxury full-size SUV with a diesel engine. Rated at 221 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque, the diesel GL will be sold in 45 states. Later yet, as low-sulphur fuel becomes available, a Bluetec version for all 50 states will join the group.
In an early test drive of the GL320 (diesel) model, a light engine rattle was noticeable, and acceleration lagged a bit behind the gasoline-powered GL450. Otherwise, there's not much difference between the two.