Big space is matched by big performance (and big thirst) in the Mercedes-Benz GL500.
It may blur the line between vehicle and building, but the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class provides more square metres for the money than an average apartment found in the lofty suburbs where it will frequent.
The second generation of the largest SUV in the Mercedes-Benz stable opens with the $129,900 GL350 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6, ends with the $214,900 GL63 AMG 5.5-litre twin-turbo petrol V8, while the GL500 BlueEfficiency tested here snuggles in between at $154,900 with a 4.7-litre twin-turbo petrol V8.
Those prices are similarly comparable with an E-Class sedan, yet the seven-seat Mercedes-Benz GL offers far more space and standard equipment.
Standard on all models are a 360-degree camera, leather upholstery with heated front seats, a 17.8cm TFT colour display with satellite navigation and voice control, Bluetooth phone and internet connectivity and 20-inch alloy wheels. The GL500 adds an AMG exterior sports package with 21-inch wheels, a sunroof, massage front seats, heated second-row seats, tinted rear privacy glass and keyless start.
The interior design of the Mercedes-Benz GL is shared with the smaller, five-seat ML-Class, and both also utilise the same platform and are built in sweet home Alabama.
Quality leather drapes the entire dashboard and interplays with dark woodgrain trim and gloss silver ringed dials to make the interior feel its worth. That said, however, it isn’t too different from the sub-$80K ML250 that boasts similar tones and textures.
The design itself isn’t as stylish as that found in the Land Rover Discovery 4 - let alone the forthcoming Range Rover Sport - and nor is the GL as well packaged as the British SUV.
Where the Disco seats its third-row occupants higher than the middle riders, which themselves are perched higher than the front seats, the GL doesn’t quite have the same tiered seating effect.
That’s the only downside to the seating, however.
Starting from the rear, the two individual back seats are superbly padded and slightly tilted to aid under-thigh support. Small-hatchback-like legroom means adults are fine to sit back there, and there’s space for feet under the middle row. The apartment-block shape of the GL also makes for stacks of headroom. Leather padded armrests with a cupholder on each side and a roof-mounted air vent for each rear passenger further cements this Mercedes-Benz as one of the most luxurious seven-seat SUVs available at any price.
Each rear chair also electrically folds into the floor via switches duplicated on the side of the boot and just behind the middle row. The middle bench itself - split 60:40 - also electrically folds to permit third-row access; touch one button and the backrest folds onto the base then the whole seat flips against the fronts.
The rear tailgate also raises and lowers electrically, with two buttons on the tailgate, offering the choice of just closing the tailgate or locking it and all the doors.
There’s plenty of electricity going through wires to make seats move in the Mercedes-Benz GL, and it makes flipping and folding then accessing any or all of the seats as easy as it is cumbersome and tricky in competitors.
Although middle-row riders could be afforded more legroom considering the size of the GL - and the wide opening doors - the standard seat heating and tri-zone climate control with vents in both the console and on the B-pillars means that, as with the rearmost seats, it’s difficult to imagine a more lush environment.
Ensuring the driver and front passenger aren’t left out, there’s brilliant massage seats and plenty of seat adjustment (electric, of course) available.
The GL may be big, but it isn’t dumb. The glovebox and centre storage bin are both large, and shifting the transmission selector to a stalk on the right of the steering wheel frees up the console area for American-coffee-sized cupholders. The transmission selector stalk also means that when finishing that cumbersome three-point-turn manoeuvre the driver can ‘swipe’ the stalk down to quickly select ‘D’ or nudge it back up to select ‘R’. It’s both efficient and effective.
Decent rear packaging also means a space saver spare wheel can fit underneath the third row of seats and still allow them to fold flat. When they’re up, the boot will squeeze in a couple of suitcases; when they’re down the boot is absolutely enormous.
We used the GL500 BlueEfficiency for an annual trip to the NSW Snowy Mountains and, having only need for five seats, found that full-length skis could fit diagonally across the boot when the third row is folded - it really is that large. One gripe, however, is that the cargo cover can only be fixed into position when the seats are up; it can’t be moved to sit just behind the middle row when the back seats are needed, leaving cargo exposed and nowhere to store the long rod.
For the 1200km-long road trip the GL500 BlueEfficiency proved both a superb tourer and an enjoyable steer. While occupants are indulged, drivers are rewarded on multiple - and suprising - levels.
The actual steering wheel in the GL500 is shared with multiple Mercedes-Benz models including the C200 that costs almost a third of the price and was driven the week before. Yet more importantly the steering system itself feels as beatifully tactile, lightly weighted and feelsome as it does in that C-Class - or an E-Class, or S-Class, or ML-Class. There’s a harmony to Mercedes-Benz products these days that means, regardless of their size and bodystyle differences, virtues carry across several model lines.
It’s the same with the suspension. The standard Airmatic air suspension gets only two modes - Comfort and Sport - and they complement each other nicely. On the freeway, Comfort ignores road joins and lumpy bitumen, ensuring the cabin remains calm; especially astonishing considering the 21-inch wheels.
Yet on the twisty mountain climb from Jinabyne to Perisher the GL500 in Comfort mode starts to lean a bit much, move laterally a bit too much and require more steering lock to turn in than is desired.
Switch to Sport mode and the GL500 tightens up noticeably, almost - almost - making the GL feel agile. Together with the steering, and the supremely torquey twin-turbo V8 engine, this big Mercedes-Benz provides genuine enjoyment in the bends when hustled.
On the one lane road up the mountains, the active cruise control also worked superbly, keeping a safe distance behind the line of snow-goers, gently coming to a stop now and again, then safely moving away where required. Active lane keeping assistance is also standard, though the GL lacks the ability to steer around gentle curves like the E- and S-Class can. Standard surround cameras and auto-parking technology, in conjunction with the slick and effortless steering, also makes navigating the GL easier than its size may suggest.
With a 4.7-litre capacity this engine is the ‘baby’ of the Mercedes-Benz V8 line-up, but with two turbochargers it delivers 320kW of power and 700Nm of torque.
The engine also, however, has to fight with a 2445kg kerb weight which, despite an intuitive and smooth seven-speed automatic helping, takes an only mildly impressive 5.4 seconds to get from standstill to 100km/h.
More impressive is the 11.7L/100km claimed consumption, which is about what a Commodore V6 claimed a decade ago. Less impressive is the real-world consumption of the GL500.
The GL500 is a prime example of why a diesel engine is far smarter in an SUV than picking a petrol. On the freeway - despite ticking over at 1800rpm in seventh at 115km/h - the GL trip computer claimed an absolute best of 11.3L/100km. Over the course of the trip it averaged 12.7L/100km.
Back in the city, however, it’s actually possible to watch the gauge plummet. Three separate urban trips each saw the trip computer show 20L/100km - that it never exceeded that figure is only because the trip computer doesn’t allow it.
The GL500's 'BlueEfficiency' tag may denote standard stop-start technology, but it's otherwise misplaced here. In traffic from the 15km run from Sydney airport to the northern side of the CBD, for example, the needle on the fuel gauge had already cracked off full.
Yes, there’s always plenty of performance on tap, a really nice and distantly growly engine note, while the off-the-line throttle response makes the GL500 feel lighter than it is and will indeed beat any diesel SUV on sale.
But the consumption hurts, and for real-world driveability the cheaper GL350 diesel is undeniably the smarter choice.
Regardless of the engine under the bonnet, however, the Mercedes-Benz GL indulges occupants, cossets them with a smooth ride, and keeps its driver entertained thanks to a balanced chassis and sweet steering. It is an excellent small apartment-sized SUV.