Making assumptions can be a habit that's hard to get out of. It can also prevent you from experiencing something good, because you assume it's not going to be nearly as pleasant as it actually is. In the week that I showed several people the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, almost all of them came to the same conclusion on looks alone - “Oh, it’s a soccer mum’s car.”
Yes, if it’s a people mover you want, it’ll do that role just fine, with its seven-seat layout. Yes, if you do want to take the kids to their matches and still have the three-pointed star on the front, it'll do that too. But point it at a rocky trail somewhere and prepare to be shocked.
Consider what it has in its off-road arsenal: Three settings of height-adjustable suspension, centre and rear differential lock, low range at the touch of a button, hill descent control and traction and stability control. As far as four-wheel-drive credentials go, there’s not much better.
Off road you can use the manual shift by pressing a button on the centre stack and you can then use the paddle shifts on the wheel to select the correct gear for the incline you’re about to attack.
Its side steps can get in the way of complete ramp over clearance but its approach and departure angles are quite good, especially in the highest of the three suspension settings, but just watch the tail when leaving a slope – the rear overhang is reasonably long.
On the road, the GL 350 CDI is extremely comfortable. There are three settings of suspension damping with Comfort giving a very soft ride (which is a little crashy, being a bit too soft) and less body control in heaving dips, while Sport firms things up noticeably. Sport also gives better road holding especially in long sweeping corners. Normal mode sits in between, but leans (pun intended) more toward the soft side of the two.
The GL’s steering is quite good with reasonable weighting and feedback – certainly it’s better than some regular Mercedes-Benz passenger cars on sale – and its braking is excellent. Dynamically, there’s no getting around the fact that the GL is a big car. It's 170mm longer than a Toyota Prado, 35mm wider and almost as tall. Therefore it's not like its smaller ML-Class sibling in the handling stakes, however the GL-Class is comfortable and surefooted at medium to high speed.
Because of its 100-litre tank, the range is quite astonishing. Based on the ADR fuel figure of 9.2-litres/100km (combined), it can achieve nearly 1100km from a single fill. Better than that, on a long country run, it’ll eke out 1280km – not bad for a 2.5-tonne seven-seat SUV.
The trick is its powertrain. In our test car (GL 350 CDI Luxury - $131,490) was the base engine, the 3.0-litre V6 diesel. It puts out a respectable 195kW and a massive 620Nm. This helps to get the GL’s weight off the line and then using its seven-speed automatic, it keeps revs right where peak torque is available.
For those who absolutely must have more grunt, there’s a 4.0-litre V8 diesel which puts out 225kW and 700Nm – smack bang in Range Rover Vogue territory – which costs $169,800. And if you don’t like oil burners, then for a few thousand dollars more ($173,200) you can have the trusty 5.5-litre V8 petrol, which makes 285kW but loses out in the torque stakes with 530Nm being produced. At least it sounds good.
The diesel V6 isn’t entirely loud, but it’s certainly more grumbly than other luxury offerings – BMW’s 3.0-litre diesel inline six and Jaguar Land Rover’s 3.0-litre diesel V6 come to mind – while the auto could be a little smoother in its shifts at higher revs. With small throttle inputs the GL 350 CDI gets on the with the job of shifting its bulk in a mostly fuss-free manner.
Inside, the GL-Class shines. The layout is typical Mercedes-Benz, so no surprises there, with dial-on-dial instruments and a button-strewn but fairly logical centre stack. Quality of the plastics is excellent and the contrast stitching on the leather dash is a nice touch. It would be good to have the COMAND dial as in other Benzes, however you soon adapt to the four-arrow dash-mounted controller.
There are solid grab handles for off-roading which run the length of the centre console and in between them are two large cupholders, but they cheapen the look a little. Another blight is the join underneath each middle air vent – relocating the vents just a few millimeters lower would have negated the need to have those tiny cuts in the hide.
Where the GL-Class really wins points is its space. Front seat passengers can sit comfortably without encroaching on the people behind them.
The back seats have fantastic legroom and good headroom (and a cleverly designed base to allow extra footroom), while the electrically stowable third row rivals the Land Rover Discovery’s third row for space and comfort with excellent width and good legroom – adults can actually use the third row, unlike most seven seaters. The Disco ultimately wins here, though, because of easier access to the third row and more boot space when the seats are up.
In more than one way, the Land Rover Discovery 4 is a problem for the GL-Class. In HSE 3.0 TDV6 form, the Disco rivals the GL-Class for luxury, space, and off-road ability, plus it’s shorter, rides better and puts out almost identical power figures. Even better, it’s around $35,000 cheaper. That's a whole lotta moolah.
Based on sales, it seems the GL-Class has been left lagging. Last month just 25 were sold. Last year in the same month 25 were also sold. So far this year, 232 have found new homes. Compare that with the Disco 4 which in the same period (YTD) has seen Land Rover shift 1418 units.
But there’s much to be said about reliability. Mercedes-Benz’s formidable reputation for lasting the distance carries a lot of weight, compared with Land Rover’s not-so-great history.
When you factor in that rock-solid build and the impeccable customer service you receive from Mercedes-Benz at the dealership, the extra money may be well spent.
What makes the GL-Class so appealing is its combination of space, seating options, luxury and four-wheel drive cred. Yes, to label the GL-Class a soccer-mum’s car would be selling it way too short.