Mercedes\' biggest off-roader gives Germany an impressive rival to Britain\'s Range Rover.
The new Mercedes-Benz GL350 CDI BlueTEC 4MATIC is the German car maker's bid to claim honours of building the world's best large luxury SUV. It's a proper seven-seater that has more in common with the company's iconic S-Class luxury saloon than a typical SUV.
From the outside, the new Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is simply enormous. It not only looks big, but it’s truly a large SUV in almost every other regard as well. Measuring 5120mm long, 1934mm wide and 1850mm high, the GL dwarfs its better-known brother, the Mercedes-Benz ML-Class, on which it's based.
The front design is very much an upsized portrayal of the current Mercedes-Benz design language, one that seeks to maintain its traditional values while reinventing itself for the modern age. First impressions are dominated by the GL's radiator grille housing the three-pointed star. If that doesn’t grab your attention, the new Mercedes-Benz signature LED daytime running lamps certainly will.
The rear is a little more traditional and thus conservative in its design. Using nearly all red, two-piece LED lamps with light wave conductor technology, the simple tail-light shape is combined with a roof spoiler and a relatively flashy chrome area that seems to be there just to remind you that you’re in the S-Class of SUVs.
Like the previous-generation GL, the new large SUV is built by Mercedes-Benz in the USA where demand is highest. Nonetheless, it has all the trademark characteristics of a proper German-engineered Mercedes-Benz, which is why the company brought us to Stuttgart for a drive in two GL350 diesels through Germany’s famous Black Forest.
Firstly, it’s important to note that Mercedes-Benz didn’t simply design the new GL-Class to appeal just to our American friends. Had that been the case it would simply be a glorified truck with more seats and a lot more chrome.
Instead, the new GL-Class is so refined that its NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) is better than the current S-Class - a remarkable feat. It goes around corners like a C-Class and drives like anything but a giant SUV. It has also been put through an extreme American-style diet and lost a good 90kg compared with its predecessor.
The one bit where the American influence can be appreciated is the interior layout and spacing, as this is a proper seven-seater. You can indeed fit seven averaged-sized adults in the Mercedes-Benz GL if you need to.
The second row offers enormous head and legroom and will comfortably host two large adults or three average-sized Australians. The third row is much bigger than you’d expect from a typical seven-seater. It’s not an afterthought but a proper seating row designed as such. Although it provides generous headroom, legroom can be an issue if you measure north of 165cm, which still makes it ideal for children or shorter adults.
Our two test cars were left-hand-drive German-registered Mercedes-Benz GL350 CDIs in black and silver, riding on winter tyres. Powered by a 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine, the GL350 CDI BlueTEC 4MATIC pumps out a very healthy 190kW (at 3600 rpm) and an enormous 620Nm (between 1600-2400 rpm). That’s a 35kW and 80Nm more power and torque than its predecessor.
You might expect that with improved performance, fuel efficiency would take a turn for the worse, but that’s not the case. The new model is 20 per cent more fuel efficient, which means it sips around 8.0 litres of diesel per 100km (official Australian figures to be confirmed next year). Not bad for an SUV that weighs 2455kg.
The GL350 CDI already meets the stringent Euro 6 emission regulations and emits a very reasonable 192 grams of CO2 per kilometre, which makes its carbon footprint around 28g/km per passenger when full. That is one of the better figures in the business for a large SUV and certainly capable of silencing the Al Gores among us. (For reference: a third-generation five-seater Toyota Prius has a carbon footprint of around 18g/km CO2 per person).
Around the suburban parts of Stuttgart the GL350 CDI, in Comfort mode, proved a very pleasant place to be. It’s an elegant and peaceful cabin with minimal exterior noise making it through the well-engineered 'aero-acoustic' finishings. It’s almost a case of having a good pair of Bang & Olufsen noise cancelling headphones on without the inconvenience.
The diesel engine can barely be noticed and the start-stop technology (which turns the engine off when stopped and back on again the instant it’s required) works seamlessly. Mercedes-Benz has employed its tried-and-tested seven-speed automatic gearbox in the new GL and we couldn’t fault it in traffic or on the open road.
Mercedes-Benz’s standard air suspension system (AIRMATIC) does a noticeably good job of providing a Comfort mode that is, in fact, comfortable. Put it into Sport mode and it almost instantly tightens up the feel and changes the GL’s driving behavior. Coupled with the optional Active Curve System (ACS), our GL350 CDI conquered the continuously twisty and windy roads of the Black Forest with the eagerness of an invading army. It took us a while to come to terms with just how hard we could push this giant machine into a corner only for it to come out the other end completely composed.
Accelerating from 0-100km/h in just 7.9 seconds, the GL350 CDI is faster than the majority of cars on Australian roads today, which means despite its size, it can get up and go very quickly. The enormous amount of torque from its turbo-diesel engine also allows for brisk overtaking on the highway. In essence, you’ve got a two and half tonne seven-seater luxury SUV that can out-accelerate a typical Australian family car and use less fuel in the process. That’s definitely something the GL inherited from its German genealogy.
On the steering front, it’s not as car-like as the smaller ML. In fact, regardless of what mode it’s in, there’s a little too much electronic assistance that makes the whole ordeal feel a little too fake for our liking, but given the size and target market, it’s well suited to the task.
The interior layout itself is typical Mercedes-Benz. Everything is either covered in leather or makes use of high-quality plastics that feel nice under your fingertips. The instruments are where you’d expect them to be and the company’s COMAND system takes care of the infotainment and satellite navigation systems via a 17.8cm screen. It has USB, Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming support plus a 10GB hard drive for storage. It can also connect to the internet via a tethered smartphone (iPhone not supported) if you feel the need.
As with other Mercedes vehicles, we find the GL350’s LCD screen a little too small, with no option to upsize (a problem which is amplified in a car as big as the GL) and the air-conditioning controls a tad fragile. Other than that, it’s a solid interior layout.
Safety has always been one of Mercedes-Benz’s strong points and nothing has changed on that front. The GL-Class offers two-stage front and side airbags (combined thorax/pelvis bags) for the front occupants, knee bags for the driver and window bags for all three rows. Optional thorax airbags are available for the middle row of seats.
On the active safety front, brake assist, collision prevention assist, trailer stabilisation, down-hill speed regulation, tyre pressure loss warning and hill start assist are all standard. If you want all the toys, you can tick the box for active lane keeping assist, active blind spot assist, speed limit assist, distronic plus, brake assist plus or pre-safe brake with autonomous braking.
The second-generation Mercedes-Benz GL-Class launches in Australia in April with the GL350 CDI and GL500. It will go head to head with everything that can match it for size, such as the Toyota LandCruiser Sahara, the new Range Rover as well as the Audi Q7.
Prices and specifications will be confirmed closer to the date, but the current entry price of $120,200 is expected to remain relatively unchanged. The circa-$220,000 range-topping Mercedes-Benz GL63 AMG, powered by a bi-turbo 5.5-litre V8, will arrive around June to complete the range.
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