In a politically correct age fixated on vehicle downsizing and reduced emissions there comes an odd man out – a behemoth of an SUV called the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class.
The second-generation GL is the biggest thing Mercedes-Benz builds, outside their commercial and military truck ranges.
And it doesn’t get any bigger in the world of luxury European SUVs than this brutish Benz. At over 5.2 metres nose-to-tail and around two metres tall, the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class strikes an imposing presence, easily eclipsing its closest rivals, the Audi Q7 (5086mm) and the Range Rover (4999mm).
Its sheer size also relegates the mega-Merc to niche model status in every other market except the United States, where big is beautiful and Titanic-size parking spaces are still the norm at the nation’s ubiquitous shopping malls.
The GL actually sits on the same monocoque architecture as the M-Class, but adds a third row of seats, more cargo space and a more upright profile than its sleeker five-seat sibling.
No surprise then to learn these two German-born SUVs are built in the same factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – nice and close to its biggest customer base.
In Australia, the Mercedes-Benz GL line-up is dominated by a couple of heavy-hitting twin-turbo petrol V8s, but opening the range is the decidedly more efficient $129,900 GL350 BlueTec tested here, with a modest 190kW/620Nm 3.0-litre turbo-diesel – good for a claimed 7.7L/100km combined and 199g/km CO2 emissions.
By comparison, the mid-level $154,900 GL500’s 320kW/700Nm bi-turbo 4.7-litre V8 consumes 11.5L/km with CO2 emissions of 269g/km (reviewed here), while the range-topping $214,900 GL63 AMG gets a 410kW/760Nm 5.5-litre version of the same twin-turbo V8, with a claimed fuel consumption of 12.3L/100km and CO2 emissions of 288g/km.
The diesel GL’s competitive set includes the $168,900 Range Rover TDV6 HSE with a 190kW/600Nm 3.0-litre V6 and $90,000 Audi Q7 3.0 TDI with 180kW/550Nm.
You might think those aluminium-look running boards amount to nothing more than some added exterior bling for the luxury GL, but you’ll quickly appreciate the essential leg-up they provide if you’re to hoist yourself into this rig with a modicum of dignity.
Stepping inside the cabin is like walking into business class aboard an A380 jetliner. From its Alpaca Grey coloured leather seats to its beautifully crafted four-spoke steering wheel in Nappa leather and metallic accents (a no-cost option instead of the standard Eucalyptus wood trim), the GL oozes expense (if not class).
And despite its entry-level positioning, the GL350 BlueTec still packs an extensive list of standard luxuries, including a 360-degree camera (curbed alloys are no longer an issue), seven-inch TFT display with satellite navigation and voice control, Bluetooth phone and music streaming, sunroof and electrically-adjustable steering wheel.
Also included are electric driver and front passenger heated seats, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming rear-vision mirror and more.
The GL’s principle raison d’être, though, is its third row seating and extra cargo capacity. Apart from the initial step-up, ingress and egress is made easy by the wide-swinging rear doors and clever folding second row seat folding system.
Handy electrically operated individual third row seats (up and down) negates the need for a contortionist’s flexibility to deploy ‘occasional’ seats, which in the GL’s case are rather larger bucket-style pews complete with leather upholstered armrests.
The rearmost seats themselves are raised and are as comfortable as those in the second row, and although there’s a reasonable footwell on offer, legroom as a whole is compromised for adult passengers.
Predictably, there’s a ton of luggage space. Even with the third row in place, there’s still plenty of room for the weekly grocery shop. Flip all the levers and the seats fold flat, revealing a massive 2300 litres of carrying capacity (almost 300 litres more than the Ranger Rover), though clearly that only leaves room for a space saver spare.
Despite its 2400kg heft, the performance of the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel isn't disappointing – there’s more than enough punch to hustle the big GL along with sufficient haste.
The GL350 BlueTec isn’t any slower than its home country rivals, either. We clocked its 0-100km/h time at 7.9 seconds, matching the Range Rover and just one-tenth of a second behind the Audi Q7’s claimed 7.8 seconds.
While it still takes a moment for its single turbo to spool up, there’s a mountain of torque on song from just 1600rpm, which more than carries the slack and affords ample passing power on freeways.
Progress is nicely refined, too, thanks to the standard seven-speed automatic that is quick to respond to throttle inputs. There’s also steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters, though we found them rather superfluous for what is after all a luxury SUV.
Diesel clatter is well and truly cloaked from inside the GL’s cabin and even when you’re well into it, the response from the V6 diesel is a thoroughly pleasant growl.
The Mercedes-Benz motor is already Euro 6 compliant thanks largely to its NOx-reducing AdBlue technology, but our average fuel economy of 10.1L/100km on a combined cycle exceeded the 7.7L/100km claimed by Mercedes-Benz.
Still, that translates to nearly 930 kilometres in range with the GL’s 94-litre tank.
While the GL might look large and unwieldy, at low speeds the electromechanically controlled steering lightens up for easy-as parking manoeuvres. And the turning circle for a vehicle of these proportions is simply brilliant, making U-turns on suburban-size streets no trouble at all.
The brakes, too, are reassuringly strong with a nice progressive pedal feel, which again makes the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class feel smaller than it is - at least from behind the wheel.
The GL350 BlueTec also benefits from standard Airmatic air suspension with adaptive dampers, providing drivers with a choice between two ride settings, Sport and Comfort. The later soaking up each and every bump and pothole Sydney could through at it.
More surprising still, was that our test vehicle was fitted with the optional AMG Sports Package that included 21-inch wheels (up from 20) shod with normally unforgiving low-profile rubber.
There’s a noticeable firming-up of the ride quality in the Sport mode, but on the plus side there’s also a marked improvement in body control, allowing the GL to snake around corners with surprising agility and pace.
And armed with extra-wide 295/40 Pirellis all-round, as well as standard all-wheel drive there’s no shortage of grip from all-four paws.
Not only does the GL’s suspension automatically raise the car’s level by around 10mm, reducing drag at speeds above around 120km/h, but there’s also a manual function that lets you raise the car’s level by another 30mm.
The GL is also heavy on advanced safety systems, like Distronic Plus (DP). It’s Mercedes’ adaptive cruise control system that allows the driver to maintain (and alter) a safe distance between it and the vehicle in front by slowing down or speeding up as the situation permits.
In traffic, the system can bring the car to a complete stop.
We found the GL’s active lane keeping assist to be especially useful. Simply brushing the edges of any marked lane with the wheels is enough to trigger one-sided braking and bring the vehicle back into the correct lane.
There is plenty to appreciate in the entry-level Mercedes-Benz GL BlueTec and there’s a strong argument that it’s a lot of car for the money. We certainly agree that it is.
And while it’s not the most handsome beast around (that prize goes to the Range Rover), the sheer space, kit, quality, economy and general driveability make it simply irresistible to those pleasure seekers amongst us who are after a business class suite on wheels.