It has a new look and a new name, but is the Mercedes-Benz GLS really the S-Class of SUVs?
The launch of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLS range is the final step in the brands re-categorisation of its broadening SUV line-up.
Yes the GLS, like the GL-Class before it, is big. Still a seven-seat behemoth, it has grown 10mm from the outgoing model to 5130mm in length (there is 5mm extra on each end).
This accommodates a fresher look with adaptive LED headlamps, revised grille and new bumper treatments front and rear. The facelift does a lot to modernise the look of the big wagon, as the rest of the exterior is largely unchanged.
In typical Mercedes-Benz fashion, there are a stack of options to help you personalise your GLS, including a selection of ten colours and 14 different wheels.
Inside, the GLS (as in the GLE update earlier this year) receives an updated COMAND interface, featuring a high-resolution eight-inch tablet style display in the center of the dash, and the newer ‘touch-hood and wheel’ interface on the center console.
The software has been updated too and includes DAB digital radio, surround-view camera and the integration of Apple CarPlay (more on that shortly).
Using the revised interface is much more intuitive that the older car, and while we have found it does take a bit of getting used to (and still isn’t the most user-centric system available), owners living with it every day will find themselves proficient in no time.
Also new to the console is the Dynamic Select dial which allows you to choose from one of five driving modes (Comfort, Sport, Ice, Rocky/Offroad and Individual). These make changes to the car’s air suspension height, throttle and steering input and traction control settings.
It certainly makes the big Benz feel more ‘sporty’ and the inclusion of an Individual setting enables you to find that perfect mix between performance and comfort.
The rest of the GLS, however, remains basically the same. It is still very comfortable and still very spacious, but the functional and packaging quibbles we had with our long-term GL350 last year are still very present.
Take the second row for example, that power-folds forward at the touch of a button to allow easy access to the rear two seats. Folding it back is an exceptionally heavy and cumbersome process, plus the seats return to a standard (and very upright) position, requiring you to manually adjust them each and every time.
Maintaining a four-model range, the GLS is available as a $116,900 GLS350d (190kW/620Nm 3-litre V6 turbo diesel) in both standard and $135,900 ‘Sport’ models, the $161,900 GLS500 (335kW/700Nm 4.6-litre V8 twin-turbo petrol) and of course, the Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 with a monstrous 430kW/760Nm 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8, for an equally monstrous $217,900 (all prices are before options and on-road costs).
These prices are up slightly, the GLS350d and 500 seeing an extra $2390 added to the bottom line, the ’63 up $3390 and the 350d Sport wanting the further $1390. In the overall scheme of things, though, these are an average of a 1.5 percent rise, so hardly likely to raise a manicured eyebrow at this end of the market.
The aforementioned technical updates easily account for these rises though, and all the cars in the range are still highly specified.
From the full suite of Mercedes-Benz driver assistance technology, through automatic parking and multiple cameras, to powered third-row seats and cool walk-up exterior lighting – including Benz-logo puddle lamps – the GLS is not wanting for life’s little luxuries.
Since we have previously ‘owned’ the previous GL350d model as a long termer, we spent most of our time on launch driving the higher-specification V8 GLS models.
We will say too, that the diesel definitely represents the sweet spot in the GLS line-up (standing alone, this car is at least an 8/10 proposition). Enough power to do the job, and reasonable economy to boot, there’s not actually a sensible or tangible reason as to why you ‘need’ the big V8s.
That said, 'need' isn't really a word that fits with the whole 'giant V8 SUV with massaging seats' pitch of the GLS, and they do sound so, so sweet...
Power in the GLS500 is up 15kW from the older car, while combined-cycle fuel consumption has dropped from 11.5L/100km to 11.2. Your local petrol station owner need not cancel that down payment on his holiday house then.
There’s no sense of subtly about the big, thirsty lump under the bonnet. It rumbles and whistles, and you know that fuel consumption figure is going to just be the tip of the iceberg.
Make no mistake, the 500 has a hell of a lot of motive power. The ease with which it shifts the 2445kg SUV to speeds that become very rapid, very quickly, is suitably impressive. The even more powerful AMG 63… well we’ll let Alborz get to that in a minute.
Once you get used to the freight train like oomph, though, the other dynamic qualities of the GLS start to feel a bit light-on.
The air suspension gives a comfortable ride, but in the Sport setting it still rolls and pitches quite noticeably. In the Comfort setting it doesn’t offer a totally smooth and cloud-like experience that you would expect from Mercedes’ flagship SUV.
It’s not a bad ride by any stretch though. The GLS is light and deceptively nimble around town, and certainly highly livable…but it still just feels like the older car that was originally launched in 2012.
All non-AMG models are now equipped with the new 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic transmission, which is very smooth and intelligent when selecting gears. As in other Mercedes cars, it will gradually ‘learn’ your driving behaviour and become even smoother over time. We didn't find much of a need (or even want in this instance) to manually shift using the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
One of the new additions to the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLS is Apple Carplay integration and, to be honest, its pretty pointless. CarPlay (and Android Auto) work best in low-end vehicles that don’t have a suite of integrated navigation and communication functions. The GLS, with the refreshed COMAND Online software, offers seamless Bluetooth audio, telephony and navigation services. Running CarPlay (via a specific USB port in the console) just distracts from the car’s core services.
When active, you can no longer select the ‘Favourites’ function from the COMAND controller (to quickly fire-up the driver’s seat massage for example…), everything just links back to the Apple home-screen and the current basic suite of CarPlay applications.
Things may change as CarPlay improves, but for now, especially in a car like the GLS, in my opinion you’re better off without it - although Alborz loves it, so each to their own
As part of our introduction to the 2016 GLS range, Alborz spent some time in the range-topping GLS 63 AMG, here’s what he thought.
It seriously doesn’t make sense to buy a seven-seater family hauler with a ridiculously powerful engine up front. Then again, it doesn’t make sense to pay $17,000 to fly first class to L.A., but if you could, why wouldn’t you?
The flagship Mercedes-AMG GLS63 is a completely unnecessary car, but everything about it that is unnecessary is what makes it great. Powered by a twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V8 with 430kW (up 20kW over the GL63) and 760Nm of torque, the GLS63 is certainly the fastest way to get the kids to school.
What you get over the GLS500 is a higher top speed (270km/h), bigger 22-inch wheels and a 60:40 rear:front bias in association with the AMG driver’s package and returned AWD system. Other AMG bits such as AMG sports suspension and high-performance brakes, power-closing doors, and the Air Balance package are also included. All for just, umm, $217,900.
Behind the wheel the GLS63 AMG, particularly in Sport+ mode, is utterly insane. It bellows a noise that would be akin to Zeus dishing out worldly punishment. This is one V8 engine that hasn’t lost any character despite being a turbo.
Acceleration is ferocious, 0-100km/h in just 4.6 seconds, which doesn’t really properly describe just how quick it is on the go. Flatten the accelerator at 60km/h to merge on the highway and you’ll be pleasantly squashed against the seat.
Ride quality is perfect on smooth surfaces but can feel a little too firm on regular suburban roads. It isn’t too bad, but it’s not as comfortable – even in comfort mode – as the GLS500 on the smaller wheels.
The power steering system can really do with more weight or feel, but in all reality this isn’t a track car, so what it lacks in terms of sporty feel and involvement, it makes up for in how easy the GLS is to manoeuvre around town or when parking.
When push comes to shove, though, the GLS63 AMG is pretty good considering its size. It does have its share of body roll – even the AMG suspension is not above the laws of physics – but what this car is all about is being the fastest of the biggest Mercedes SUVs.
Off the lights, this will give plenty of pretenders a big scare, but if you want a cruisy seven-seater with the right badge and credentials, the GLS350 diesel is really all you need. But if you can justify the AMG, and must have the best, you won’t be disappointed.
Now while the calculable gravitational potential energy of the thundering V8s could keep a university lecturer busy for some time, to suggest the Mercedes-Benz GLS is the ‘S-Class of SUVs’ doesn’t give enough credit to the brands exceptional limousine. It may be S-Class level size (although a LWB ‘S is actually 116mm longer) but the GLS is not S-Class level serenity. Maybe naming it GLE-L would have been a better name?
Also worth considering is the 200kW/600Nm 3.0-litre twin-turbo diesel Audi Q7, which represents not only a comprehensively more modern package but real competition for the GLS, despite being 78mm shorter. It too offers plenty of comfort and luxury for seven passengers and starts $13,000 cheaper, meaning the Benz will need to try a little bit harder to maintain its position as king of the school-run.
Subtle marketing jabs aside, we know that the renaming of the GLS range was to facilitate the next-generation large Mercedes SUV – a car that is even rumoured to spawn an ultra-high-end Maybach variant.
Perhaps then, with a new platform and some new technology, the GLS will indeed deserve the S-Class SUV name. But for now, it remains the biggest Mercedes-Benz SUV that money can buy, and while it is a good car, it is not as great as you may expect from the S-Class SUV.
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