It’s hard to use the term 'bargain' to describe any car set to cost $144,600 before on-road costs. Yet consider this: the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS450 shares all of the core structure and most of the trick dynamic componentry of the forthcoming Mercedes-Maybach GLS600 – a car you can bet will cost more than twice as much.
On those terms, the entry-level GLS makes a compelling cost-based case for itself. It’s also much better looking than the Maybach, which looks like it has tried to swallow most of a jewellery store.
Like its predecessors, the new X167-generation GLS is American, being manufactured at Merc’s Tuscaloosa plant in Alabama. CarAdvice didn’t have to travel to the Deep South to have a turn, instead snagging an early go during a driving event in Michigan. I drove a US-spec version of the six-cylinder GLS450, which will be the base engine in Australia.
The 450 uses a 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged inline six that makes 270kW and 500Nm by itself, but which also incorporates a 48-volt ‘EQ Boost’ mild hybrid system that can add up to 16kW and 250Nm of extra assistance for brief periods.
Drive goes through Merc’s nine-speed automatic gearbox and a centre coupling to all four corners. Mercedes claims a 6.2-second 0–100km/h time, which makes it only a tenth quicker than the 400d diesel over the benchmark, but still an entirely respectable number for something that weighs 2410kg.
More impressive is the GLS’s ability to feel smaller than it actually is on the road. Physically, it is massive – at 5213mm in overall length, it is 289mm longer than the already sizeable GLE, and only just over a centimetre shorter than a long-wheelbase S-Class.
Design is short on originality – it looks like a GLE that’s been overinflated – but the scale is obvious in the cabin.
There’s huge space for both front- and second-row occupants, and even the pop-up third row is still big enough to accommodate adults without complaint – at least, none beyond that caused by having to scramble through a narrow gap to reach them.
The GLS’s cabin bears a very close relationship to that of the GLE, with the same dashboard binnacle and double-screen arrangement (a 12.3-inch digital instrument pack abutting an identically sized central touchscreen). However, the materials feel plush enough to ensure the commonality doesn’t feel like the stingy cost-saving it probably is.
US buyers can choose between a bench for the second row, or two captain’s chairs giving a 2-2-2 seating configuration with all of the rear seats power-foldable. Subjectively, it doesn’t feel quite as swish as the cabin of the S-Class, but it’s still a seriously nice place to spend time.
Yet for all the size and equipment, the GLS drives with much more finesse and precision than you would expect something this shape to. The six-cylinder engine feels more than up to the task of motivating so much car, with solid low-down torque turning into forceful mid-range when you need acceleration. It sounds pretty good, too, in a distant way, and is more than happy to rev to the 6500rpm redline.
It’s not fast by the standards of the brawniest performance SUVs – the AMG and Maybach versions are charged with chasing down the Urus and Bentayga – but even in entry-level form, the GLS still feels more than quick enough for what it is.
My test car came fitted with the pricey option of the E-Active body-control system; a US$6500 option in the States, yet one that helps the GLS do a good impression of a magic carpet.
Even without it, air springs are standard, and the GLS feels pliant and well damped, smoothing out urban bumps and also keeping the GLS’s body under tight control when dealing with higher-speed crests and compressions. But the E-Active system adds both stereoscopic cameras to scan the approaching road surface up to 150m ahead to prepare the active dampers for imperfections, and also a clever anti-roll system that counteracts the tendency of the tall body to lean under hard loads by pumping hydraulic fluid to the top or bottom of each damper unit.
It’s a different way of delivering the same outcome as the pure-electric system offered by Audi and Bentley. This seems to work impressively well, even on some of the roughest back roads that Michigan could provide for testing. The softness of the base system gives impressive compliance; the E-Active gubbins then reacting quickly enough to counteract both pitch and roll.
In addition to the normal Comfort and Sport dynamic settings, E-Active brings what is called Curve mode, which doesn’t just fight lateral G, but actually leans the GLS’s body into a turn by up to three degrees, like a bike.
Initially this feels very odd, cancelling out much of the centripetal effect your neck muscles expect when turning. But after a few minutes, I found I was getting used to it, and starting to like the reduced sense of effort.
While the GLS’s steering lacks much in the way of sensation, the chassis’s combination of grip and intelligence means it is possible to hustle the GLS down a tight road with high confidence, despite a seating position that feels more like sitting on the car than sitting in it.
E-Active brings another trick – one designed to help the GLS out in the seriously unlikely event of an owner driving it far enough into the wilderness to get stuck in soft ground. This has been given the Deutchlish title Free Driving Assist, and works by bouncing the car up and down at each corner to help free it. The effect is a bit like a low-powered lowrider, or – less charitably – like a small dog seeking a beautiful friendship with a pair of trousers.
Despite its name, the GLS still doesn’t feel quite like an SUV version of the S-Class, although the link feels much closer than it did in previous generations. But on first impressions, it’s a majorly talented all-rounder, with enough substance to be a strong contender in this image-obsessed part of the market.
Engine: 2999cc inline six, twin-turbocharged, 48V mild hybrid
Transmission: 9-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power: 270kW @ 5500–6100rpm (plus 16kW electric)
Torque: 500Nm @ 1600–4000rpm (plus 250kW electric)
Top speed: 238km/h
Price: $144,600 (before on-roads) (US$96,835 as tested)