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Published on Saturday 18 May 2013 06:30
Ten Second Review
Mercedes bills it the S-Class of SUVs and it's easy to see why. The GL-Class addresses the requirement for a really spacious, genuinely tough seven seater, and it's unsurprising that it has done well in the US. More pertinently, it's now better equipped and more economical than ever before.
There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. Roll out a map from 1922 and the world is shaded pink. Australia, India, South Africa, Canada and many others, fully a quarter of the earth's land was British as part of the largest Empire the world had ever known. Less than a hundred years ago, this tiny island claimed dominion over 458 million people. Perhaps that's why there's so much hand-wringing and frustration when we see cars that probably aren't designed for us. We think we matter more than we probably do.
Take the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class as an example. It works brilliantly in Dubai or Denver but drive one in the UK and it feels a size or two too big. If you need a big sports utility vehicle and aren't nervous about piloting one this large, the latest model is well worth a look. It pitches right into the heart of a very dynamic and exciting market.
Mercedes offers two engines; a diesel that will sell and a petrol unit that won't. We'll have a look at the petrol engine for the sake of completeness first. The GL 500 BlueEFFICIENCY model actually is quite efficient for a 4.7-litre petrol engined SUV the size of a house, but all things are relative. It's certainly not shy of power, with a 408PS V8 punching it to 62mph in less than six seconds. Its 600Nm of torque spells effortless towing ability and overtaking urge. That's bested by the 620Nm delivered by the GL 350 BlueTEC diesel version though.
This isn't quite as numbingly rapid in a straight line as the petrol car, and with 150PS less on tap nor would you expect it to be, but 7.9 seconds to 62mph isn't hanging around while the 136mph top speed will be enough for most typical customers.
Mercedes claims the NVH characteristics (Noise, Vibration, Harshness) are on a par with those of the S-Class, helped in no small part by a very rigid body, an optimised powertrain, the improved chassis, aero-acoustic refinements and the intelligent use of new-style insulation. The standard specification includes the fully load-bearing air suspension system AIRMATIC with load recognition.
Those rugged looks come with some respectable off-road chops as well. Alongside the permanent 4MATIC all-wheel drive system, there's start-off assist, Downhill Speed Regulation DSR and a special off-road driving program. The ON&OFFROAD package features no fewer than six driving programs to get you out of almost any sticky spot. The ON&OFFROAD package comprises an underguard, a two-stage transfer case with a low-range ratio, an inter-axle differential lock and enhanced AIRMATIC functionality that allows a maximum ground clearance of 285 millimetres and a fording depth of 600 millimetres. There's genuine substance to this one.
Design and Build
Although the trend these days is to make cars a little smaller on the outside and a bit more spacious inside, the latest GL is even longer than the car it replaces, albeit only by a matter of 30mm or so. Although the styling disguises the sheer bulk of the thing, it is 2141mm wide and 1850mm tall so it might be worth checking that your garage is XXL enough to accommodate it. The tidy body overhangs at the front and rear, together with the high ground clearance, point to its off-road ability, although the 10-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels look more than a little vulnerable should you fire the GL up a set of muddy ruts. If you've no plans to ever leave the tarmac, there are wheel options right up to a massive 21 inches and if you're going for these, you might as well go the whole hog and plump for the optional AMG Exterior Sports package. In addition to the hallmark AMG front and rear apron, it also offers flared wheel-arches that house those 21-inch AMG 5-twin-spoke alloy rims. Illuminated aluminium-look running boards also form part of the pack, as do perforated brake discs and brake calliper covers with Mercedes-Benz lettering.
The GL's interior is nicely played, with some very neat diamond-stitched leather seats available as part of the Designo Exclusive package. As you might expect of a vehicle of this size, there's no shortage of space. Access to the third row of seats is now made easier thanks to electric seat movement. The luggage bay is a decent size too, measuring from 680 to 2300-litres. The dashboard is easy to navigate with two big dials right ahead of the driver with an 11.4 cm colour display between them. A big colour screen for the infotainment system dominates the dashboard. Most of the controls are operated via the metal Controller on the centre console. A multifunction steering wheel in nappa leather is a standard fit, with steering-wheel gearshift paddles and 12 function keys also fitted.
Market and Model
Mercedes-Benz takes safety extremely seriously and you only need to take a look at the GL's standard safety equipment to realise that there probably isn't a better car to protect your family. Two-stage adaptive airbags for the driver and front passenger, a kneebag for the driver, sidebags for the driver and front passenger (combined thorax/pelvis bags) and window bags above all three seat rows are part of the standard specification. There's also a whole host of interesting electronic functions that reduce the chances of getting into an accident in the first place.
As standard specification, the GL-Class gets the usual stability control and anti-lock braking systems as well as the anticipatory safety concept Pre-Safe. On board for the first time are the Collision Prevention Assist (CPA) collision warning system and the Attention Assist drowsiness detection system. One of the new GL's innovations and highlights is the standard-fit Crosswind Assist, which helps the motorist if the car is affected by strong crosswinds. It does so through targeted brake actuations, therefore ensuring an enhanced feeling of safety.
Options include Distronic Plus proximity control, the Pre-Safe Brake with an autonomous braking function, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist and the Speed Limit Assist. In darkness or when visibility is poor, the bi-xenon headlamps with the Intelligent Light System (ILS) featuring an off-road light, the Adaptive Highbeam Assist and the Night View Assist Plus ensure that the driver has a good view of the road.
Cost of Ownership
The fuel economy of the Mercedes GL isn't as financially crippling as you might have feared but running one will still take its toll on most bank accounts. The GL 500 was always going to accumulate plenty of tiger tokens and most owners will be lucky to replicate its 25mpg official combined cycle average but emissions of 262g/km are remarkable for a vehicle this big and heavy.
The diesel version fares predictably better. Here you'll be able to replicate the combined 38mpg figure if you're feather-footed and the 192g/km emissions figure is about what you would have expected for a mid-range Ford Mondeo not so very long ago. Good residual values will help soften the running costs blow when the time comes to sell up.
Although there will be some British buyers for whom the Mercedes-Benz GL will doubtless appeal, it's a car that still appears a little supersized for this country's roads. It remains aimed at the well-heeled buyers of New York, California, Washington and Florida, customers who demand a vehicle with the front to face down a Cadillac Escalade or a Lincoln Navigator. Make no mistake, the GL is a serious piece of automotive real estate.
With sleeker styling, improved safety, lower overall running costs, superior off-road ability and better refinement, the GL is a better engineered vehicle than many give it credit for. If you're comfortable with piloting, and indeed parking, such a sizeable truck, then it's hard not to give the big Merc the thumbs up. For most, however, the mightily impressive M-Class is more than enough.