New GL is unveiled as the Mercedes
of full-size SUVs
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
CALISTOGA, Calif. (SNS) – Mercedes-Benz has been a
major automotive topic in the United States in recent years, for
such ventures as taking over Chrysler Corporation and turning it
into DaimlerChrysler, and for building a plant in Alabama to build
a crossover sport utility vehicle, the ML-Class.
Reaction varied from snickers to scorn about
Germany’s leading luxury car builder trying its hand at the American
SUV market, but the idea worked so well that Mercedes is now after
bigger game. Literally.
The Mercedes GL450 is large, at 200.3 inches long,
121.1 inches wheelbase, 76 inches wide, 75.6 inches tall, and 5,300
pounds heavy. It is powerful, with a new V8 churning out 335
horsepower and 339 foot-pounds of torque. It is high-tech, with the
4.6-liter engine’s 32-valve, dual-overhead-camshaft layout featuring
variable valve-timing on both intake and exhaust valves and a 7-speed
automatic transmission with fingertip manual controls.
It is strong enough to tow a 7,500-pound trailer. It
is rigidly safe, with the world’s first unibody chassis on a full-size
SUV, featuring 60 percent high-strength steel, and all the latest
traction and stability control features, plus eight airbags
surrounding all occupants, including side-curtain head protection for
all three rows.
While the ML vehicles are stylishly attractive with
their aerodynamic slopes and contours, they also are quite compact.
Mercedes still makes the aging G-Class large SUV, and when it tried to
eliminate the 27-year-old pre-Hummer squareish G, protests became so
plentiful that the company decided to keep making it, for military and
Between those extremes, Mercedes introduced an
all-new R-Class a few months ago, and it is a unique people-hauling
wagon that might best be described as an "on-road SUV."
So the GL jumps into the mix as something of a more
rugged, more masculine, off-road-capable complement to the family
on-road R-Class. In case anybody wonders why Mercedes seems to be
intend on expanding its SUV presence, Mercedes officials point out
that the GL, M, and R classes, and that those three vehicles will
account for one-third of all Mercedes sales.
All three vehicles are being built in the expanded
and adjacent two-plant facility in Vance, Alabama, located midway
between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. One plant will build the M and GL,
and the other will build the M and R.
With a price yet to be determined, estimates run in
the "high-$50,000" range, which puts the GL into my usual category:
The best German vehicles are expensive, and, based on quality and
technology, worth every penny.
When I first saw the GL at the
Detroit Auto Show, and again at Chicago’s show, I was curious. It
was clearly larger than the ML, as if some giant robot had
stretched and enlarged an ML from every dimension. Still, it
retains some stylish contours at the front and along the sides,
but I wasn’t sure what Mercedes was aiming at with the vehicle.
After the chance to drive some early production
vehicles on freeways and highways northward from San Francisco, and
through the hilly wine country of Napa Valley, the GL creates and
fills its considerable space.
The Mercedes GL was unveiled to the world’s motoring
press this past week at a very interesting and very exclusive new
resort in the heart of Napa Valley’s wine country, and while planning
a late-winter gathering in California seems logical, this particular
week included almost constant rain, which has drenched the countryside
north of San Francisco with the kind of puddles and mud that only
grapes can appreciate.
Still, what could be better for test-driving a new
SUV – the first full-size SUV built by any European company? The big
beast had impeccable road manners, and the seats are comfortable and
supportive enough that I quickly adjusted from feeling that I was
sitting too high to feeling comfortably in full control.
That was true on the freeways leaving San Francisco,
and the two-lane highways selected to prove handling capabilities on
the switchbacks in the mountain ranges flanking the Napa Valley.
Having passed the normal-routine driving requirements with ease, the
GL later proved its worth on some muddy stretches and off-road
adventures as well.
"We didn’t want the just enter the full-size
segment," said GL-Class manager Ron Mueller. "We wanted it to be the
Mercedes of big SUVs."
After the presentation, someone asked what specific
vehicles Mercedes was aiming the GL at, although it seemed an easy
answer, because the only "full-size" SUVs in the industry are
basically four vehicles -- the General Motors cluster of
Suburban/Tahoe/Envoy/Escalade that are variations on one essential
vehicle, the Ford Expedition, the biggest Lexus LX470/GX470, and the
top Range Rover.
Mercedes officials, however, didn’t name any
competitors, saying simply that any utility vehicle priced above
$40,000 would be a competitor. They also said they don’t use any other
company’s vehicles as benchmarks, because they have a specific, and
quite rational plan. And they don’t expect to lose ML buyers, just
offer them an alternative.
"We won’t take away ML buyers, but we will stop ML
owners from going elsewhere for larger SUVs," said Geoff Day,
director of Mercedes communication. "Our only benchmarks are
internal – our customers’ expectations. The key is, after two
kids, compact SUVs just are not big enough."
In styling, the ML looks compact, the R looks long
and slinky, and the plan for the GL was to look more rugged, to
convey the sense of size and girth. It comes with 18-inch wheels,
but 19 or 20 inchers are available. Along with superb suspension
and handling characteristics for the driver, all seven occupants
have a lot to like about the GL.
The three rows of seats not only seat seven, but
they will seat seven adults in comfort. The second row is the key,
because it will seat three, and has a 60/40 fold-down arrangement.
Hopping into the far back third row seats is easy,
and the third row’s two seats are split 50-50, and, at the touch of a
pair of side-wall-mounted switches, either the right or left, or both,
seat cushions drop down just enough and the backrests fold down on top
of them, leaving a flat, carpeted stowage floor. Mercedes claims
"zero-to-flat" in 4.9 seconds.
Of course, the folded down area meets the
folded-down second row to create a huge space, measured at 83 cubic
The keys to comfort in the third row are that
passengers have a roomy footwell, and a large skylight that is similar
in size to the sunroof that opens for the front and middle passengers.
Dual rear video screens, rear audio controls, and a 440-watt
harmon-kardon audio system can be set to play iPod or MP3 or those
old-fashioned CDs on separate controls, so rear-seat occupants can
listen to something completely different from mom and dad up front.
Four-corner air-suspension facilitates adjustable
ride height, which can be lowered three inches for serious off-roading,
and which lowers itself a half-inch for optimum freeway aerodynamics.
While anyone seeking a vehicle in the over-$50,000
category will find the basic GL well-equipped, there are some upgrades
available in the GL that set it apart. Options include the power rear
liftgate, pushbutton-start keyless entry, rear videos imbedded in the
backs of both front headrests, a rear-view back-up camera, full heated
leather seats, and burled walnut trim.
The R-Class has the same platform but with stretched
wheelbase, and while it has full-time 4Matic all-wheel-drive as well,
it is not considered a "full-size SUV," which allows Mercedes to call
the GL the only unibody full-size SUV.
Taking all the attributes of the R, the GL adds some
rugged off-road features to assure capabilities beyond people-hauling.
A two-speed transfer case, for example, with locking differential,
adaptive damping, and higher ride-height adjustment from 3 to 4.5
Less than 2 percent are projected to choose the
off-road package, which about mirrors the normal tendencies SUV owners
have shown for serious off-road ventures. The R has fulfilled a lot of
needs, but the GL takes most of the R’s assets and expands on them.
"We are looking at traditional families who still
want and need a full-size SUV," said Mueller. "Our research shows that
among all full-size SUV buyers, 30 to 35 percent own a Mercedes-Benz
So if ML owners need more room, they’ve always had
to look elsewhere. Now they can look at the GL and stay within the
And if some Escalade, Expedition or LX470 buyers
check out the GL, Mercedes probably won’t mind a bit.
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.