Published on Sunday 21 December 2014 19:22
Ten Second Review
Some Mercedes models are the epitome of on-road luxury. Others are almost unrivalled for off-road prowess. And then there's one which claims to offer the best of both: the GL-Class. This is the very few super-luxury SUVs that can seat seven fully-sized adults. And it's the only one that can do so whilst offering a properly dynamic drive on road as well as extreme capability off it. This second generation version is smarter, plusher, more refined and even more appealing. Got a family? You'd like one.
This Mercedes GL-Class, if you haven't yet come across it, is a vehicle billed as 'the S-Class of SUVs', a luxury conveyance for those whose real - or more likely imagined - commute to the real world is from a craggy mountaintop. We first saw it in 2007, built in America for Americans and since then, occupying super-sized shopping mall spaces from New York to New Orleans in ever-increasing numbers. Over there, it was a necessary addition to the brand's luxury SUV line-up, given that for Yanks, the five-metre-long M-Class is pretty compact and the exorbitantly-priced G-Class is too crude for most. Something to take on the all-conquering Range Rover that would offer well-heeled buyers the added benefit of seven seats.
It's that third seating row that's always set the GL apart in a luxury 4x4 market that rarely offers this option - or if it does, often restricts practical use of the extra seats to children. Not so here. Hence perhaps, the bigger-than-expected take-up for the first generation version of this car on these shores - a market that most commentators expected would find this model a size or so to big. Though even larger in the guise we're going to look at here - the second generation design launched in mid-2013 - greater familiarity with cars of this size means that it actually doesn't seem quite so huge these days. And the sleeker shape clothes a GL-Class that's cleverer, more comfortable, quieter and more efficient. Let's put it to the test.
Not everyone is going to feel comfortable piloting something of this size but provided you do, then GL-Class motoring is a pretty fabulous way to view your everyday world. AirMATIC air suspension with ADS Adaptive Damping smoothes your way over poor surfaces and there's the option of a clever Active Curve System to reduce body roll through the corners.
It's got permanent 4WD of course, an 'intelligent' 4MATIC system with a 50:50 torque-split front-to-rear and a '4ETS' electronic traction control set-up that includes an off-road button you press to activate a special off-road driving programme. Once you do, the slip threshold of the wheels, the throttle sensitivity, ABS and ESP intervention and the change points of the 7G-Tronic Plus seven-speed auto transmission are all tweaked to suit off piste use. You also get Hill Start Assist to help you start off up steep slopes you can then more easily descend from using a Downhill Speed Regulator that'll ease you to the bottom. All of that will be quite sufficient for the needs of most likely buyers, but for those who do intend to drive off road regularly, Mercedes offers the extra cost 'On & Off Road Package' we tried.
It all sounds impressive but of course, what really matters is the way this car performs on-tarmac. The quoted 4.9s 0-62mph sprint time of the 557bhp GL63 AMG petrol V8 model sounds faintly frightening but now there's even more reason not to choose it given that thanks mainly to a 90kg weight saving, this 258bhp GL350 BlueTEC diesel is significantly quicker than its predecessor. A potent 620Nm of torque from the 3.0 V6 up-front means that the 62mph sprint is dispatched in just 7.9s as the 7-speed gearbox elegantly slurs you on towards a 137mph maximum.
Design and Build
So, it's big - of course it is, even more so than the car it replaces, which already was large enough to make your neighbours question their right-to-light restrictions. This MK2 model is longer, wider and taller, with more than three metres between its wheels and a total length of nearly 5.2m. So you'll need a very large garage.
Right, onto the interior. The fact that it offers three seating rows at all is fairly unusual in the super-luxury SUV sector and the fact that in that third row, two fully sized adults can be properly accommodated is even more unusual. Find yourself in the middle row and, as at the very back, there's a little more head and elbow room than there was before, with decent space for three people who can adjust their seats to suit their needs.
And up-front? Well, it's pretty much exactly as you'll find in Mercedes' M-Class luxury SUV which means that, though very nice indeed, the whole ambience isn't as glamorous as that of a Range Rover or Porsche Cayenne. That leaves luggage space. Lift the huge tailgate and there's actually a reasonable amount - 295-litres - even when you've got all seven seats upright. Use the neat electric folding system to flatten the third row into the floor and that figure increases to 680-litres, pretty much the same as you'd get in an M-Class. Flatten the second row as well though, and you'll find this GL much bigger than its Mercedes stablemate, offering a huge 2300-litres, about 15% more space than you'd get in, say, a Range Rover or an Audi Q7.
Market and Model
Buying a GL-Class is pretty straightforward. Though there's a wild V8 petrol GL63 AMG model requiring an £85,000 budget, almost all customers will want the single more sensible variant that I'm trying here, the GL350 BlueTEC diesel, for which you'll need around £60,000. It's a car that comes fully kitted out in UK guise, but as we'll see, that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of scope to get creative if you've the budget to do it.
Standard kit is comprehensive. So, as well as a 7G-Tronic Plus seven-speed automatic gearbox, variable ratio Direct Steering and self-levelling AirMATIC suspension with Adaptive Damping, you get an exhaustive kit list. All UK GL-Class models come complete with AMG bodystyling for the front and rear aprons, side skirts and wheelarches, plus 21-inch AMG alloy wheels. There's an Intelligent Light system with auto-activating bi-xenon headlamps that dip themselves at night, compensate for bad weather and help you see round corners. There are also LED daytime running lights and even a special off-road light, so that ideal illumination is provided in any circumstances.
Additionally, you get roof rails, an electric glass sunroof, privacy glass, aluminum-trimmed LED-lit running boards, metallic paint, rain-sensing wipers, Artico artificial leather upholstery for the dashboard and the heated seats, a nappa leather-trimmed multi-function sports steering wheel, plus the COMAND Online infotainment system that includes satellite navigation, a Media Interface and a DAB digital tuner. I also like the Active Park Assist with Parktronic system that not only gives you parking sensors but'll automatically steer you into the tightest spaces, having helped identify them for you in the first place. It's a pretty important feature to have on a car this large.
Cost of Ownership
Mercedes has put a lot of thought into trying to make this car more efficient. As a result, combined cycle fuel consumption and CO2 returns for the GL350 BlueTEC diesel have improved by around 15%, to 35.3mpg and 209g/km. It's also very clean, meeting EU6 standards thanks to the adoption of Mercedes' Selective Catalytic Reduction technology and the installation of what's called 'AdBlue injection'. AdBlue is an aqueous urea solution that's injected into the exhaust flow to increase ammonia. This then transforms 80% of the vehicle's NOx emissions into harmless water and nitrogen in the catalytic converter.
That just leaves the flagship petrol-powered GL 63 AMG model to consider, a car that also gets a start/stop system and a 'Controlled Efficiency' driving mode. Despite that, it's a model that was always going to accumulate plenty of tiger tokens. Most owners will be lucky to replicate its quoted 23mpg official combined cycle average but emissions of 288g/km are remarkable for a vehicle this big and heavy, better indeed that you'd get from a less powerful supercharged 5.0-litre V8 Range Rover or Range Rover Sport.
Good residual values will help soften the running costs blow when the time comes to sell up. And insurance groupings are set at 49 for this diesel and a top-of-the-shop 50 for the GL63 AMG.
If you're in the unusual position of wanting a huge 7-seat super-luxury SUV that can climb the lower slopes of Snowdon, then stop by Sainsburys on the way to an evening at the Ritz, then you won't be disappointed with this one.
But then, that much we already knew about this Mercedes. The thing that's changed with this second generation version is a broadening of its appeal. Now it reaches out below its price point to an Audi Q7-class customer. And above its asking figure to lower-order Range Rover buyers. These people may not necessarily need this car's huge size or ultimate off-road prowess but hey, they didn't really need a big SUV in the first place, so why not buy one that really ticks all the boxes?
This GL-Class does and in second generation form, manages to do so with a far more dynamic personality. True, it's not quite the all-round proposition a Range Rover can be but in many respects, it offers far more car for much less money. Which means that in your SUV search for the biggest and the best, you shouldn't overlook it. Even if you're British.