If ever there is an SUV that can replicate the uneeringly quiet, supple and relaxed atmosphere of Mercedes’ flagship S-Class limousine, this is it. The Mercedes GL wagon drives to Australia from April next year with refinement that makes the SUV tag redundant.
It is as big - in fact, at 5.1m long it enters the realm of colossal - as the current model and even sits on the same platform. But in terms of how it drives, how it sits on the road and how quiet and comfortable the cabin is, this is a completely different vehicle.
Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman Jerry Stamoulis says the new GL will be priced almost line-ball as the outgoing version. “But it will have a higher level of equipment,’’ he says at its preview in Germany this week.
“We will increase the equipment level (of the GL350) so it gets close to the GL420, but proportionally, the price won’t increase.’’ In Australia, the line-up will shrink from four to three models as the V8 turbo-diesel GL420CDI is deleted.
Mr Stamoulis says the more powerful 350CDI is sufficient in performance - it produces only about 80Nm less torque and is far more economical - to replace the 450. It’s also a better bet for your wallet. Compared with the GL420, customers will also save about $50,000 by opting for the GL350 version.
Aside from the GL350 there is a V8 petrol GL500 and an AMG63 version that respectively may be about $170,000 and $200,000.
The fact that prices are expected to barely alter, yet the level of kit rises, is good news for buyers. The GL is, however, the archetypal SUV - big, big and big - and though Australians have trended away from buying this type of vehicle in the past, there is a resurgence in big, luxurious wagons.
Build quality, drivetrain and equipment levels are reflected in the GL’s price. Standard for all models are air suspension, the clever 360-degree camera system, sunroofs and Merc’s Distronic adaptive cruise control with autonomous collision prevention. There remains an off-road pack with a low-range transfer case and lots of electronic diff and brake controls, but in Australia the take-up rate is only about 1 per cent of sales.
It may look the same humungous, slab-sided wagon that would survive any traffic argument, but look closer and there’s lots of styling tweaks to the bold grille, the headlights - incorporating LEDs
- and the side panels. It’s cleaner inside as well. The big feature of the GL is its outstanding cabin room and the seven-seat capacity.
The split third row is activated to rise from the cabin floor or electrically retreat at the touch of a button. This third row also accepts adults with more than sufficient head and legroom. Luggage space behind this seat does suffer, but the fact it can take so many occupants in such comfort is a boon. The fact that it requires the patience of Job to get into most parking bays is a downer.
The platform and its mechanical components is not changed much from the current model. But there is a lot of change to the way these components work. The ride comfort is excellent - better than most high-end saloons - while the electronically controlled air suspension even makes it handle very well and most unlike any rival SUVs. Engines are honed to make a bit more power and deliver less thirst. The safety gear gets all the attention because it is outstanding.
Collision prevention and its braking system that doesn’t need driver intervention is a big deal here. Mercedes will go even further with the next S-Class limo but for now, the GL is the perfect platform to show off the safety of the system. There is also the 360-degree camera system that gives a bird’s-eye view of parking the car, complete with park sensors to relay the vehicle’s proximity to panel damage. This is the only thing that overcomes the disadvantages of the GL’s size.
Yes it’s big but the chassis control and the sharpness of the steering make it feel so much smaller. The GL350 CDI was the only version driven in Germany though there were two versions - the standard drivetrain and one with the off-road package.
The latter also allows the driver to select different modes dependent on road or off-road conditions, so it’s very similar to the Terrain Assist program from Land Rover.
The diesel pushes surprisingly hard considering the SUV weighs 2.5-tonne without fuel or occupants. It will compete with most traffic off the mark but is especially strong in its mid-range rev band where the torque pours through the automatic gearbox to all wheels.
But the quietness is incredible and the suppleness of the ride is like a big limo. The vastness of its size obviously creates a huge cabin and/or a giant cargo space but though its versatility is appealing to many families, the GL also has big advantages for people who need to tow.
I was prepared to dislike this warehouse-on-wheels but the fact it is so enjoyable to drive and so comfortable that I just ended up a fan.
Mercedes-Benz GL350 CDI
Available: April, 2013
Price: est. from $120,000
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service Interval: 12 months/15,000km
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC
Crash Rating: 5 stars
Engine: 3-litre V6 turbo-diesel; 195kW/620Nm
Transmission: 7-spd auto; AWD
Thirst: 7.9L/100km; 202g/km CO2
Dimensions: 5.1m (L), 1.9m (W), 1.9m (H)