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Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 2006 Review

That Americans are unlike us should hardly come as hot news. It's just that sometimes the fact belts you in the face more forcefully than usual — such as when one contemplates the needs-its-own-postcode vastness of Mercedes-Benz's GL.

Walking around a display model at Sydney Airport last week — an act that should not be lightly undertaken by the infirm of limb or fluttery of heart — en route to the launch in Queensland, the dimensions of the thing stun you.

That, you might say, is one bastarding big SUV.

If you were an American, however, what you might say is: "Hmm, that's kind of weeny next to my Hummer."

Hence this pronouncement in an American SUV mag when the GL was launched there: "It doesn't look or feel like a full-size sport-utility vehicle. Even from outside, it appears smaller than any of the domestic full-size SUVs."

Yet the GL is to most vehicles of its type what a Himalayan peak is to Mt Kosciuzsko. At more than 2.4 tonnes, it outweighs, by more than 250kg, even Merc's hardly flyweight ML-Class SUV.

It's more than five metres long, nearly two metres high and wide.

The reason for such behemoths is, as we know, largely to gratify our allies who, though comprising about one-eighth of the world's population, manage to consume more than 20 per cent of its resources.

But as General Motors, KFC and Canberra know, what's good for America is good for us, too. Right?

Except that the GL actually is.

For a start, a lot of bollocks is talked about certain SUVs being seven-seaters. It's not unlike suggesting that, simply because there are two things shaped like chairs behind the driver's throne, Porsche's 911 must be a family car.

In a more litigious society — America, for instance — certain SUV-makers who make the magic seven claim would be had up for false advertising.

Yet, with its elongated frame and rear overhang that wouldn't disgrace a country pub verandah, the GL can seat seven people, without recourse to emergency services to get the back two out.

Indeed, they enjoy what can be described as comfort, especially with the long, illuminating glass roof and theatre-style seating. They can even see the (optional) TV screens mounted in the back of the front-seat headrests.

Maximum, all-seats-down storage space is 2300 litres — a virtual universe, accessed via an electronic tailgate.

Even with the third row installed, there's room to put stuff. So leg space throughout is vastly better than in the M-Class, with a driving position that is — of necessity — commanding and comfortable. Not that the optional reversing camera shouldn't be standard, as are parking sensors.

Need it be said that the cabin — redolent with double-stitched leather trim and organic, resin-free woodwork — defines luxury accommodation?

All right, then. But all SUVs put away juice like a dipsomaniac emerging from a desert, don't they?

Not when they're packing diesels as refined as the V6 CDI, which is capable of travelling 100km on less than 10 litres of the good oil and didn't go much over 12 litres per 100km last week when being shoved around on the off-road vehicle nirvana that is Fraser Island.

Even the hammer-and-tongs 5.5-litre V8 of the GL 500 realised hardly unreasonable figures, as if anyone with $146,900 to spend on a V8 SUV could care.

A slightly lesser petrol V8 is en route in 2007. We hadn't got a good look at the current V8 by publication time, so more next week on what our veteran off-road tour leader enthusiastically billed as a 4x4 limousine with attitude.

The GL 320 diesel, which from $103,900 will be the big seller, certainly keeps its bigger bro honest. With 165kW and 510Nm, it makes 100km/h from a standing start in 9.5seconds, about three seconds after the V8.

Although few GLs are likely to encounter in their owners' hands conditions more taxing than Chatswood Oval's parking lot, the thing can work off road, with a fully raised off-road setting of 307mm. The air suspension automatically drops to an aerodynamically friendly ride height at highway speeds, aided and abetted by the setting of sports mode.

And the GL 320 came into its own when doing what something of this sheer mass simply shouldn't be able to: almost skimming through the sandy channels on Fraser Island with an ease that bordered on the contemptuous.

And it did so without the suspension being raised to its fullest extent, nor the diff being locked at all.

If the M-Class is an almost physics-defying lesson in how to move massive mounds of Mercedes with something that borders on deftness, then the GL provides the master class.

Be the engine diesel or petrol, when mated to a superb, seven-speed sports automatic transmission that always finds the right ratio, the GL behaves in a way that should be more in keeping with something several weight divisions down in the SUV championship.

Of course, being so tall and apt to tilt into corners, the GL can't match the poise of lighter contenders indefinitely, but that it stays in the hunt for so long seems little short of miraculous.

Indeed, when pushing it on sealed roads, you'd be hard put to know that envelopes are being extended and that the air suspension and 4Matic all-wheel drive are working hard.

But even a diesel this big-torqueing can do only so much in a vehicle of such bulk. Be very sure about overtaking before committing yourself beyond the point of no return.

Equally, be sure just how much hard-earned you're prepared to spend.

Although the V8 comes with most of the fruit one could reasonably want, that third row of electronically folding seats — surely the only reason you'd choose a GL over its less immodestly priced and sized rivals — costs $2900.

To get decent-quality leather and even metallic paint in the diesel, you're looking at an extra $4K, before addressing the rest of the options list.

Anyway, the GL is here. And though it's hardly likely to be a mass seller, you'll certainly know it when you see it.

Still, you can't help but wonder if we shall see its like again.

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Range and Specs

GL500 5.5L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $20,460 – 25,960 2006 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 2006 GL500 Pricing and Specs
GL320 CDI 3.0L, Diesel, 7 SP AUTO $15,840 – 20,350 2006 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 2006 GL320 CDI Pricing and Specs