Motoring up ice-slicked Vermont Route 108 outside of Stowe, we were not surprised when we saw that a minivan had slid off the road and was getting shoveled out of a snowbank. It was a sight that brought on a mixture of sympathy and smugness; if we’re being completely honest, it was more of the latter, as we were in the commanding perch of a four-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz GL450. We were confident that what happened to that guy would not be happening to us. That’s what four-wheel drive does for you.
The extra measure of confidence and ability that four-wheel drive provides has taken it from novelty to necessity in much of America. Although all-wheel drive is increasingly popular at all price points, it is in particular becoming a fixture at the high end. What good is a luxury car that doesn’t impart a feeling of mastery over one’s environment—and even over the weather?
Four-wheel drive came out of the woods and onto America’s highways with the rise of the SUV. Among luxury sedans, the notion of four driven wheels was pioneered by Audi’s Quattro, with Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic and BMW’s xDrive not far behind. It’s now offered across the board in the luxury-sedan arena.
With AWD a commonality between high-end sedans and SUVs, we wondered: has there been a convergence between the two?
We had only to look at our Four Seasons motor pool to find two of the latest examples of each: the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz GL and the Jaguar XJL. With both carrying as-equipped prices in the vicinity of $80,000, they represent a major choice facing high-end buyers: all-wheel-drive luxury sedan or four-wheel-drive luxury SUV?
Both of these cars are at least partly a response to U.S. demand. Jaguar, which never had an all-wheel-drive model to sell in the United States other than the short-lived X-type, recently added all-wheel drive to both its XF and XJ sedans. “All-wheel drive has been pivotal for us,” says Jaguar’s North American brand VP, Jeff Curry. “It has been the single biggest factor igniting XF and XJ sales over the past year.”
The Alabama-built Mercedes-Benz GL, which has been made bigger and bolder with its second iteration, strikes one as a model that exists wholly to serve the American market. Go to Germany, and you see a lot of Mercedes-Benz automobiles—a lot—but the GL seems not to even exist. Over here, it’s a different story. “This is the American S-class,” quipped executive editor Todd Lassa when our Four Seasons tester arrived in the fleet.
For our meditation on the luxury of all-wheel drive, we set a course for Stowe, a winter destination since the 1930s, one that is both suitably swank—note the absence of chain stores—and predictably picturesque. We also came to Vermont seeking winter weather that would give our all-wheel-drive steeds a suitable test. Sure enough, the state delivered, welcoming us with an extended bout of freezing rain that gave the roads a thick, Krispy Kreme glaze. That was followed by some rain-slicked black ice but, surprisingly, very little good, old-fashioned snow.
Deep snow would have given the GL an edge, owing to its 8.5 inches of ground clearance, which can increase to 11 inches at the touch of a button. On the ultraslick ice, however, neither car had an inherent advantage. Even where it was too slippery to walk, both all-wheel-drive machines proved highly capable of holding the road—with proper winter rubber, of course [see below for our winter-tire choices]. The GL’s optional on-/off-road package includes a winter mode, which alters throttle mapping, shift strategy (to include second-gear starts), and traction/stability control, but it was not on our test car, nor was it needed.
The XJ’s winter mode similarly affects throttle, transmission, and traction/stability control. It also changes the all-wheel-drive system’s default torque split to send 30 percent of the power to the front. Normally, Jaguar’s system defaults to 100 percent rear-wheel drive when cruising.
Of the XJ’s three engine options—a supercharged V-8 in two strengths and a supercharged V-6—only the six-cylinder can be had with all-wheel drive. In the long-wheelbase car, the engine’s 340 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque motivate a relatively svelte 4364 pounds. Jaguar says that all-wheel drive adds 0.4 second to the 0-to- 60-mph time. At 6.1 seconds, it’s not as explosively fast as the eight-cylinder XJs but is certainly up for any reasonable acceleration demands. The ZF eight-speed automatic transmission is, as ever, a paragon of self-shifting decorum.
Four-wheel drive is standard in the GL, so it can come with any of the model’s four engine options. The GL450’s 4.6-liter bi- turbo V-8 is the most modest engine in the GL pantheon after the 3.0-liter turbo- diesel. It makes 362 hp and 406 lb-ft, which proves to be enough for quick moves in the freeway cut-and-thrust, despite the GL’s porky, 5566-pound curb weight. The 4.6-liter and the seven-speed automatic are a Fred-and-Ginger combo, a smooth and polished pair.
Would that the Benz’s chassis were anywhere near as graceful. The electrically assisted power steering is so light that it feels loose; perhaps this is designed to create the impression of easy handling. In fact, that’s really not necessary, because this big machine actually scribes a pretty tight turning circle. Furthermore, the combination of the standard backup camera and optional (and much welcomed) overhead-view camera impart a lot of confidence maneuvering in tight spaces.
It’s once you’re underway that the GL chassis disappoints. This big SUV bobs woozily on its suspension, which is almost to be expected since it’s so tall and heavy. But the upside of that soft tuning and the GL450’s 55-series tires should be the ability to smother bumps. Instead, the GL hops over frost heaves and delivers sharp impacts in potholes. The situation might have been improved with the optional active antiroll bars (the Active Curve System), but our car was not so equipped; then again, it likely would have been worse had we been rolling on the 21-inch wheels that you get with the GL550.
For an SUV-versus-car driving-dynamics battle, the GL couldn’t have picked a tougher adversary than the Jaguar XJ. Even among its fellow luxury sedans, the XJ is notable for its winsome combination of athletic handling and buttoned-down ride. The low-profile (45-series front, 40-series rear) tires exact a bit of a ride-quality penalty, but the Jaguar’s standard adaptive dampers help minimize the harshness. At the same time, this big sedan feels like a natural extension of the driver when you bend it into a curve, thanks in no small part to the naturally weighted steering. The Jaguar only gets unwieldy when it’s time to park; the long-wheelbase XJ starts out with a larger turning circle than the GL, and adding all-wheel drive makes it even worse.
As swell as the Jaguar is to drive, if you’re ferrying a crowd the GL is your car—even more so than most SUVs. Its standard third-row seat is adult-habitable, and its second row is a genuine three-person bench rather than the more limiting two captain’s chairs. You lose two passenger spaces if you want to carry long winter sports gear like skis or snowboards inside, power-folding half the third row and one-third of the second row, but even then you can still carry five.
The GL’s interior versatility makes it a family-friendly bus, and it appears to have been designed with that duty in mind. Its industrial-grade (and, ahem, extracost) leather, surprisingly hard surfaces, and rudimentary wood trim create an environment that easily withstands crushed Cheerios and muddy gear but hardly makes one feel as if they’re reveling in luxury. For that, one must step up to the Designo interior. The Benz does get full marks, however, for its Comand interface, which has become quite easy to use—even though on this trip, the in-car technologies we were most appreciative of were the heated seats and steering wheel (in both cars).
The XJ cabin, by contrast, is a feast for the senses. The low dash is topped by a dramatic arc of wood trim and is punctuated by huge bull’s-eye vents you can’t help but touch. The seat leather, with contrasting piping, is smooth and luxurious, and the pillars and ceiling are covered in a rich synthetic suede. The long-wheelbase XJ adds five inches of rear-seat legroom over the standard-wheelbase variant, making for generous space for even the lankiest passengers, although you’ll want to limit their number to two. The only letdown is—yes—the electronics, as Jaguar’s touchscreen interface suffers some flawed logic and the instrument cluster’s digital rendition of gauges, in place of actual gauges, is rather cartoonish.
Pop the trunk, and the XJ’s practical limitations immediately become clear. The car’s rounded rump encloses a cargo hold that is modest at best. And forget about putting any long sports gear inside—the rear seatbacks don’t fold down and there isn’t even an available ski pass-through. You’ll need a rack for your board or your sticks—or you’ll have to rent equipment when you get there.
Rather than converging, the two AWD luxury automobiles paired here strongly evidenced the relative strengths and weaknesses of their ilk. They are each at the far end of their respective classes. The GL is a commodious carrier, a blocky beast of burden for ferrying masses of people and stuff. But its clumsy dynamics are from the SUV old school, and its interior is a style-free zone. The GL is a highly capable workhorse that falls short on luxury.
The XJ, on the other hand, couldn’t be more sedanlike. The low and sleek four-door is a head-turning style maven inside and out. All-wheel drive has done nothing to diminish the Jaguar’s athleticism, which stands arguably at the top of its field. Aside from its ultraroomy back seat, though, the Jag otherwise shrugs its pretty shoulders at the notion of hauling anything. Its cargo hold isn’t just stingy compared with SUVs; it’s stingy compared with most other midsize and larger sedans. And the omission of fold-down backrests or even a pass-through truly limits the big cat’s versatility.
What have we learned, then? The Mercedes GL is a very SUV-ish SUV, and the Jaguar XJ is a most sedanlike sedan, and all-wheel drive is most welcome on each. Oh, and Stowe, Vermont, is a nice place to visit, even in nasty New England winter weather, provided you don’t have to shovel your car out of a snowbank.
Nestled in the middle of the Green Mountain State, Stowe is the Vermont ski town of your imagination, with a Main Street full of century-old buildings anchored by a church with a white steeple. Stowe has been a winter destination since the 1930s; the first ski trail was cut into Mount Mansfield by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Although there’s plenty of fabulousness here (most obviously at the Stowe Mountain Lodge), you’ll also find young snowboarders brown-bagging it at the rustic Mount Mansfield base lodge.
The Green Mountain Inn
Located right on Main Street, the Green Mountain Inn is classic old New England. It dates from 1850 (the original building is from 1833). The attached Whip Bar & Grill received the town’s first liquor license when Stowe at last went “wet”—in 1950.
Trapp Family Lodge
Yes, this Stowe institution really was started by the Austrian expat von Trapp family, of The Sound of Music fame—and the family still owns and runs it. The original building was replaced by a new one in 1981, and although it’s large (ninety-six rooms), it was designed to feel intimate in scale.
Crop Bistro & Brewery
Fries up a mean burger and brews some decent beers to wash it down.
Harrison’s Restaurant & Bar
Reservations are essential at this small, and packed, restaurant on Main Street with a casual atmosphere but seriously good food.
Shaw’s General Store
For cool T-shirts and warm bomber hats.
Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum
For vintage-style ski posters and trail signs.
For Vermont-made local foodstuffs. Maple syrup, sure, but also maple-flavored walnuts, jelly beans, taffy, lollipops, popcorn, pretzels . . .
Stowe Mountain Resort
Stowe’s eponymous ski resort offers 116 trails over two mountains, Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s tallest peak, at 4395 feet) and Spruce Peak. Spruce Peak has the fancy base lodge and soaring, craftsman-style hotel you’d expect from a high-end ski resort. Mount Mansfield retains a modestly scaled lodge that dates from skiing’s early days.
Trapp Family Lodge
The lodge’s on-site cross-country ski center was the first in America when it opened in 1968. Today, it has thirty-seven miles of groomed trails, a warming hut that serves hot food and drinks, and, naturally, equipment sales/rentals, lessons, and tours.
2013 Jaguar XJL Portfolio AWD
Our all-wheel-drive Jaguar is wearing the Bridgestone Blizzak LM-32. The Tire Rack’s Woody Rogers suggested these Blizzaks, a relatively sporty winter tire ideal for high-performance sedans—and which work well in the XJL’s staggered tire sizes.
2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450
For our GL, Tire Rack recommended the Pirelli Scorpion Ice & Snow, a performance winter tire well suited to SUVs and crossovers. It’s engineered to preserve dry-road handling (not that the GL handles all that well to begin with).
2013 Jaguar XJL Portfolio AWD
- Price: $84,595/ $86,470 (base/as tested)
- Engine: 3.0L supercharged V-6, 340 hp, 332 lb-ft
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Drive: 4-wheel
- Steering: Hydraulically assisted
- Front suspension: Control arms, coil springs
- Rear suspension: Multilink, air springs
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak LM-32
- Tire sizes f, r: 245/45R-19 102V, 275/40R-19 101V
- L x W x H: 206.8 x 74.8 x 57.3 in
- Wheelbase: 124.3 in
- Passenger volume: 109.0 cu ft
- Cargo capacity: 15.2 cu ft
- Weight: 4364 lb
- EPA Mileage: 16/24 mpg
2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450 4Matic
- Price: $64,805/$78,290 (base/as tested)
- Engine: 4.7L twin-turbo V-8, 362 hp, 406 lb-ft
- Transmission: 7-speed automatic
- Drive: 4-wheel
- Steering: Electrically assisted
- Front suspension: Control arms, air springs
- Rear suspension: Multilink, air springs
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires: Pirelli Scorpion Ice and Snow
- Tire sizes: 265/55R-19 109V
- L x W x H: 201.6 x 84.3 x 72.8 in
- Wheelbase: 121.1 in
- Passenger volume: 143.6 cu ft
- Cargo capacity: 16.0/ 49.4/ 93.8 cu ft (behind third/middle/front rows)
- Weight: 5566 lb
- EPA Mileage: 14/19 mpg