The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class was once a cautionary tale. It launched in 2006 to strong demand but, as we all know, gas prices soon spiked and then the financial market collapsed. The unsurprising sales slump that followed — a 46 percent drop in 2009 — seemed to underline the shortsightedness of relying on sales of big, expensive trucks as opposed to smaller, more efficient vehicles.
The only problem with such a pat conclusion is that the world didn’t actually come to an end in 2009. Since then, the seven-seat GL, like many “outmoded” big trucks, has steadily recovered. Mercedes sold some 25,000 of them in the United States last year, nearly equaling its 2007 sales high and outselling the smaller GLK crossover. It should thus come as no surprise that although Mercedes is indeed preparing smaller cars like the new A-class, it is first interested in showing off a new, even more powerful GL-class.
Did we mention it’s more powerful? GL buyers will choose from two, soon to be three, potent V-8s. The 2013 GL450 now features a bi-turbo 4.7-liter V-8 that basically equals the output of the old GL550 with 362 hp and 406 lb-ft. Good thing then, that the new GL550 has its own bi-turbo 4.7-liter (down from 5.5 liters) that produces 429 hp and a stout 516 lb-ft of torque. These engines manage to achieve small fuel economy gains despite carrying over the last generation’s seven-speed automatic. That said, both still fail to break 15 mpg in the city or 20 mpg on the highway. We expect even heavier drinking from the new GL63 AMG, which arrives next year with a 550-hp 5.5-liter bi-turbo V-8.
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We start out our drive, which takes us from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the more frugal, diesel-powered end of the lineup. The GL350 Bluetec’s downright decent fuel economy, which improves to an estimated 24 mpg highway in the new model, and its amazing range of 600-700 miles, should maintain its twenty percent take rate among GL buyers. The fact that it’s also the cheapest model in the lineup, starting at $63,305 furthers its case as the sensible GL. And yet, sensible doesn’t quite make sense with this vehicle. The 3.0-liter turbo diesel V-6, despite gaining 30 hp and 55 lb-ft compared to the previous-generation’s 3.0-liter, suffers from noticeable low-end turbo lag. It also runs out of breath at highway speeds as its 240 hp strains against 5467 pounds.
Those same speeds — and higher — prove awfully easy to achieve when we climb into the GL550, which hustles to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. We slow for a few bullet-riddled speed limit signs on empty desert roads but otherwise maintain an effortless, hushed 100-mph clip. We won’t go so far as to say the GL needs this engine — the 4.7-liter in the GL450 is nearly as impressive for $20,000 less — but it certainly would be our first choice. While we’re discussing necessities, the $1050 Designo interior, available with any engine, is also a must-have. Its Bentley-like quilted leather surfaces add a high-style finishing touch to an interior that’s already plusher and more aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor. Given the GL’s role as a family truckster — nearly two thirds of buyers have chidren — Mercedes also improved the interior’s functionality. Second-row seats now tumble forward easily to allow access to the (cramped) third row, which itself folds flat. The Comand infotainment system, standard on the GL550 and optional on lower models, is now the new click-wheel operated version. It pairs easily with phones and never failed to provide us directions, even when we ventured onto dirt trails near the Rio Grande. It still lags behind BMW iDrive and Audi MMI, though, for the confusing layout of its color screen, which can make simple tasks like scrolling through radio stations a multi-step, attention-sapping effort. There are also plenty of new, mostly optional driver aids, including lane-keeping assist, surround-view cameras, and self-parking. Choose among them wisely lest the price, particularly on a 2013 GL350 or GL450, quickly balloon by some $20,000.
Perhaps the only area where Mercedes seems to have yielded to anti-SUV sentiment is in the less abrasive exterior design. The front end is more rounded and its smaller, more feminine headlamps feature LED overlays that look like eyelashes. The side profile now has a small kink near the C-pillar that makes the rear seem a bit less bulky (the SUV’s actual dimensions have grown ever so slightly). The softer look means the GL now looks less like a civilized Geländewagen and more like what it is in reality: a bulked up M-class. It again rides on the same platform and comes out of the same Alabama plant as its two-row cousin, which itself received a redesign last year. It retains its comfortable air suspension but follows the M’s switch from hydraulic to electric power steering. Mercedes says its high-performance AMG division did the tuning, but the system still suffers from a lack of feedback and ridiculously high-assist at lower speeds. It does firm up once you get going. Optional new active anti-roll bars further reduce body roll in what was already a well-mannered, surprisingly nimble SUV. The GL isn’t a gifted corner carver, but it does possess a combination of fluidity and athleticism that’s unique to Big Benzes. As we sweep through a fast, winding two-lane, the word effortless again springs to mind.
We park for a snack break at an isolated community of Earthships — self-sustaining homes built out of recycled materials such as tires and glass bottles. The irony does not escape us, especially when we field friendly questions from our carbon-neutral hosts. “Is it an SUV?” Yes, it has standard four-wheel drive. “So it’s for off road?” Well, sort of, especially if you opt for the $2050 off-road package with its center-locking differential and two-speed transfer case, but it’s really meant for parking lots and cul-de-sacs. “Does it get good fuel economy?” Um, there’s a diesel.
The truth is the GL, for all its utility and improved fuel economy, remains difficult to justify in utilitarian, economical terms. Rather, it’s a vehicle you buy first and foremost because it’s really, really nice. That proved reason enough for 25,000 well-heeled buyers last year and, barring another economic crisis, should continue to in the future. For Mercedes, that’s the best kind of sustainability.
2013 Mercedes-Benz GL
On sale: September
Base price: $63,305 (GL350); $64,805 (GL450); $87,405 (GL550)
Engines: 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V-6, 240 hp, 455 lb-ft; 4.7-liter biturbo V-8, 362 hp, 406 lb-ft; 4.7-liter V-8, 429 hp, 516 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 18/24 (GL350); 14/19 (GL450; 13/18 (GL550)