We’re whirring across black ice and snow at 68 mph in a new 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS as the sharp peaks of the Obergurgl-Hochgurgl Austrian Alps stare down at us silently from one sheer vertical mile above. Normally, highway speeds on these mildly treacherous, frozen mountain roads would make one feel more than a bit uneasy, but the well-appointed, seven-passenger German family crossover we’re piloting feels as confident and planted as a World Cup skier carving up a giant slalom run.
Indeed, the 2017 GLS is exactly the kind of SUV families in need of a large, luxurious, and capable all-wheel drive ride might take up to Obergurgl-Hochgurgl for a weekend on the slopes — a task that its predecessor, the GL-Class, no doubt ably performed for years at ski resorts across the globe. So what exactly is this new GLS all about? And why add the S to the GL?
Given its ever-burgeoning product portfolio, the folks in Stuttgart decided a little order to the naming strategy was in order. Gone are the GLK, ML, and GL monikers. Now, all SUVs start with GL and add a suffix that corresponds to the class size. Benz’s smallest ute — the GLA — gets the A from the not-for-America A-Class, while the the next size up, the C-Class-based GLK, is now the GLC. The ML was built on the E-Class architecture and has been reborn the GLE. Confused yet?
Though technically based on a stretched M-Class/GLE platform, the GL gets an S tacked on, given that it’s the largest SUV in the lineup and is meant to correspond with the flagship S-Class sedan. Mercedes has even taken to calling the GLS is “the S-Class of SUVs,” but this transition is a little trickier than that.
That’s more a compliment to the S-Class than it is a knock on the GLS. While the S-Class is in a veritable league (or three) of its own, the GLS, well, let’s just say it’s got some competition. The Land Rover LR4 seats seven and is capable off-road, as is the luxurious new Lexus LX 570, essentially a more-posh Land Cruiser. The all-new Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90, while not quite as big as the GLS, are both very, very good. And though the buyers may not be quite the same, the Cadillac Escalade offers its own take on three-row luxury, with great towing capability to boot. Even the Infiniti QX80 could be considered in the mix, though it’s admittedly less refined than the GLS.
But the one advantage the GLS seems to have over just about every competitor in the space is its ability to balance so many attributes so artfully, due in part to its array of powertrain options. The 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 in the 350d Bluetec is rated at 255 hp and a gratifying 457 lb-ft of torque, and its surprisingly linear power delivery — not just on the low end, which is typical of oil burners — makes this pairing extremely well-suited. The turbodiesel is almost absent of lag even in the mid-range and at highway speeds. As such, the diesel engine’s composure is surprisingly similar to the bread-and-butter twin-turbo V-6 in the GLS450, rated at 362 hp and 369 lb-ft. For those who want a more spirited ride or plan to tow, the twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8 powering the GLS550 delivers 449 hp and surpasses even the turbodiesel with its generous 516 lb-ft.
Whatever mill powers your GLS, the ponies get delivered to all four wheels via an all-new nine-speed automatic transmission Benz calls 9G-Tronic. When left to its own devices, shifts are smooth, quick, and most important in a family SUV, free of drama. But the beastly GLS63 AMG will strictly adhere to a seven-speed box, deliberately carrying over the previous transmission. According to Axel Heix, a director for Benz’s SUVs, the gear ratios of the seven-speed are more suited to the AMG’s power mapping. The GLS63 AMG continues to use AMG’s twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8, good for 577 hp and 561 lb-ft. Having driven this engine in the GLE63 AMG Coupe — with its absurd acceleration for an SUV and all the rips, snarls, and grunts of Affalterbach’s V-8 — even the Joker would admire the sinister grin that’s sure to be plastered on your face.
But powertrain engineering isn’t the only new trick in the GLS bag. Snaking our way from Innsbruck to the Austrian hills — like modern-day von Trapps — we notice a few other things. For one, the GLS handles a lot more like a car than a big and burly seven-passenger SUV. Steering is light but direct and linear. Additionally, the brakes are well-weighted; from gentle slowing to panic-stop testing, passengers aren’t thrown forward, and the nose doesn’t dive under hard braking.
The GLS is also shockingly quiet at speed, with barely noticeable wind and road noise and only the desirable engine notes entering the cabin on harder acceleration. As night begins to fall, we pass through one ski town after another. Near Sölden, it’s completely dark, with the moon’s bright crescent hanging low above the panoramic sunroof. Looking out, it appears the apres-ski bars are just warming up for a long season ahead, if the snow cooperates. But it’s in the slow crawl through these quaint villages that we really take our time looking out, and it is only then that we appreciate how good the outward visibility is.
Our final destination is a resort near the highest elevation in Austria. On the climb up these Alpine roads, regardless which GLS you might find yourself in, confidence is instantly instilled with Benz’s standard 4Matic all-wheel drive. A handy dial on the center console lets drivers easily toggle between driving modes, including Comfort, Slippery, Sport, Individual, and Off-Road. An optional Off-Road Engineering package adds a sixth setting, Off-Road+. Here a low-range gearbox and center differential lock can help you get into — and out of — some trickier terrain.
The wondrous Airmatic air suspension can raise the height more than 3 inches to offer clearance of more than a foot, and Mercedes says the GLS can ford water up to 23 inches in depth. But in a place like Los Angeles, you’re likely to see it fording little more than a Whole Foods parking lot. For those buyers, it’s the updated, sharper looks of the GLS that will be more appreciated on a daily basis.
Mercedes says all of the sheetmetal from the A-pillar forward is new compared to the outgoing GL. The grille has been revised, the LED headlights are new, and some minor work in the rear bumper and taillights round things out. The optional 21-inch AMG wheels add presence if you can spring for them. Overall, it’s not a dramatic departure from the previous model, but it’s as if you were to suddenly switch to viewing the GLS in high-def resolution. It appears crisper and sharper to the eyes.
Inside, much of what we loved about the GL has carried over. The well-bolstered, supportive seats of the GLS we’re at the wheel of are draped in available Designo Nappa leather. The three-spoke steering wheel is sporty and falls nicely to hand. The 8-inch media screen — somewhat like an iPad Mini — is situated above all on the center stack. Climate controls are intuitive, and the familiar Mercedes touchpad and scroll-wheel give drivers options on how to interact with the MMI.
And there are luxurious touches that include illuminated cupholders at night and backlit, easy-to-read buttons. With all rows up, there’s just 16 cubic feet of cargo room, but that expands to almost 50 cubic feet with the 50-50 split third-row down. With both rows flat, you can benefit from a total of 93.8 cubic feet.
The GLS comes with several standard Mercedes-Benz safety features including Pre-Safe, Attention Assist, a backup camera, and those we expect, such as electronic stability control, and a bevy of airbags. You can add optional features such as Active Blind Spot Assist, lane keeping assistance, and others.
Mercedes hasn’t released pricing for the GLS, but we expect figures to come in just north of last year’s GL models. The GLS350d and GLS450 should start in the neighborhood of $67,000, while the GLS550 is expected to start in the low-to-mid $90K range. When the top-of-the-line GLS63 AMG arrives, you can expect to add about another $30,000 to that.
The 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS has received a new moniker, an all-new nine-speed automatic transmission, a sharper aesthetic, and with it, more appeal than ever. With the choice of a turbodiesel, two distinct gasoline-powered models, and an AMG performance variant, there’s something for everyone. Factor in nimble handling, a bevy of intuitive and accessible technology, and a high standard of luxury across the range, and the GLS is a must-consider for anyone shopping the three-row luxury SUV segment. In the meantime, we’ll make sure the skiers aren’t the only ones hogging all the powder runs.
2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class Specifications
- On Sale: March 2016 (available to order now)
- Price: $66,000 (GLS350d); $68,000 (GLS450); $94,000 (GLS550); $124,000 (GLS63) (base) (est)
- Engines: 3.0L turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6/255 hp, 457 lb-ft @ 1,600-2,400 rpm; 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/362 hp, 369 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,000 rpm; 4.7L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/449 hp, 516 lb-ft @ 1,800-4,000 rpm; 5.5L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/577 hp, 561 lb-ft @ 1,750-5,250 rpm
- Transmissions: 9-speed automatic; 7-speed automatic (GLS63 only)
- Layout: 4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
- Fuel Mileage: 14-20/18-27 mpg (est)
- L x W x H: 202.0 x 76.1 x 72.8 in
- Wheelbase: 121.1 in
- Weight: 5,650-5,950 lb (est)
- 4.6-7.3 sec (est)
- Top Speed: 130-155 mph (est)