The Mercedes GL450 is the shyest of the big posh SUVs. Styled to resemble its smaller ML sibling, the GL seems apologetic about its place in the world, genuinely contrite over its status as a gigantic German V-8-powered luxury condominium on wheels. While the Range Rover, Escalade and Navigator flaunt outsized personalities to match their price tags, the GL450 competently goes about its business and defers invitations to appear in rap videos. Its largest available wheels are humble nineteen-inchers, smaller than the wheels on the Nissan Murano LE. It is happiest when painted beige.
That approach, of course, is all wrong. If you're springing for a full-size SUV from the company that brings us 600-horsepower sedans and a 200-mile-per hour convertible, what's the point of attempting political correctness? Enter GL550, a GL that says that if the proles don't like your choice of transportation, then they should spend less time worrying about other people's cars and more time not being poor. If the GL450 is the vegetarian shark in Shark Tale, then the GL550 is Jaws.
The GL550 is more than a GL450 with a bigger engine - it's a GL550 with a complete attitude adjustment. The transformation starts under the hood, where the 450's 4.7-liter, 335-horsepower V-8 is replaced by the now-ubiquitous 5.5-liter, 382-horsepower motor. While the added power nudges the vast SUV's 0-to-60-mph time down to around six seconds, the GL450 was already sprightly enough that the bigger powerplant just strikes me as pretense, an excuse to create a GL with the bravado it wanted all along.
Nineteen-inch wheels? Please. The GL550 rolls on twenty-one-inch AMG five-spokes of such titanic width that the accompanying flared fenders look like a real necessity rather than an affectation. Indeed, I'm having a hard time thinking of another stock vehicle with tires this enormous - 295/40/21s all around. If these tires were any wider, Travis Pastrana would try to jump them on his dirt bike. Particularly on the front end, 295-width tires give the GL550 the stance of a grizzly bear cub who hasn't yet grown into his paws. The look is tough, but I realized the drawback of such behemoth rubber when I drove the GL550 in a downpour and started hydroplaning so easily I wondered if I was driving an SUV or Miss Budweiser.
The other typical drawback of giant rims - massive unsprung weight that makes it feel like the suspension is possessed by the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge - is averted by the GL's air suspension with adaptive damping. This system just doesn't seem to notice that it's slinging around wheels that each probably weigh as much as a Viking range. There's a bit of head toss typical of a high-riding SUV, but on the highway the ride is serene enough that if you got pulled over for speeding, you could quite truthfully argue that you thought you were going 14 miles per hour.
Besides the rims and the motor, the GL550's main calling card is its grille. It's more upright than that of the GL450 - more brash and in-your-face - and adorned with the biggest Mercedes badge not affixed to a 100-foot-tall fluorescent sign outside a dealership. Certainly, nobody will see you pull into the driveway in the GL550 and ask, "Oh, my, I wonder what kind of car that is?"
At $78,200, the GL550 demands a $21,475 premium over a base GL450. However, as near as I can tell, when you option a GL450 with all the stuff that the GL550 includes as standard - navigation system, 11-speaker stereo, heated rear seats and on and on - the price differential falls to something more like $9,000. However you look at it, the GL550 is priced just about on top of the Range Rover, providing a high-tech, street-oriented Teutonic foil to the Range Rover's old-school gentleman's off-roader.
The GL550 is fast, expensive and luxurious, but so is the GL450. What sets the GL550 apart is confidence, perhaps even arrogance, in its mission. This is what an $80,000 Mercedes 4x4 looks like. Deal with it.