It's a great week when you get behind the wheel of an all-new Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Even better when you drive three. Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, Deputy Editor Joseph DeMatio and associate web editors Jake Holmes and Donny Nordlicht recently cycled through the GL350 BlueTec, GL450 4Matic and GL550 4Matic. Starting at $63,305, the GL350 has a 240-horsepower, 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 under the hood. The $64,805 GL450 4Matic has a 362-horsepower, 4.6-liter bi-turbo V-8, and the $87,805 GL550 ups the 4.6 bi-turbo's power to 429 horses. All come with a seven-speed automatic and have a 7500-pound towing capacity.
CAR OR TRUCK? YES
DeMatio: This is based on the ML, right?
Nordlicht: It's on a stretched M-Class platform, which is car-based unibody architecture finding its roots in the E-Class. The last generation GL - the first one - was developed to replace the Gelendawagen, whose fans wouldn't let Mercedes kill the G-Class. That is why the GL offers serious off-road componentry. We didn't have it on any of our test models, however.
DeMatio: It drives much more like a luxury sedan than the outgoing one. It is bigger, it feels bigger behind the wheel. It also feels more luxurious and useable.
Jennings: The 550's interior has truly gorgeous leather.
DeMatio: When I got in the 450 and accelerated, I thought I was in the 550.
Jennings: The overriding feeling is how much more modern, how much more carlike they are. They feel lower, wider ... not like tippy trucks. The 550 doesn't justify the price difference. The 450 has beautifully stitched leather; you would have to get out of the 450 and 550 side by side to tell the difference.
DeMatio: It has electro-mechanical steering. Does that just mean it has electric steering?
Holmes: It's an electric pump but hydraulic steering. The steering is fantastic for this vehicle. It's light and slow but it doesn't feel bad or artificial, so you're not wandering all over the road.
DeMatio: I found it to be uncommunicative and imprecise.
Holmes: Oh, it's uncommunicative, but it doesn't feel artificial. I would rather have something a little bit more vague in a big vehicle like this.
Is there 'U' in this Utility Vehicle?
DeMatio: The third row is standard across the range and electronically folds. These are fast; there is no waiting for the seats to go down. The second row has a button on the top of the seatback that flip-folds it into the footwell.
Nordlicht: It was a little heavy to put back up manually. I was thinking about somebody helping his kids get into the third row and then putting the seat back to help more kids get in.
DeMatio: There's also a reasonable amount of room in the third row. I'm 5'11" and I had to scrunch my knees up, but I could sit back there for an hour and not complain. There's a two-part panoramic roof with light for everybody. The second row doesn't go 100 percent flat. If you have six people, you would be tight with luggage. When the third row is up, you have about the depth of a grocery bag. Is there a roof rack?
Nordlicht: Ours doesn't have one, but the 550 has roof rails. That's a dealer-installed option and all Benzes come standard with the mounting points.
Jennings: The GL550's only options are the panorama roof, Active Curve System, Night View Assist Plus, easy-entry second-row release, heated rear seats, and an MBTex-wrapped lower dash. And the Driver Assistance Package, which I hate and Joe loves.
DeMatio: Driver Assistance includes Distronic, Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist ... I love all those things, especially in big vehicles.
Nordlicht: The Lane Keeping Assist was oversensitive.
DeMatio: Someone dismissed the diesel in his notes. He said when you're spending $70-, 80-, $90,000, why concern yourself with efficiency? I disagree. It's also range.
Jennings: We go up north all the time, where anybody who does that regularly can get there and back without a fill-up, that's the best thing.
DeMatio: Donny, would you take the diesel as your favorite?
Nordlicht: Yes. Having grown up in a town where everyone ran out and bought the first-generation GL, I see more diesels than any of the others.
DeMatio: The 550's base price is about $23,000 more than the 450's, and you get a lot of standard equipment and 429 horsepower rather than 362.
Holmes: It's the same engine with more maximum boost, so 90 percent of the time you get the same power. If you drive normally, you're only getting a tiny bit of boost.
Holmes: The 550 was the only one of the three I found myself leaving in comfort mode. With those standard AMG wheels, the 550 felt too harsh. It doesn't feel tied down when you use all that power.
Jennings: It was harsh, but I love that exhaust note when you were standing on it. Not that I would want that every day. I'm leaning toward the BlueTec. I'm a big fan of the diesel.
Nordlicht: The seven-speed - especially in the diesel - was poorly calibrated. The transmission was always slow and not quite sure on what gear it should be in.
Celebrities driving Benzes
DeMatio: I got a lot of attention in this vehicle. A guy driving a BMW 3 Series was craning his neck as I drove past him.
Holmes: Whenever I drive a Mercedes people are more interested in them than when I drive BMWs or Audis or Lexuses.
Jennings: There's that dinner-plate-sized three-pointed star on the grille.
Holmes: With an Audi or a BMW people say 'oh you have an Audi or a BMW, that's a nice car'. People think a Mercedes is a huge leap forward.
DeMatio: I couldn't discern much difference between comfort and sport.
Holmes: You get a lower ride height in sport. The time I noticed was when I had things in the back and was going through three roundabouts in succession. Going around those in comfort mode, you could hear everything sliding around; in sport mode, they barely slid around.
Top-View Camera System
Nordlicht: I used all the different views the system had. They're handy for different maneuvers and the car could automatically select the right one.
Holmes: You can change the views when the camera is on; there are about six or seven.
Nordlicht: The auto parking function turns on the curve-view camera when it detects that it's close to the curb. It's fast and accurate, something I would use in the real world, despite seeing those systems fail so much. It felt like the future and it perfect, precise, and quick.
Holmes: I'm in the minority regarding COMAND. With BMW's iDrive, you have pages and pages of radio and navigation, and you have to skip back and forth. With COMAND, I always know that I can move up to the top to choose the basic function and go down to the bottom to choose something secondary.
Nordlicht: I love that there are hard buttons.
DeMatio: It often takes me a while to figure out how to get out of satellite radio and back to FM, and vice versa. I like the tactile rotary knob. I can easily use it without looking at it.
Jennings: All the controls are very easy. But what pops up on the screen isn't very helpful - I get really lost inside those menus. They don't make sense.
Jennings: The ambient lighting is noticeably cool.
Nordlicht: You can choose from three colors: white, blue, or amber.
DeMatio: Mercedes does brilliant interior lighting, and very good exterior lighting.
Nordlicht: I love the new headlight design. The new "torch" LED headlamp design that's going to be on all new Mercedes. The SL and the GL are two of the first ones to have it.
DeMatio: There's a $1300 lighting package. Headlamp cleaning system, adaptive high-beam assist, and bi-xenon headlamps with active curve illumination and corner illuminating lamps.
Holmes: You guys live out in the country. I live in the city and sometimes I'll go down a road with no street lights, but it's still bright enough that the auto high-beams won't come on when I want them. Driving in a rural location or on a back road, they're great.
Choices, choices ...
Holmes: I would buy the GL450. Despite the fuel economy benefits, you lose too much from the GL350's V-6. The 550 has too much power and it gets 13/18 mpg compared to 14/19 for the 450.
Jennings: You don't lose anything if you go down to the 450. It's still a luxurious indulgence. For people who like diesel engines, the BlueTec is very, very nice.
DeMatio: What is the BlueTec's highway fuel economy?
Holmes: 21 mpg.
DeMatio: Philosophically, I like an SUV, especially a giant one that can crest the 20-mpg-mark.
Jennings: The torque is a beautiful thing. And we have to recognize the seven-speed transmission in being a little problematic.
DeMatio: Does Mercedes have an eight-speed in anything yet?
Nordlicht: No, just variations of the 7G-Tronic.
Holmes: I think we have really high expectations for it being a Mercedes. If that transmission were in any other vehicle, we'd be impressed.