2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS First Drive: Class Act

The S-class of SUVs (mostly) deserves the name.

Let's cut to the chase: If you're looking for a seriously capable, luxurious, shockingly fast SUV, you can't go wrong with the new 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS, no matter the flavor or spec. There are literally hundreds of reasons why that's true, but only about three of them that really matter: powertrains, suspension, and cabin quality.

Up first, the powertrains. For America, the GLS comes as one of two models: GLS450, equipped with a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine, and GLS580, fitted with Mercedes' 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8. Both engines come standard with the EQ Boost 48-volt onboard electrical system, which enables some hybrid-like functionality. The EQ Boost part of the name represents the integrated electric motor, which can add up to 21 horsepower and 184 lb-ft to the engine's output for short periods. It assists during acceleration, can help maintain a constant speed without engaging the engine (sailing), and recuperates some of the braking energy that would otherwise be lost to heat. Both variants also come standard with Mercedes 4Matic variable-split all-wheel drive.

You might think that the GLS580's potent V-8 would be the no-brainer, with its stonking 483 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, but we actually preferred the GLS450's inline-six despite it making "just" 362 horsepower and 369 lb-ft. Why? Because the six-cylinder's interaction with the 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic transmission was far smoother, more refined, and more consistent across all types of driving.

While the 580's power is certainly impressive, the 450 is never left feeling slow or balky despite the GLS's likely 5,500-ish-pound curb weight (Mercedes has yet to release final weights for the vehicle). That fact is reflected in the marque's claimed zero-to-60-mph times: The 580 is quoted at 5.2 seconds, while the 450 is very close behind at 5.9. Will you ever miss that three-quarters of a second in the real world? Not likely. But you will appreciate the regal smoothness of the GLS450's engine/transmission combo every time you drive.

Next up, suspension. The 2020 GLS now offers the E-Active Body Control system debuted on the GLE-class crossover—yep, the one that incorporates a bouncing mode to help free the vehicle from sand. All of the active body control features found on the GLE transfer to the GLS, and while they definitely help improve on-road ride behavior, even offering a "curve" mode that actively leans the large-bodied SUV into turns, it's off-road where the E-Active suspension really shines.

Why is that? Because the E-Active Suspension lets the GLS do away with anti-roll bars, by replacing their function with forces applied directly at the strut or damper. That, in turn, frees up greater articulation, allowing a total of 7.9 inches of wheel travel at each corner. Also enabling three levels of ride height (the tallest of which is deactivated at speeds above 12 mph), the E-Active suspension allows the GLS to negotiate terrain of a much more technical nature than you'd think. Mercedes' own engineers say the GLS is technically more capable than the G-wagen off-road, although its approach, departure, and breakover clearances are worse. After spending a solid 90 minutes looping steep, rocky, rutted trails studded with 24-inch deep water crossings, we can confirm the GLS is more capable than almost any owner will ever need it to be.

Lastly, we come to cabin quality. What do we mean by that? In this case, we're talking everything from design and materials to size, layout, and functionality. While Mercedes is fond of using the phrase "The S-class of SUVs" to describe the GLS, we'd argue that's taking it a bit far. The front row, surely, is on par with the S-class's, perhaps even a hair ahead, as it benefits from the latest of Mercedes' interior design themes and materials upgrades—all superior in every trim we experienced.

The second row, however, even when equipped with the optional Executive package and its center console, fully adjustable seat, and MBUX control, doesn't quite give the feeling of command one feels in the actual S-class. The third row, which Mercedes claims will fit passengers up to six feet, four inches tall, was a tight squeeze for your six-two author, but doable for shorter trips. Lay that third row down (as 99 percent of owners will do 99 percent of the time) and there's abundant cargo room, however, whether you choose the bench-seat second row of the seven-passenger trim, or the dual captain's chairs of the six-seater.

Unfortunately, we only got to spend a day and a half with the GLS, roaming the mountains and highways east of Salt Lake City, so we haven't had a chance to use this new Mercedes like it should be—loaded up with gear and family or friends, headed to school or the store or practice or the mountains or the beach. But our first taste makes us hopeful we'll get to spend that kind of quality time with it, to get to know it better, and to experience more of its awesome breadth of comfort, pace, and capability.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class Specifications

ON SALE Late 2019
PRICE GLS450, $75,200; GLS580, $97,800
ENGINE 3.0-liter turbocharged DOHC 24-valve inline-6, 362 hp, 369 lb-ft; 4.0-liter twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8; 483 hp, 516 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 6- or 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 205.0-205.2 x 77.0-79.9 x 71.8 in
WHEELBASE 123.4 in
WEIGHT 5,450-5,600 (est)
0-60 MPH 5.2-5.9 sec (mfr)
TOP SPEED 130 mph (mfr)
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