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2021 Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 First Drive

When big luxury meets real speed.

Nelson IresonWriterManufacturerPhotographer

MALIBU, California—If you're the sort of person who sees a new 600-plus horsepower SUV hit the road and asks, "Why?" through a pained expression, well, move along. This is not the car you're looking for. If, on the other hand, you're the sort that considers the concept of a vehicle that seats seven and rips off 4.1-second 0-60 mph runs for a moment and says, "Why not?", meet the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLS 63.

For most of the history of motoring, Mercedes-Benz has been known for luxurious cruisers. The GLS 63 shows obvious pride in that heritage, cruising comfortably and confidently, whether on city streets (surprisingly easy to park), the stop-and-go farce of "freeway" traffic, or sailing down big-sky highway. But this is the Mercedes-AMG take on the GLS, so while all of that is present and accounted for, it's just the opening act. The main show is how it goes.

And go it does. With a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 under the hood cranking out 603 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque, aided by a new EQ Boost 48-volt integrated motor assist good for 21 hp and 184 lb-ft, the decidedly large 2021 GLS 63 runs from 0-60 mph in just 4.1 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 174 mph.

Unlike its somewhat smaller, more athletic little brother, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S, the GLS 63—note the missing final "S"—is more relaxed in its approach to speed. Or perhaps "relaxed" isn't quite the right word; "mature" might be more on target.  Either way, despite sharing essentially the same engine, transmission, all-wheel-drive system, and suspension, the way AMG's engineers have tuned each to suit the GLS' proportions and mission make for a completely different experience.

Which is not to say that the 2021 GLS 63 isn't still monstrously quick, even beyond its impressive spec-sheet stats. Thanks to the active AMG Ride Control+ air suspension and the AMG Active Ride Control anti-roll stabilization system, the GLS 63's cornering dynamics might leave you thinking you were in a very fast wagon, if you could test it blindfolded. Between the nine-speed automatic transmission and the 627 lb-ft of torque available across a 2,000-rpm-wide "peak," the sense of smooth, seamless thrust from the hot V-8 is seemingly endless, and nearly instantaneous. The always-available acceleration is part of what makes the GLS 63 surprisingly easy to drive in city traffic, lessening the sense of clumsiness that's normally central to the experience of driving a large, heavy SUV in narrow lanes and dense traffic.

Another big aid to the GLS 63's urban repertoire is one shared with the non-AMG GLS variants: the huge central navigation screen, which pops up an augmented-reality display of where you need to turn, overlaid on video of the actual scene ahead. It takes the guesswork out of which of the three closely spaced streets or driveways is your intended path, which in turn lets you focus more attention on safely maneuvering the big SUV.

How big is it? It stretches to 206.4 inches in overall length, but perhaps more importantly, it's 79.9 inches wide, or 84.9 inches wide across the mirrors. That can make for some snug fits on narrow city streets, but good sight lines from the driver's seat mean it's not any harder than it should be to place the GLS 63 precisely.

Although the 2021 GLS 63 starts at $133,095 (including $995 destination fee), the example we drove rang up at a cool $149,160. The extra $16,000 in options were spent on Designo Diamond White Metallic paint, gray/black interior-accent stitching, AMG carbon-fiber interior trim, a carbon-fiber engine cover, an AMG performance steering wheel in carbon fiber, the MBUX Interior Assistant gesture control system, heated rear seats, massaging front seats, the AMG Night black gloss exterior trim package, the Acoustic Comfort package's improved sound insulation, and the visual star of the show, the 23-inch AMG Monoblock forged alloy wheels in matte black.

Since even the AMG version of the GLS can't always be about hauling ass—sometimes you have to haul the kids—there's the AMG Dynamic Select system. It includes a delightful Comfort mode that trims back the rowdier edges without sapping all the fun from the experience for the driver—if that's even possible with 603 hp on tap. Even in carpool mode, the GLS 63 manages to remain engaging. It's an understated feat, but a feat nonetheless. Of course, there are the Sport and Sport+ modes that sharpen things up for the fun runs, but there are also Trail and Sand modes for the occasional off-road jaunt, and an Individual mode that lets you mix and match settings to your preference.

Naturally, the GLS 63 also partakes in the latest of Mercedes-Benz's semi-autonomous driving and driver assistance features. As put to the test on Los Angeles freeways, including the perpetual slog of Interstate 10 through Santa Monica, the lane-guidance system works almost flawlessly, as does the traffic jam stop-and-go assist.

But what about the 800-pound gorilla in the next room? Yes, the G-wagen exists. Yes, there's a Mercedes-AMG G63 version of it, and even a G63 S. But it doesn't seat seven, and while we absolutely adore the look, so much so that we named the G550 an Automobile All-Star in 2019, it's not a look everyone can get into. And that's alright—that's why Mercedes makes the GLS 63.

Those looking to get behind the wheel of the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 can expect the first examples to arrive at dealers in mid-2020.

If you'd prefer a slightly sportier, slightly smaller take on the AMG SUV experience, don't miss our first drive of the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S.

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 Quick Facts

  • 603 hp
  • 627 lb-ft of torque
  • 1 seconds 0-60 mph
  • On-sale mid-2020
  • Base price: $133,095
2021 Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 Specifications
ON SALE Mid-2020
PRICE $133,095
ENGINE 4.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/603 hp @ 5,750-6,500 rpm, 627 lb-ft @ 2,500-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
L x W x H 206.4 x 79.9 x 70.2 in
WHEELBASE 123.4 in
0-60 MPH 4.1 sec
TOP SPEED 174 mph (electronically limited)