Funny, but I do get a thrill from driving SUVs, especially from the cut-throat premium class behemoths were manufacturers are throwing in as much kit as possible to stay ahead of the competition. The new top-class SUVs have to be able to do it all or throw in the towel. They have to be ultra-luxurious, perform as close to a large sports sedan as physically possible, they must have the true ability to perform satisfactorily off-road in both mud and snow, be able to carry as much load while maintaining its sporting requirements and still try to be politically correct. It’s quite a difficult task but the overwhelming demand for this kind of beast must be quenched as thirsty as they may be.
I originally requested the new 7-seater Mercedes-Benz GL450 (X164) for an extended test that would breach the 1,600-kilometer media mileage cap. Being a pre-production test unit I was restricted to run under that to allow enough remaining mileage for one more journalist before the GL is sent back to the East Coast to be scuttled. Yes, destroyed. I desperately tried to convince DaimlerBenz North America to give me the SUV to be shipped to Manila instead of destroying it with my most pathetic doe-eyed pleading but rules are rules. Anyhow, if you are wondering why the heck Mercedes is building yet another SUV in a time when ex-US Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” movie about Global Warming is scaring the general US public? According to its own studies, Mercedes has lost 25% of its current ML-Class owners to full-size domestic-branded SUVs primarily due to family-size growth. Mercedes reckons the GL450 is the ideal vehicle for what it sees as a full-size traditional family. The GL-Class, as an entirely new model line, will be sold worldwide with a variety of engines, both gasoline, and diesel, to cover everything from the Middle East to the Midwest.
For now, the all-new all-aluminum 355 bhp DOHC 32V 4.7-liter V8 energetic gasoline engine based on the power unit in the S550 will be the only one powering the all-wheel-drive GL450 in the U.S market, but a new 50-state 3.0-liter “Bluetec” V6 turbodiesel will arrive in model-year 2008, badged as the GL320 CDI. The new engine generates 33 bhp more power than the 5.0-liter units in the ML500 and R500 while producing the same amount of maximum torque at similar powerbands from 2,700 rpm to 5,000 rpm. The smaller engine also boasts slightly better fuel consumption by 1 mpg for both city and highway in a heavier vehicle. The GL shares its platform with the current R and ML classes. The GL’s wheelbase is 6.4-inches longer than the ML but oddly is 5.5-inches shorter than the less commodious R-class.
The GL-Class was once intended to replace the G-Class (Geländewagen), but Mercedes found enough of a following for the military-spec celebrity draw that it will continue to produce the G in limited numbers. Built alongside the midsize ML-Class and large R-Class in its Tuscaloosa, Alabama, factory, the GL-Class aims to fill the gaps between those two in price, size, and intended mission. After testing the GL450 I submit that it is the best of the three and the vehicle to have between them.
Mercedes-Benz describes the six-seat R500 ($55,000 base to $75,000 loaded) as an everyday vehicle for “late-forming affluent families” who don’t need towing nor larger boot space. Think “premium minivan” and you’ve got the concept. The five-seat ML500 ($50,000 base to $70,000 loaded) is intended to be a stylish, sporty SUV that can tow up to 5,000 pounds and sometimes go off-road, but not with a family of five plus a weekend’s gear and a dog, and then some. The seven-passenger GL450 blends the cavernous interior capabilities of the road-going R500 with the SUV qualities of the ML500, but adds power-actuated third-row seats that can accommodate genuine adults; more determined 4×4 (4MATIC) off-road ability with skid plates, low gearing and two locking (center and rear) differentials, an adaptive damping system that adjusts compression and rebound damping every 0.05 seconds, up to 10.9-inches of ground clearance and 600 mm of fording depth. Even in its most basic form, the GL450 comes with the aforementioned V8, a seven-speed automatic transmission ( the only one in its class), adjustable-ride air suspension with up to +3-inch ride height or -3-inch ride drop, and 18-inch wheels and tires (our test unit had the 8.5 x 19” 5-twin spoke wheels shod with 275/55R19 tires). The standard all-wheel-drive system uses open differentials and ABS to detect wheel slip.
Mercedes reps claim the unibody GL450, in its base form, is up to 450 pounds lighter than anything else of its size or capability. Most full-size SUVs are still built on ladder-type frames, which yield utility and strength, the compromise though is you get the traditional truck-like driving characteristics. Mercedes went the unit-body route in crafting the GL with a bias toward ride comfort. And the GL450 is very comfortable matching the ride comfort of an E-class on stilts. Visibility is commanding without the girth burden of a Hummer H2. I drove the GL through one of our favorite road courses that mainly take the Alpine Road through the Woodside mountain range and finally to the Pacific Ocean. There are almost countless sideroads and byroads to test the capability of our test vehicles, the GL performed admirably besting some even sporting sedans. From rest, the GL consistently hits 100 km/h from rest in 7.2 seconds, more impressively is its very athletic midrange punch dancing between 2nd to 5th gears. After getting used to the hulking physical dimensions of the GL it became very effortless slinging tightly from the corner like a rally car on a special stage. Thankfully the exhilarating action was tempered by aptly huge 14.7” brake discs up front and 13” in the rear assisted by Mercedes’ phalanx of safety wizardry.
The three-way adjustable air suspension offers a useful range of damping, from wafty comfort to firm responsiveness, the automatic mode was the best balance of the two. Much of the GL’s directional dexterity is attributed to the active suspension. The steering response even with the 19” optional rolling stock was progressive and precise. The steering is responsive at highway speeds with good on-center feel, and makes it easy to predictably carve through traffic. The independent front double wishbone and the rear four-link suspension keeps the GL from feeling like a loose land yacht. The Airmatic suspension is linked to a sophisticated Adaptive Damping System that employs solenoids in the shocks to modify the rebound and compression settings. The system has four stages: Stage 1 feature soft compression and rebound for comfort, Stage 2 hardens the compression but softens the rebound, Stage 3 hardens the rebound but keeps compression soft, and Stage 4 hardens both for better cornering at speed. When required the system will automatically shift back and forth between stages 2 and 3 to maximize vehicle stability. At speeds above 120 km/h, the GL’s height decreases by half an inch to improve handling, returning to the standard 7.9” of ground clearance when vehicle speed drops below 40 km/h. A dash-mounted toggle switch allows an additional 3” of clearance for low-speed maneuvering that at 40 km/h will return once again to the default ride height.
The list of options for the GL is extraordinary; our test unit had most of them but NOT the Bi-Xenon headlights which was a huge downer for such a premium vehicle. Just like the S-class the GL also has the Distronic adaptive cruise control system for maintaining a preset distance behind traffic by varying the throttle input and even braking mildly when necessary. Mercedes says the system can input up to 20% of maximum brakeforce by itself. A handy center console-located thumbwheel allows the driver to adjust the desired following distance for the Distronic system. The GL450’s standard Hill Start Assists (HAS) will briefly corral the SUV when you remove your foot from the brake to keep it from rolling back before engaging the throttle. Another neat feature is the Downhill Speed Regulation system that locks in a downhill speed between 6 and 20 km/h, controlled by the driver, and allows variance in the set speed using the cruise control stalk.
Mercedes has outdone itself with the muscular GL450. The interior appointments left me satisfied; the optional multi contoured seats were good looking, ultra-supportive, and comfortable. The Harman/Kardon audio system with 11 speakers and MP3 read-capability through its 6-CD changer was sensational cranking it up on the droning highway routes when I wasn’t being a hooligan. The third-row was completely functional for adults but it does take up valuable trunk space, thankfully the powered split seat feature presents configuration adaptability. Overall, the 2007 Mercedes- Benz GL450 proved very capable on the road and off of it (limited primarily by its street biased tires and size); a feat that once was the domain of Range Rover and the Toyota Land Cruiser. Looks like Mercedes is taking the competition very seriously indeed.
|Cylinder Head||dohc 32V|
|Fuel Injector||Multi-Point Injection|
|Max Power (bhp @ rpm)||335 bhp @ 6000 rpm|
|Max Torque (lb/ft @ rpm)||339 lb-ft @ 2700-5000 rpm|
|Top Speed||210 km/h (130 mph) Governed|
|0-100 km/h | 0-62 mph||7.2 sec.|
Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions
|Fuel Milage (km/l)||14 mpg City / 19 mpg Highway|
|Price as Tested (PHP)||(2006) US$ 68,075.00|
|What's Great||Ground-breaking 7-seater premium luxury SUV, thorough, the new standard, athletic and commodious.|
|What's Not So||Halogen projector headlights. Thirsty.|
|C! Editors Rating||9.5/10|