By Amos Kwon
on 8.23.12
Photo by Amos Kwon

New Mexico seems other-worldly to those unaccustomed to the arid nature of the South West. But the desert-like atmosphere isn’t as stark as you might think. From Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the adobe style homes fit in well with the captivating landscape. Blue sky and enormous cumulus clouds as far as the eye can see make for a wonderful backdrop for a drive as well — especially when the ride is the Mercedes-Benz GL. The capable, full-sized luxury family hauler originally launched in 2006, and though the first generation was easy on the eyes and had refinement aplenty, the powers that be at Daimler saw fit to make it even better for the 2013 model year.

On a recent trip to Santa Fe, we put the full array of the 2013 GL lineup to the test, and saw just what the minds at MB conjured up.

Our review and photos after the jump.

What It’s All About

The GL Class hit the automotive scene several years back in response to the perceived need for a top-of-the-line, full-sized SUV to replace the aging but hugely capable Gelandewagen or G-Wagen. You know, the boxy luxo-off-roader with three locking differentials and enough strength to pull the back molars out of a T-Rex. Well, both have co-existed side by side since the demand for G-Wagons from both celebrities and other well-to-do consumers shows no signs of stopping.

But the GL found its own crowd — big families that needed both solid on-road capability, and the kind of image touting that you didn’t need to use coupons when buying a full range of organic foods for the week.

Technical Rundown

The GL350 BlueTEC, the GL450 and the GL550 all utilize the same unibody construction and chassis set up. We definitely like the changes. The exterior shows a more aggressive design compared to both its predecessors and the new, smaller ML, while maintaining the rather attractive current MB design language. Larger, LED trimmed headlights and tail lights, coupled with a massive grille and lower trapezoidal fascia, create a cohesive look. The two character lines that run along the body are noticeable but not garishly so. The first tapers off at the rear doors, while the lower one follows the fenders and rocker panel. Thankfully, the large interior is tastefully done, unlike some over-bloated full-sizers we’ve seen lately.


A bit of canyon driving puts the GL to the off-strip-mall test. It passes with flying colors.

While details certainly provide a fresh look to vehicles, the biggest changes in our opinion come from the drivetrain. Both the GL450 and GL550 now come with twin-turbochargers — something you’ll notice primarily in your back and through the seat of your pants. Driving both models on the open roads of New Mexico was thrilling, despite our desire to swap them both out for an SLS AMG GT. A few taps of the throttle is the only verification needed to know that Mercedes doesn’t scrimp in the power department. A moderate shove to the gas and the GL550 rockets past slower traffic like the Hulk in track shoes.

The new, smaller displacement 4.7 liter V8 in the GL550 now boasts 47 more horsepower than its predecessor, largely due to the turbos. The torque stands at a skull-squishing 516 lb-ft (up from the previous and now seemingly paltry 391). MB claims that the 550 will move your groceries to 60 in 5.5 seconds, likely causing your toddlers potty training progress to backtrack in the process. And though the GL350 BlueTEC uses the same 3.5 liter V6, its power has increased from 210 to 240 horsepower and 455 lb-ft up from 400. Everyone’s happier now.

You don’t need to mash the throttle to know that Mercedes doesn’t scrimp in the power department. A moderate shove to the gas and the GL550 we’re helming rockets past slower traffic like the Hulk in track shoes.

All four engines are mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic full-time all-wheel-drive. Shifting is smooth, and the throttle response is good. The GL450s and 550s now boast a new Off-Road package that provides a skid plate (because those strip mall speed bumps are daunting), two-speed transfer case with reduction gearing, locking differential and an adjustable air suspension system that gives up to 12 inches of ground clearance at the touch of a button.

Other nifty Merc luxe features you’d expect on the GL include ABS and stability control, collision warning and a cool new crosswind stabilization function that enables the electric power steering system to counter when crosswind forces want to push the vehicle laterally. MB also throws in heated and cooled front seats, rear-view camera, Bluetooth, power tailgate and rain-sensing wipers.

The options list is also impressive: diamond quilted Designo seats, XM Satellite radio, Harmon Kardon premium sound, ambient lighting, 10-way power seats, keyless entry and start, and soft close doors. Quite possibly our favorite options are: the all-new 360 camera, which utilizes cameras at all four corners of the car to create a virtual birdseye view of the vehicles in its vicinity; the lane keep assist, which gently vibrates the steering wheel and counters your path when you start to veer outside your lane; and the park assist, which will both parallel park for you and actually pull out automatically (yes, you still have to use your eyes and your brain). We tried all three of these over the top options, and they all work remarkably well. And though we certainly don’t advise that you try driving solely with the 360 camera, it certainly is fun trying (note, it does not reflect drops in elevation).

The Drive

First impressions of the GL were good. The noise dampening in the cabin is really second-to-none and remains virtually undetectable even at high double-digit speeds on the freeway. Driving position is excellent for a large SUV and the GL avoids feeling like a lumbering ox. Steering and road feel are also quite good, and as you place the GL into a turn, it doesn’t require an overly demanding amount of concentration. It isn’t a sports car, but it’s not a land barge, either. For an SUV this roomy and luxurious, it’s pretty satisfying from a driving perspective.

A stop at the Earthship biotecture home, which makes you feel like you should be riding a recumbent bike.

As we reached our midpoint location, the Earthship biotecture added a stark contrast to the line of GLs entering the parking lot: roving German technology on wheels versus the one of the most basic but eco-conscious homes on the planet. Okay, so there’s the GL350 Bluetec, but you see where we’re going. A wall constructed of old bottles on one side of the parking lot. A two-and-a-half ton mass of steel and electronic wizardry on the other. Full-size SUVs overtaking a building fueled only by sun and wind. The juxtaposition isn’t lost on us.

Then the time came for some fair to middling off-road driving, and the GL didn’t disappoint. It’s no Hummer H1, but that’s not what it’s shooting for (thankfully). As we negotiated the less than level ground, the GL’s combination of hill descent and air suspension helped smooth out rocky travel of the canyon roads. Similarly, GL’s 4Matic system handled our downward descent through small ditches and gravelly undulations well. Bouldering wasn’t on the schedule, but that was fine by us. We’d trumped 95% of future GL owners just by letting the tires touch gravel.



Dust and dirt look pretty good on the GL. Makes it look like it hasn’t been babied.

Final Impressions

With plenty of room for driver and passengers and enough creature comforts to embarrass a Ritz-Carlton hotel, the GL is well positioned to be the perfect luxo family hauler. Buyers won’t lack for something to do with the smorgasbord of technological wonders, and the GL makes mincemeat of long road trips with a level of refinement not often seen in SUVs. MB employees fondly refer to it as an S-Class on stilts. They’re not wrong. With an optioned out price north of six figures, our GL550 didn’t purport to be some bargain. What it can claim, however, is a title worthy of the Mercedes-Benz name — quite possibly the best full-sized luxury SUV on the market today, all things considered.

So, it’s purported to be an S-Class on stilts, but it can do the dirty deeds pretty well, too.

Mercedes-Benz sets up nicely for the start of the GL drive. Shmancy.