The 2012 Mercedes-Benz GL 350 BlueTEC is a full-size, three-row diesel luxury SUV that is aimed squarely at the North American market. With base prices starting at $61,570 (as tested estimate $73,000), the GL 350 comes with a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway. Let's drive.
GL's exterior design is sophisticated and elegant. Somehow, the overall shape of the body manages to convey a much more compact impression than the vehicle's actual measurements (200.6" long/76.4" wide/72.4" tall) reveal. It's actually kind of a jolt to discover a third row of seats inside the GL, especially a relatively roomy row. A tapered greenhouse, presenting a nearly trapezoidal aspect to the SUV when viewed from the rear, partly creates this optical illusion.
Crisp body lines and rich paint give the GL that Mercedes class, and standard 20" alloy wheels give it a rugged appeal. Big headlamps and taillamps delineate the corners for good visibility. Slanted rectangular dual chrome exhaust pipes peek out from the rear fascia. The details have been attended to on the GL. A subtle "BlueTEC" badge dresses each front fender, and the GL 350 name is balanced with a modest chrome "BLUETEC" appended on the opposite side of the tailgate. Other than that, there's no exterior advertisement about the vehicle's diesel powerplant.
In the Driver's Seat
In the cabin, the air of class continues. My test vehicle was decked out with leather seating surfaces ($1,930), which I prefer to the standard manmade MB-Tex material. The GL's driver's seat is generously proportioned, with intuitive power controls mounted on the outboard side of the seat bottom. Real Burl Walnut wood trim dresses the dash and doors, soaked in a deep layer of lacquer. Mercedes tosses in just enough metal trim and detail to keep the dash from getting boring, but not so much that it feels tarted up. Round nacelles on the air conditioning vents echo the round gauge housings in the instrument panel, giving the dash a cohesive feel. I wish the navigation screen was mounted higher in the center stack -- crowning the stack instead of living below air vents -- but the arrangement works pretty well.
GL's second row is genuinely luxurious, with good firm seating and room for three. My test vehicle came with the optional ($1,950) Rear-Seat Entertainment System, which mounts two LCD screens on the backs of the front seat headrests. Your passengers can choose to watch separate programming on each screen, which will help avoid a lot of arguments in most households. The third row is easily accessed with one lever on the second row, and is roomy enough for two adults -- for a short ride. The third row gets power controls, switches inside the tailgate that operate the 50/50 split seat quickly and without fuss. There's a useable 14.3 cubic feet of luggage room behind the third row; 43.8 cubic feet behind the second row; and 83.3 cubic feet with both rows folded.
The design and layout of the GL is certainly poised to capture hearts and minds in the USA. That brings us back to that pesky diesel engine.
On the Road
GL 350 BlueTEC comes with a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 diesel engine that produces 210 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. Typical of a diesel, peak torque is available at a low 1,600 rpm, and continues to arrive up to 2,800 rpm. In real world terms, that means that great thrust is available on the road. The challenge is delivering torque on demand, and that's where GL's turbocharger falls down on the job a little bit. Mercedes claims that the diesel GL can go from 0 - 60 mph in 9.4 seconds -- not a particularly impressive figure. The thing is, that figure is a little deceptive, because of how the power is delivered. If you punch the throttle at a stoplight, there's a discernable lag before the engine responds to your input. Once the power comes on, the GL is like a freight train, with its 5,512 lb curb weight plowing forward and gaining momentum. At cruising speed, the GL is whisper quiet and handles like it is on rails. Passengers may never know that they're riding in a diesel-powered vehicle. As a driver, you'll be aware of it every time you go to accelerate.
You'll also be aware when you go to fill up and maintain your vehicle. GL has a 26.4-gallon fuel tank with a 3.4 gallon reserve -- that means you'll get very little change back from your Benjamin when you visit the filling station. The AdBlue tank needs to be refilled periodically -- 8.5 gallons should last you for 15,000 plus miles, so an annual fill-up at the dealer is about it. If you prefer to do it yourself, the urea formula, called Diesel Exhaust Fluid, sells for about $5.99 per gallon at local auto parts stores. GL's driver information center gives early warning when AdBlue is needed. Finding #2 diesel fuel is pretty easy in most areas. Actually, it's easier to find on the highway than in town, so GL 350 works great for long road trips.
There's a lot to like about the Mercedes-Benz GL. If you're intent on diesel power for your luxury SUV, the compromises are few. But the compromises are right in my wheelhouse -- performance. The gasoline-powered GL450 and GL550 each get big, powerful V8 engines with 335 and 382 hp respectively, and a completely different feel off the line. GL450 does the 0-60 scoot in 7.1 seconds; GL550 does it in a blistering 6.4 seconds. That's a completely different experience than GL350's 9.4 second time. The gas siblings pay a substantial fuel economy penalty, but the rush is worth it, in my opinion.
US drivers can choose only one other seven-passenger diesel-powered luxury SUV right now: the Audi Q7 TDI. BMW's X5 xDrive 3.5d seats only five. The real competition is with gasoline-powered SUVs, like the Land Rover LR4, the Infiniti QX56, Lexus LX, Acura MDX and Cadillac Escalade. The Cadillac Escalade Hybrid actually bests the Mercedes-Benz with fuel economy ratings of 20 mpg city/23 mpg highway.
There may come a time in the near future when a full-size diesel luxury SUV makes sense for the US market. A BlueTEC Mercedes-Benz is not set up out of the box to run on biodiesel, but there are aftermarket vendors who can easily make that happen. Mercedes' diesel runs smoothly, quietly and efficiently. Now if they can just add "rapidly" to the list of adjectives, and amp up the "efficiently" part some more, we may have something to talk about.