Escalating fuel prices may have slowed the market for supersized SUVs, but that hasn’t stopped Mercedes-Benz from expanding their big sport ‘ute line. The GL-Class is the German manufacturer’s largest sized offering, and available in five variants: the diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC 4Matic ($62,400), the gas-powered GL450 4Matic ($63,900) and GL550 4Matic ($86,900), and the high-performance GL63 AMG ($116,925).
I spent a week in the entry level GL350 BlueTEC with a not-so-entry-level “as-tested” price of $80,845 and a 4 year, 50,000 mile warranty. With its EPA rating of 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, does this clean diesel’s surprising fuel economy rating warrant its premium price tag?
To find out, let’s drive.
Size-wise, the GL-class sits at the top of the Mercedes-Benz heap: smaller offerings from the triple-pointed star include the boxy chic G-Class ($113,000), the midsized M-Class ($47,270), and the compact GLK ($37,090). Newly redesigned for 2013, the GL-Class counters conventional wisdom by positioning their clean diesel BlueTEC model as the most attractively priced offering in the lineup.
What you get for its $62,400 starting price is seating for seven with a power folding third row and a 3-liter turbodiesel V6 that delivers a modest 240 hp, but an impressive 455 lb-ft of torque. Coupled with a 7-speed transmission and all wheel-drive, this powertrain can propel the 5,467 pound SUV to a theoretical cruising range of over 600 miles, thanks in part to the generous 26.4 gallon fuel tank.
Mercedes-Benz’s Airmatic air suspension system is also standard, offering automatic leveling so the GL stays flat despite changes in load or road conditions. The base cabin is trimmed in dark Eucalyptus wood, with other, fancier finishes like Burl Walnut available at a premium.
Among our tester’s options was a lighting package with bi-Xenon headlamps and active highbeam assist ($1,290), a Premium 2 package with keyless go, soft close doors, a Harman/Kardon Logic 7 surround sound stereo with SiriusXM and an 80-gig Zagat-equipped navigation system ($5,850), and a driver assistance package with radar-based cruise control and active lane keeping/blind spot assist ($2,800).
In the Driver's Seat
The view from behind the GL350 BlueTEC’s wheel is commanding, modern, and luxurious. A generous swath of real wood veneer runs across the dash and around the cabin, and a big analog speedo and tach are balanced by a centrally positioned 7-inch LCD screen that’s controlled by Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system. The instrument panel has been streamlined, with most functions operated via a palm-sized wheel that’s reachable when your right hand is resting on a padded armrest along the transmission tunnel.
Also commendable is the GL’s seat comfort: while I didn’t spend more than a fleeting moment checking out the rear accommodations, the driver’s perch proved impressively comfy during several long stretches behind the wheel, aided by a massage function which prevents sore spots, not to mention ventilated/heated feature that works with the climate control system to optimize temperature regulation.
Second row passengers are treated to a decent amount of legroom, though the third row occupants won’t be quite as lavishly comfortable—but still, the accommodations back there aren’t nearly as cramped as they tend to be on smaller SUVs. That’s where the GL’s nearly 17-foot overall length comes in handy, leaving plenty of room inside for up to seven passengers, or as much as 93.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity when seats are folded down.
On the Road
If you were to read over the GL’s spec sheet, you might suspect that its 240 hp engine output and 5,467 lb curb weight would make for a sluggish drive. But the beauty of clean diesel technology is that copious torque production yields surprisingly satisfying acceleration: mated to the 7-speed transmission, the V6’s 455 lb-ft of twist give it husky straight line hustle, especially when the transmission is in the more aggressive “Sport” mode. Leave it in “Economy,” and around town driving is sedate and unassuming, apart of course from your fairly imposing visual footprint.
Hitting the highway, my GL tester became a smooth, quiet sanctuary from rush hour traffic, offering good visibility and enough creature comforts (including an optional rear entertainment system for $1,950). Whereas the transmission sometimes hunted during city driving, it settled into impressively low engine rpms given relatively high cruising speeds. Brief encounters with twisty roads revealed good body control and intuitive handling; it may not win a slalom competition against smaller, nimbler sport utes, but the GL acquits itself rather well considering its body bulk.
Mercedes-Benz’s GL350 BlueTEC manages to combine a large cabin and true 7-passenger seating with a package that makes it a pleasant daily driver. Partial credit goes to its chassis tuning and adaptive suspension, which makes it feel considerably smaller behind the wheel than it has any right to. The torquey engine is also responsible for the performance smoke and mirrors; while its claimed 0-60 mph time of 8.3 seconds suggests the GL350 would be left in the dust by its gasoline-powered counterpart, the GL450 (which does the deed in only 6.2 seconds), the GL450 also gets four fewer mpgs, combined (achieving 16 mpg, versus 20 mpg).
While the upside of Mercedes-Benz’s clean diesel technology is impressive fuel economy given the GL’s nearly three tons of mass, that downside is countered by the fact that this engine technology also requires the AdBlue additive to be topped off with every 10,000 mile service visit, at the customer’s expense (which can reach hundreds of dollars per pop.) That expense cuts into the cost effectiveness of the diesel matrix, not to mention the fact that pump prices for diesel fluctuate widely, and currently happen to be hovering around the range of midrange gasoline prices.
But if you’re in the market for Mercedes-Benz’s GL-Class, there’s a good chance you’re less concerned with running costs than you are with plush accommodations, capable driving dynamics, and of course, a little bit of status. On those merits alone, the GL350 BlueTEC performs admirably, offering a luxuriously appointed space from which you and six passengers can enjoy the open road. The competition includes the Lexus LX, the Infiniti QX56, the Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon Denali -- fine vehicles all, but none available with a diesel option in the United States at present. SUVs of the GL’s proportion may not be for everyone, but for those seeking a premium sport ‘ute with lots of space and surprising on-road capability, Mercedes-Benz’s GL350 BlueTEC makes a convincing case for its potentially high price point, while proving that the German brand is better than ever at optimizing that sometimes slippery combination of utility and luxury.