An extensive refit has left Benz’s largest land yacht looking more shipshape for its final years of service.
For: Comfortable, safe and spacious; impressive drivetrain.
Against: Dauntingly large in the city; interior a mishmash of old and new.
WERE our political bigwigs truly in touch with the people’s whims, then they wouldn’t be sitting in the back of BMW 7-Series.
Six-figure limos are so last year. These days the height of power has transferred to swank sports utilities.
All the big name high-end brands are turning to SUV solutions. Rolls Royce and Maserati are still to get their efforts into the market, but everyone else with a diamond-encrusted image is already there, and doing well.
The arrival of refreshed edition of Mercedes’ biggest mover is therefore well timed, so too a closer alignment with the S-Class sedan.
The GL-turned-GLS line maintains four editions starting with two diesels - the 350d at $139,000 that’s on test and the 350d Sport at $160,000, then ramping up to a pair of petrols, the $198,000 500 and the range-topping $238,000 AMG 634. The prices are slightly increased over those attached to equivalent outgoing models and, overall, there’s not a lot of styling difference, either.
Wouldn’t think of travelling anywhere without your entourage? Few cars are as well suited to the job of packaging a major player and six of his/her minions, plus a Chihuahua or two, than this one.
In measuring 5.13 metres long (10mm longer than when it was a GL) and 1.93 metres wide, it definitely fills a standard-sized park, so you’re especially pleased for the assists that ensure a snug but safe entry and egress into parallel spot in particular.
Athough the test example is the lowest-priced priced format, the saving is entirely on spec and sizzle, not size. This shape carries nothing less than a huge presence and no small sense of superiority.
It’s also not one of those XXXL-sized machines that provides huge exterior dimensions yet seems no bigger than a compact car from the inside. Anything but: Interior room is excellent. Not only that, but there’s democratic apportionment of seating space.
While the rearmost chairs are less commodious than the two rows ahead overall, if cabin real estate is your prime concern, you won't do much better than one of these – the mid and front rows especially offer more head, leg and shoulder room than most business-class airline seats, and aren’t far behind for comfort, either.
True, the back seat is a touch more of a Jetstar economy experience, but even back there the occupants enjoy a fold down armrest with cup holders. The third row seats also have enough room for adult occupants and feature push-button electric folding for effortless manipulation.
You’re probably thinking that such lavish provision for people means little in the way left for boot space when every chair is in situ. Not true. The minimum boot space here comes to 680 litres’; drop the third and second row of seating and this climbs to 2300 litres. The boot also has a load length of up to 2.12 metres and can carry 805kg, the ultimate challenge for those who take ‘shop til you drop’ seriously.
The luxury side of things is tempered by the price; as expensive as a GLS is, even the most affluent example is cheaper than an S-Class so, although the bigger rig benefits from adopting extra luxuries, many from the flagship limo, it is not an equal.
That’s not to suggest it lacks for lux – it doesn’t because you get leather and electric everything – but neither does it so patently drip with opulence. What also tends to colour your view is … well … what you look at within the cabin.
The cabin design appears dated and very much last-generation – because it is. The top half of the dash has been given a refresh, but everything below the belt line remains as before. Thus, you have the intriguing combo of a similar kind of central LCD screen for the infotainment as you see in more modern Benz products and yet, below it, sits a set of chunky dials to operate the ventilation systems. The same dials that, Benz nerds will tell you, that reside in a Viano van.
So, there’s old school and new. Dual screens and more advanced finishes and tech will probably come with the next generation, but obviously not before; not a brilliant situation to be in when your rivals include that paragon of advancement, the Volvo XC90.
At least information and entertainment systems update, with Command online navigation and Apple CarPlay now standard, though the latter is a little tricky to activate. Some will say the lack of Android Auto compatibility is a slap in the face to a popular smartphone operating system but, as an Apple user, well … who cares?
The Bluetooth interface is more measured in activation speed than you find in newer Benz product. Shifting from this model to a C-Class coupe also showed another change: With phone contact listings, new Benz cars place the Christian name first, whereas the GLS has it the other way round, with surnames taking listing preference.
Despite it not being a be-all for tech, it does express as a luxury ride. Mercedes has not only used some fine materials to mark the GLS out as a luxury SUV but they also build it to exacting standard.
In terms of visual impact, the GLS update announces with a change of grille, what appears to be an even larger Mercedes ‘star’ (swiped from the truck division?), fresh 21-inch AMG-provisioned alloy stylings and, inevitably, adoption of smart LED lights. It also strikes a major of difference in updating the technology that stops it from hitting things.
Safety systems are comprehensive, with collision prevention assistance, crosswind assistance, driver drowsiness detection, adaptive cruise control which works down to stop and start traffic, cross-traffic and blind-spot monitoring, lane keep assistance and autonomous braking.
If all that is not enough to prevent a collision, nine airbags and “electronic crumple zones” maximise occupant protection in a crash.
Given the buyer type and their habits, it’s almost an afterthought to mention that the GLS is, in theory at least, an off-road vehicle. All variants have the Mercedes 4Matic four-wheel drive system. An Off-Road Engineering package is offered for more ambitious and adventurous owners, which adds Off-Road-Plus setting to the Dynamic Select system, low-range gearbox, locking centre differential and ride-height booster. Realistically, it’s probably going to be the least ticked item on the options’ list.
The base GLS350d offers an unchanged 3.0-litre diesel, producing 190kW and 620Nm, but this V6 is now coupled to the company's nine-speed automatic transmission, as fitted to all non-AMG Mercedes models.
It’s not a racer and doesn’t sound as lusty as the brands’ petrol engines; the shove is more measured, too. But there’s enough mumbo to ably move this model’s 2455kg mass and with 0-100kmh taking 7.8 seconds, it’ll have no issue showing a clean pair of heels to its Toyota lookalike, the Land Cruiser 200-Series.
More relevantly, perhaps, is that it can return claimed fuel economy of 7.6L/100km. Given that there’s also a 100-litre tank to draw from, it’ll achieve a decent pump to pump performance. I clocked just under 480kms’ and the needle was still a hair above quarter full, with the trip computer estimating another 140kms’ running.
This is truly your Dot Com Benz. Given its dimension and weight, it’s no surprise that it can feel a touch comprised by inner-city driving, though at least it’s big enough to intimidate itself through the traffic.
All the same, the sense of it being a lane hog doesn’t really leave you on the open road either. You’re still going to kept thinking about your own road space – and how much you are leaving to others. True, after a few days you do become more accustomed to its dimension, but not to the point where it becomes one of those vehicles whose size will ‘shrink’ as you become more familiar with it.
In typical large SUV style, it tends to carry itself in grand style. The sense that the outside world is a smaller and touch more remote place is accentuated by the lofty driving position; it’s an aristocratic eyrie and visibility is great with such large glass areas.
Even though the GLS was designed foremost to appeal to American tastes, it’s still a German product, and also one set to pit against the BMW X5 and Audi Q7, which inevitably means it probably carries a weight of expectation about how it has to carry itself. So there are settings that enliven the steering, throttle, gearchanging and suspension.
Dabbling with the adjustable air springs might lead to argument on family outings; the driver will want to select ‘sport’ everything because it makes it feel substantially more assertive, though only to a point. This vehicle is too big and heavy to be driven too hard; throw it around and, chances are, your passengers will start throwing up because, inevitably, as a heavy and high-side machine, drama simply runs to discomfort.
Given that it cannot defy the immutable laws of physics, it’s better to steer clear of those really twisty roads, ease your enthusiasm and instead cruise the highways, dialing back the suspension to the softest setting. That changes things completely. It’s compliant and reasonably well controlled, allowing it to soak up lumps and bumps better than those other immediate rivals (this side of a Range Rover). What also impresses is the solidity and refinement of the chassis. The brakes are great, too, though it needs space to stop and though the new steering setup provides genuine feel.
The drivetrain is impressive. Benz is planning to replace its V6 diesel engines with straight six units, but there’s every chance the GLS might not be anywhere near the top of that transplant list. Not to worry: It’s perfectly adequate for this application, with lots of that low-down pulling power that diesels are famous for and an affably broad torque spread. Benz cites that 620Nm of torque begins at 1400rpm and has peaked at 2500rpm, but the seat of the pants sensation suggests it is more generous.
Abetting the engine’s quality is the transmission. Agreed, the idea of having nine forward gears does seem a bit much; you have to wonder how often they are all utilized. The fact that the engine is pulling pretty low revs (and showing pretty low instant burn returns) when in a settled cruise suggests that the higher gears are not gathering cobwebs, but that’s not easily substantiated. This transmission’s operation is seamless and unobtrusive that it’s difficult to tell what gear it is holding at any given moment.
Super-sized sports utilities are vehicles that easily offend; they’re irresistible targets for those who believe we should be doing more with less. It’s an argument that is not easily defended, not least in the instance – as is the case here – they are off-roaders that are unlikely to ever seriously commit to activity beyond the seal.
The GLS is certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to its substance and styling, but it does put its size to good use in respect to cabin spaciousness. And, really, though it’s not a cheap buy-in, you can’t accuse it of being a big spender in respect to fuel consumption.
The potential for achieving the same level of frugality that might be expected from a much smaller and lighter diesel sedan is quite remarkable. Consider that the like-sized 200-Series Land Cruiser is heavier and also has a V8 that, at best, uses two litres per 100km more than the Benz burns.
The 350d might not quite be an S-Class on stilts, but it is clearly striking a chord with Benz buyers. Motor Industry Association-compiled sales stats show 42 GLS have been sold since launch, of which 75 percent have been entry editions. So, at least this buying big are buying sensibly.