Pros: Strong engines; advanced clean-diesel version; well-balanced road manners; very upscale interior; comfortable seats (including third row); supremely spacious

Cons: Very pricey; poor fuel economy (for the conventional V8), steep learning curve for COMAND system

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is the automotive equivalent of a private jet. It's big, powerful, expensive and excessive. In short, it's everything that conventional wisdom tells us is wrong in choosing a vehicle. But that's probably because conventional wisdom doesn't have deep pockets or a large brood. For those who do, the GL makes perfect sense. It provides families who prefer (and can afford) to travel in an executive-level manner, all the creature comforts, safety and space one can imagine. So just because it's a large luxury people mover doesn't mean it's an impractical choice, especially when you consider its audience.

The 2012 GL-Class not only offers a long list of amenities, it also brings with it three-row seven-passenger seating. That means buyers aren't forced to step down to a non-luxury brand in order to make room for their four or more children. However, if all this passenger room is not something you plan to utilize regularly but you still yearn for the refinement and craftsmanship of a Mercedes SUV, the ML-Class is an excellent choice.

Fresh for 2012 are handful of minor revisions to the exterior and interior, the most notable being the newly standard LED daytime running lamps.

Comfort & Utility

The GL-Class delivers interior packaging in a way that is unique to the Mercedes brand. Even its practical features somehow feel luxurious. Materials are high in quality, and nothing feels cheap or rushed. The layout of the controls is enjoyably ergonomic, and there's a solid, tactile feel. The entire cabin is an excellent example of what fine craftsmanship should be.

Seating at all positions is comfortable and highly supportive. That includes the third row, too, which is generally compromised on other vehicles, even in the luxury class. The GL's front seats are particularly superb offering eight-way power, heat and driver side memory.

Interior space is cavernous and highly flexible, along the GL to change from grand people mover to serious cargo hauler by folding all the seats down. Really, it could carry just about any combination of passenger and cargo. An optional power liftgate makes the task of loading and unloading through the rear even easier.

Upscale features for the GL are in abundance, including dual-zone climate control, a multifunction steering wheel, leather upholstery and front and rear sunroofs, to name a few. Options are plentiful enough for anyone's tastes. Sure, the options will jack up the price considerably, but for those who want comfort and exclusivity, it's here for the taking.

Technology

Aside from refinement, Mercedes is well known for its emphasis on technological innovation, and the GL is appropriately fitted with its share of high-end electronics. One of the most impressive is the optional hard-drive-based voice command navigation system. Aside from providing mapping and traffic alerts, this system also integrates a rear-view camera as well as a digital music storage component.

Parktronic parking assist is a sensor-based system that helps drivers park in tight spaces, helping the low-speed maneuvering of this large vehicle feel easier.

The GL's base eight-speaker audio system with six-CD changer is very good, or you can upgrade to a high-end Harman Kardon surround sound system with USB connectivity. Either system can pipe audio to the optional rear DVD entertainment system. With headrest-integrated screens, passengers in the second and third rows can enjoy what feels like an in-flight movie experience.

There is one drawback on the tech front: Mercedes' COMAND system. This electronic interface controls many of the GL's user functions. It has a steep learning curve that can make it very frustrating to work with. Many find the system to be altogether unintuitive.

Overall, the GL is not the ultimate techno wonder from Mercedes, but it offers just the right dose of cutting-edge content to enhance the premium ride experience.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The GL-Class offers robust performance with three distinct engines, each tied to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Energy channels to the Mercedes-Benz 4Matic all-wheel-drive system for true all-weather capability.

The GL350 Bluetec is the cleanest and greenest of the GL offerings. It is powered by a 50-state-legal 3.0-liter clean diesel turbocharged V6 good for 210 horsepower and a very stout 400 lb-ft of torque. The GL350's diesel output characteristics make it a unique and efficient performer in the luxury SUV class. Fuel economy is 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway, giving the GL350 an Interstate cruising range of nearly 600 miles.

The GL450 utilizes a 4.7-liter V8 making 335 horsepower and 339 lb-ft of torque, mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is 13/18 mpg. The GL550 is outfitted with a monstrous 5.5-liter V8 producing 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy is 12/17 mpg.

Setting aside the Bluetec variant, the gasoline-powered GL models (450 and 550) are generally more powerful and less efficient than others in the large luxury SUV segment.

Safety

On the safety front, the GL is equipped with an arsenal of airbags, including one at the driver's knee and side curtains that span all three rows. Also, every seating position has an active headrest to help reduce whiplash in the event of an accident.

Promoting sure-footedness is stability control and ABS. The GL also offers a Blind Spot Warning System, standard or optional depending on the model.

The GL-Class, however does not offer high-tech safety features such as Lane Departure Warning, Attention Assist and Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection that are found on other Mercedes models.

Driving Impressions

The GL-Class, above all else, delivers a very quiet, smooth and plush ride, ideal for long hauls and around-town family drives. Helping the cause is the available Adaptive Damping System, which adjusts shock settings based on road surface conditions. The GL's ride becomes softer or firmer accordingly.

The GL handles well despite being extraordinarily large and heavy. It actually drives smaller than it is and exhibits a good bit of confidence in corners. Body roll is minimal, and steering is quite responsive.

Although not intended for all-terrain use, the GL is very capable in inclement weather and challenging road conditions. A choice of 19-, 20- or 21-inch wheels give you the equipment to adequately manage rain, snow and ice.

The GL350 Bluetec's low-end torque allows it to accelerate quickly from 0 mph and to perform strong passing maneuvers on the highway. The diesel performance is a particularly good match for the GL's overall dynamics.

Other Cars to Consider

Infiniti Q56 - The QX56 has similar power to the GL-Class. Its lesser content is balanced by its greater interior space and lower price point.

Lexus LX570 - The big Lexus offers less interior space but better off-road capability. It's also more expensive.

Cadillac Escalade - The Cadillac has similar interior space but less power, and its style of luxury occupies a lower tier than the Mercedes.

AutoTrader Recommends

Every GL-Class model is strong in luxury, family friendliness and capability, but we think the GL350 Bluetec's clean diesel makes it the one to choose. The 350 delivers better acceleration and fuel economy than its gasoline-powered counterparts without compromising on space, content or comfort. You get the performance, efficiency and the many luxury highlights of the GL-Class, all while making one of the greenest and most socially conscious choices in the class.

author photo

Shamit Choksey has a love for automobiles that worked into an early career writing and developing cop shows for network television. Later, diving even further into the world of wheels, he became a writer/producer for the Emmy-nominated PBS/Discovery Channel series "MotorWeek." These days, Shamit lives in Southern California, serving as a media consultant and journalist within the automotive industry. Incidentally, his wife and two sons are not impressed by any of this.

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