Pros: Performance defies heft; true seven-passenger seating; generous list of standard items
Cons: Premium price to match its plus-size footprint; upcoming 2013 model features complete redesign and more powerful V8; styling a bit staid for some
In 2006, the debut of the hulking Mercedes-Benz GL-Class signaled a sea change for the German manufacturer; until that year, only the military-inspired Geländewagen had such a large footprint, and since it sold in very limited numbers, the G-Class barely made a blip on the SUV landscape.
Appealing to a far more mainstream market, the GL featured clean lines, plenty of interior space and surprising performance due to its relatively high power-to-weight ratio. Now at the end of its first generation, the GL is available in three configurations: the 3.0-liter V6 diesel-powered GL350 Bluetec 4Matic ($62,445), the 4.6-liter V8-powered GL450 4Matic ($63,445) and the 5.5-liter V8-powered GL550 4Matic ($86,175).
Comfort & Utility
With its functional aesthetic and no-nonsense interior, the Mercedes-Benz GL550 may not be the plushest big SUV, but it's comfortable and spacious enough to make a compelling case for itself in the livability department.
The GL550's third row offers seating for two. Seats can be folded flat separately or together at the push of a button. Cargo capacity ranges from 43.8 cubic feet with the third row stowed, to 83.3 cubic feet with both second and third rows flattened.
The top-end GL550 model offers no package options because it features so many standard items, including 10-way power front seats with full leather, a power lift gate, a rear view camera, and a hard drive navigation system with satellite radio and voice control. Among the few remaining ā la carte options are a heated steering wheel ($225), heated rear seats ($620) and a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,950), which integrates two eight-inch monitors into the front seat headrests.
The heart of the GL550's interface is its COMAND navigation head unit, which centers around a seven-inch LCD screen flanked by buttons and dials. A 40-GB hard drive incorporates Zagat restaurant information, and a smaller 4-GB drive stores music selections accessible via an iPod-style menu. Bluetooth phone, audio and navigation settings can be accessed using voice recognition.
Although not antiquated by any means, the 2012 GL550's multimedia interface is approaching the end of its life span, with the 2013 model promising more advanced options appealing to tech-savvy SUV buyers.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The top GL550 model features the most powerful engine in the lineup, a 5.5-liter V8 producing 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque, which achieves maximum pulling power between 2,800 and 4,800 rpm. The GL550 is rated to tow 7,500 pounds.
Zero to 60 mph is estimated at a relatively sprightly 6.4 seconds, and EPA fuel economy numbers come in at a less impressive 12 mpg city and 17 mpg highway. Efficiency-conscious Mercedes-Benz buyers might want to take a closer look at the slower but thriftier clean diesel GL350 Bluetec, which achieves a combined 19 mpg. Based on that figure, the Bluetec version should be able to extract an average of 132 more miles of range from each tank of fuel compared with the GL550.
The GL550 features several standard safety items that are optional on lesser models, including bi-xenon headlamps and blind spot assist. Among its other highlights is PreSafe, which reduces the risk of injury by actively pretensioning seatbelts and moving the seats and headrests. If the system detects a potential rollover situation, the sunroof and windows are also automatically closed.
All models in the GL lineup include nine airbags and automatic collision notification.
The GL550 offers a commanding view of the road and a set of straightforward controls for the driver; large analog dials dominate the dashboard, and familiar Mercedes-Benz landmarks include two large climate control dials on the center stack and a steering-wheel-mounted gear-select lever.
Unlike some of its competitors equipped with a more off-road-friendly frame-on-body construction, the GL550 uses a unibody structure that lends it tighter handling dynamics. Ride quality is relatively supple, and the entire GL-Class comes standard with an Airmatic suspension system that automatically adjusts ride height according to load.
Acceleration under most conditions is smooth and steady, although the GL550's big V8 works in concert with the seven-speed transmission to deliver strong, satisfying acceleration when summoned; expect a 0-to-60-mph sprint in a brisk 6.4 seconds.
Other Cars to Consider
Cadillac Escalade Platinum Edition - This supersized American alternative to the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class comes in at $80,940 for the fully loaded Platinum edition, with plusher accommodations in contrast to the GL's understated Teutonic approach.
Lexus LX570 - Lexus's biggest SUV is quite the porky luxury machine and won't win any drag races, but its low-volume production and tony interior appointments should continue to attract its own unique slice of the high-end SUV demographic.
Land Rover Range Rover HSE - A bit more refined and stylistically intriguing than the Benz, the HSE boasts a tasteful wood and leather interior and an impressive off-road heritage to counter its widespread reputation as an urban runabout for entitled housewives.
Every GL-Class model is strong in luxury, family friendliness and capability, and the GL550 is no exception. You might want to wait for the 2013 model to come out, though.