Mercedes-Benz is synonymous with luxury passenger cars. But many people may not realise that the German firm also has a family of SUVs within its stable. Most are familiar with the ML and many lust after the G-Class, that most gangster of go-anywhere off-roaders. At the smaller end of the scale there is the GLK, which is a LHD-only model and therefore not available here. At the upper end of the scale there is the GL an all-new version of which has just been launched locally.
Now in its second generation, the GL follows suit after the debut of the new ML last year. In keeping with Mercedes policy, the new model boasts the prominent face of other models such as the SL- and recently launched A-Class. The bluff nose has twin slats and large air intakes both above and below the number plate. The oversize headlamps are bi-xenon units that feature adaptive lighting i.e. bendy beams that turn with the steering, standard across all models. On the whole the GL looks like a larger, more butch version of the ML range. It has road presence in spades and many motorists on KZN’s highways moved over the moment they spotted the GL’s façade in their mirrors, not an easily achieved task on most occasions.
As expected of a “full-size” SUV the GL is a large car. There are design cues down the flanks reminiscent of an E-Class that both keep the family design traits going as well as break the visual mass along the profile. At over 5,1 metres, there is a lot of flank. Somehow Mercedes designers have made this model look a lot sleeker and hunkered down than its predecessor.
As expected of a range-topping model inside the GL is lush. The standard suite of features includes all-leather trim, a multi-function steering wheel, high-end audio system, climate control, sunroof, cruise control, COMAND online with DVD changer among several other items too numerous to mention. On the console between the front seats in GL350 CDI and GL500 models there are some interesting dials and switches that hint at the GLs off-road prowess, more on that later.
The real reason one would consider a GL model over its ML sibling or rivals is that it offers seating for seven. Even the third row, easily accessed when the middle seats are electronically folded (standard feature), will comfortably accommodate full-size adults.
An electrically operated tailgate gives you access to the luggage area. With the rear most chairs in use there isn’t lots of luggage space, but then again you can’t really expect there to be. Mercedes claims boot volume of 680 litres expanding to a van-like 2 300 with all the rear seats folded.
Three derivatives available
At the launch Mercedes-Benz SA debuted three derivatives, all of which feature turbocharging and are coupled with the 7-speed automatic transmission that transfers power to the permanent all-wheel drive system. The opening model is the GL350 CDI BlueTEC, for now the only diesel-powered version. This model features a 3,0-litre, V6 oil-burner than develops 190 kW of peak power and an even more impressive 620 N.m of torque. This is followed up by the GL500 BlueEfficiency. A 4,7-litre V8 develops 320 kW and 700 N.m of twist effort.
Both these models come equipped, as standard, with an on- and off-road package. This consists of a suite of software and mechanicals that make the ML a formidable off-road vehicle. The package comprises a centre diff lock, a low-range transfer case and six driver-selectable modes to choose from for various conditions (auto, sport, trailer, winter, off-road 1 and 2).
The big daddy GL is the GL63 AMG, the first time an AMG model has been offered in the GL range. It features the firm’s 5,5-litre V8 motor that churns out 760 N.m of torque and a silly 410 kW of power. This model doesn’t feature any of the off-road paraphernalia, as it rides on 21-inch alloys. Mercedes claims that it’ll blitz to 100 km/h in 4,9 seconds, and top out at a true 250 km/h.
During the launch event we got to sample all three models. I started with a gentle lope up the N3 from Durban to the Shongweni area in the GL350. During the presentation much was said about reducing noise in the cabin via the use of aero-acoustics. The work seems to have paid off as the trip, at leisurely pace was conducted with extreme low noise levels in the cabin. The diesel mill with its serious torque output makes light work of hauling the large car with little intrusion from the compression ignition motor under the bonnet.
In the Shongweni area we subjected the GL500 to a proper off-road course at the Killarney 4×4 centre replete with rocky inclines and declines. With the off-road 2 setting selected the standard air suspension expands to offer up 306 mm of ground clearance, and if you should ever require it, 600 mm of fording depth.
The older GL model featured a rear diff lock in addition to the centre unit, this car has done away with the device between the rear wheels and uses the electronics and brakes to regulate the slip experienced by each wheel. On the course the large car trundled along with little effort required by the driver as all systems came into play.
While the GL seems to have proper off-roading credentials I can’t help but wonder how many, if any, will ever leave a gravel road, or the confines of sealed pavement to conquer off-road tracks and mix it up in proper bundu conditions.
Post off-roading adventures I stepped into the AMG version which proved to be a somewhat of a surprise. This car is not light and has major dimensions, but seemed to handle the twisty bits of some of KZN’s B-roads quicker than it had any right to. I gave it a proper workout on a demanding stretch of road, running up through the gears and stomping on the large brakes to haul it back down to speed. It didn’t seem to mind the athletic workout that I subjected it to and during that time I was unaware of the mass of machine outside of my eye line.
I suspect that a large part of the on-road attitude comes from the Active Curve System (option for GL350 BlueTEC 4MATIC and standard for GL500 BlueEFFICIENCY 4MATIC and GL63 AMG), which is Mercedes’s name for its active anti-roll bars. Hydraulic actuators helps counter body roll as well as a yaw moment to keep the body level and prevent any nasty under- or oversteer moments.
Later on I experienced the GL500 again on tar and dirt. And, for me, this has to be the pick of the bunch. Not only does it afford you the punch of a force fed V8 motor, but also allows you to tread off-road, not something you can, or would want to, do in the GL63.
The new GL range may not be easy on the wallet (see prices below), but it certainly does offer up the best of both worlds: a luxury cruiser that can haul up to seven adults in absolute comfort and a capable off-road machine.
GL350 BlueTEC: R 966 246
GL500 BlueEfficiency: R1 106 859
GL63 AMG: R1 669 636
Model: Mercedes-Benz GL500 BlueEfficiency
Engine: 4,7-litre V8 twin-turbocharged
Power: 320 kW at 5 250 r/min
Torque: 700 N.m at 1800-3 500 r/min
Fuel consumption: 11,3 L/100 km
CO2: 262 g/km
Price: R1 106 859
Maintenance plan: 6 years/100 000 km