Mercedes-Benz calls all its cars ‘Letter(s)-Class’. Now, while class is a word that can’t necessarily be used to describe all Mercs (let’s face it, some are found wanting, though recent years have shown improvement across the board), if I was forced to choose one word to describe the new GL-Class, it would be exactly that. Class.
Overseas media have referred to the car as “an off-road S-Class”, and they’re sport on. The GL’s defining feature is its luxury and superlative levels of NVH insulation, but there’s more to it than just that. Not only does it insulate you impeccably from the outside world on the road – it’s brilliant off the beaten track, too.
KwaZulu-Natal provided the perfect testing ground for the GL on its launch, with a combination of highway driving, B roads and some serious off-road challenges thrown into the mix. On the highway it’s quiet and smooth, and with great material choices (Mercedes really has improved its interiors lately) and solid build quality only adding to the luxury that’s on offer. Capaciousness, of course, is not problem for the GL, which means that all seven passengers can travel in plush comfort. I gave the back row of seats a test on the launch and, though it’s definitely not the most comfortable row, I’m a big guy and I could fit there without much of a problem. Ingress and egress is simple thanks to an electronically folding second row, and space is not a problem in row three.
There is a problem with those last two seats, though. When they’re up, there’s almost no boot to speak of. My car (a B-segment hatch) has a bigger boot than the GL when all seven seats are in use. However, if you’re only travelling with five people, it is cavernous. Travel with two and fold the second row flat and your bootspace increases to a vast 2 300 litres. So, although seven seats compromises cargo room and doesn’t provide as much comfort as you find in the rest of the car, I maintain that the GL’s spaciousness is not an issue.
So what is an issue with the GL then? Well, in short, not much. It comes with a range of three engines and all three perform well in their respective classes. The bottom-of-the-range 350, for example, is brilliantly efficient for a car of this size. Sure, put your foot down and there’s not an awful lot of grunt left to propel you forward at warp speed, but it does the job of pulling the hefty GL along without much trouble. And it would, with 190 kW and 620 Nm on tap. Furthermore, it only needs 7,4 litres of diesel to take the car 100 km, while CO2 emissions are rated at 209 g/km. And I call the GL hefty – it’s worth noting that the new car, despite increased levels of technology and standard kit, is 100 kg lighter than its predecessor.
The next rung of the ladder is the GL500, a 4,6-litre twin-turbo petrol engine with 320 kW and 700 Nm on hand. Now this one’s got some grunt. More impressive than its on-road performance, though, is its off-road capabilities. Mercedes’ goal with the GL was to give it the best-in-class off-road capabilities, and I reckon that’s a goal they’ve achieved. Though, to be honest, it’s something that’s a bit tricky to measure when you’re going up against the likes of the new Range Rover, a car that shone off-road when I drove it in Morocco. But still, the GL is a consumate off-roader, particularly with the (standard) On/Off-Road Package that you get in the 350 and the 500.
This system as six modes: Auto, Off-Road One, Off-Road Two, Trailer mode, Winter and Sport. It allows the car or the driver to choose the best mode for a massive variety of conditions, as well as including under-run protection for the engine, reinforced under-floor paneling, a longitudinal diff lock, extended Airmatic (air suspension) functions that allow for maximum ground clearance of 306 mm and a wading depth of 600 mm. Most importantly, though, it gives the GL a low-range gearbox that dramtically enhances off-road performance. There’s also permanent 4Matic all-wheel drive (this is true of all GLs), Hill-Hold Assist and adjustable Downhill Speed Regulation.
If off-roading isn’t really your thing but you still want a GL (however, that’s a pretty strange buyer if you ask me), and you’re after truly epic performance, then you’re after the GL63 AMG. This is the first time it’s been made available in South Africa, and although you can feel the significant weight of the GL dulling its speed and acceleration compared to something like an E63 AMG (which you can get with equal outputs if you opt for the S Edition), it’s still got serious performance credibility. With 410 kW and 760 Nm available, the GL63 will hit the 100 km/h mark in no more than 4,9 seconds, with top speed electronically limited to 250 km/h.
On the whole, the GL is a truly impressive piece of kit. Spacious, luxurious, brilliantly insulating, with great on-road performance and even more impressive off-road abilities, it ticks all the boxes. There’s just one problem: so do all its rivals. Whether Mercedes likes it or not, this car is going up against, mainly, the new Range Rover, and while it is a fair bit cheaper, there’s one thing that’s lacking: status. Yes, it’s a Mercedes, sure, but it doesn’t have the same impact on others as a Range Rover does, and let’s face it, telling others you’ve made it is half the reason someone buys a car in this segment.
Mercedes wants to sell around 300 of these GLs by the end of 2013, and it really deserves to do that well because it is a great car, but, looking at the current GLs sales numbers, and the fact that it has to go up against one of the best cars I’ve ever driven, I’m not 100% sure it will. So, Joe Public (or should I say Rich Public?), please, go out there and prove me wrong!