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First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class

I’m sitting 10,200 feet above sea level, staring at the immense angularity of the Taos ski resort unfolding upwards into the sky. There’s no snow on the ground and the sun is shining bright upon my back.  Still, I can visualize what a day spent snowboarding or skiing might look like here. Kids would be knocking over skis set aside on the racks, my wallet would be $15 lighter thanks to a mediocre hamburger, and the parking lot near the lift would be filled with full-size sport utility vehicles.

Since it’s the middle of the summer, the lifts aren’t moving and the air is devoid of the noises associated with families scrambling between the lodge and their ski-in/ski-out accommodations. The parking lot, however, is still filled with a colorful variety of large SUVs. All of them are wearing the same skin though, because each one is a shiny new example of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class.

The three-row luxury hauler with the tri-star on the grille has been redesigned, and I’m here in New Mexico to turn the key and sample the updated goods.

Mercedes-Benz is understandably excited to introduce the second-generation GL to the world. After all, sport utility vehicles represent a 40-percent slice of the automaker’s U.S. sales pie.The first-generation GL saw sales of over 100,000 units between its introduction in 2006 up through the end of its run in 2012. Additionally, with an average age of 48 years old, the GL is purchased by the youngest buyer in the Benz family of automobiles. Normally, I don’t get sucked in by age-related stats unless we’re talking about a contest to see how many coeds we can cram into a GL. This age figure is different though, because it shows that people are jumping onto the Benz bandwagon earlier, and they’re not doing it by taking the easier route that is the C-Class.

So what has Mercedes-Benz done to keep the sub-50-year-old crowd happy? Quite a lot, actually. The 2013 GL-Class employs a load of technical upgrades over the outgoing model, with the prime goal to create a safe environment for anyone riding inside. Attention Assist, Adaptive Brake technology, an improved mbrace2 telematics system, and Crosswind Stabilization are the words sprinkled throughout the various press releases discussing the new big Benz. Putting those systems together into this one package creates a ride that is certain to keep the average motorist out of harms way. Should they find themselves pushing harder than the average driver, the optional Active Curve system should help keep them on track.

This system is actually pretty trick. Through the use of electronic sensors, a hydraulic pump driven off the engine works in concert with a series of valves. This tech team helps reduce body lean. Additionally, the front and rear stabilizer bars are connected to hydraulic actuators, which further resolve roll and lean issues that would otherwise make for a high-speed game of Lean into the Passenger Next to You. Keeping the vehicle flat in a turn helps the driver remain confident through higher-speed sweepers, and keeps passengers from inadvertently invading the personal space of others. Or worse, introducing their shiny-new noses into the previously clean space that is the side window.

Speaking of shiny and new, the exterior of the 2013 Gl-Class receives a bit of nipping and tucking. There are no drastic changes here, but a cursory glance of old versus new reveals a few lines that have been tightened up and the addition of a few upgraded touches here and there. The headlights look sharper against the face, and the overall looks is slightly more aggressive because the second-generation GL is one inch longer and an inch wider.

At the initial launch of the vehicle, Mercedes-Benz will offer up three models: the GL350 BlueTEC, GL450, and the GL550. They all look fairly similar on the outside, but the GL550 gets an extra dose of style. This comes in the form of a larger front-air dam, fender flares, 21-inch rolling stock, running boards that light up, and a set of dual exhaust outlets poking out from the rear. By the first quarter of 2013 there will be another addition to the GL-Class family, and it arrives in the even-more aggressive form of the GL63 AMG.

Sure, the outside of the GL is large, but that’s to serve a purpose, which in this case is to create enough interior space to coddle the driver and passengers. Inside the GL-Class, there is room for seven passengers. Mercedes-Benz realizes that the occasional adult will be forced to sit in the way way back, and, thankfully, the German automaker supplies ample room for those relegated to the back of the bus. As you’d expect, the middle row is still a much better place to be, with just under a two-inch difference in legroom compared to what the lucky two get who sit all the way up front. Regardless, all the seats are covered in leather that looks downright delicious while it also rewards with high levels of comfort and support.

From the driver’s seat, visibility is surprisingly good. Quite often, with vehicles in this class, you’re treated to massive C and D pillars that serve up undesirable amounts of nothing to see here. Mercedes’ designers and engineers have kept all of that in check, and the result is a large vehicle with an equally large amount of glass space. Visibility is equally solid when dealing with items such as the gauge cluster and COMMAND system. This is Mercedes-Benz’s own infotainment system, and it’s used to control the audio entertainment, the Bluetooth connection, and the navigation unit. Since we’re dealing with a luxury machine, I can also use command to pull up real-time traffic information, Zagat restaurant reviews, and then turn up the volume on the optional 830-watt, 14-speaker harman/kardon audio system. The interior of the 2013 GL-Class is the perfect automotive example of providing driver and passengers with a first class, business class, and coach class breakdown. The benefit here is that the coach seats are Economy Plus.

There’s a similar class-based experience once it comes time to pick your powertrain poison. Thankfully, however, none of it involves a coach-level decision. Mercedes-Benz offers up the 2013 GL-Class in three flavors, with a fourth to appear down the road. Both the GL350 BlueTEC and GL450 start around the same just-over-$60k price point, while the GL550 requires you to squeeze out over $20k more from your bank account. There’s no word yet on what it will cost those with a need for full-size speed, but the GL63 AMG pricing should be revealed sometime in the next few months. Either way you slice the powertrain pie, you wind up with some seriously wonderful choices. Going back to the class analogy, it seems that the diesel mill and the smaller turbo V8 are variations on a business class ticket. The GL550 is first class all the way… and the GL63 will be a private jet.

While the GL450 is certainly interesting, with its twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V8 mill. It’s both the diesel and GL550 that garner most of my attention. Again, the 362 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque are nice, but I prefer both the 240 horsepower/455 pound-feet of torque from the GL350 and the 429 horsepower/516 pound-feet of torque from the GL550. Of course, should the GL63 show up, I’m ditching all three of the other models faster than you can say Aufrecht, Melcher, and Großaspach.

Since I can’t turn the tires on that one just yet, I opt to spend time traversing a variety of terrain in the GL350 and the GL550. The single-turbo diesel mill is ultra-smooth around the New Mexico countryside, and finds a perfect partner in the form of the equipped seven-speed automatic. Oddly, however, I notice a very clear lag when pressing the pedal to the floor to dial in more power. I thought it was related to transmission kick-down or general diesel turbo lag, but then I remember just how high above sea level we sit. The GL350 is simply gasping for more air.

This problem is far less noticeable when sitting in the GL550. I have two turbos and a whole lot more displacement at my command, and the GL responds kindly to my power requests. Like all of the other models, it too is equipped with both the seven-speed auto cog swapper and the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system (GL63 will most likely by rear-wheel-drive only). Despite the nearly 5,600-pound curb weight, the GL550 can run from 0-60 miles per hour in 5.5 seconds (manufacturer estimated). That’s… fast, and it feels fast. It takes the GL350 8.3 seconds to hit the same mark, and the GL450 needs just 6.2 seconds. The GL63? It’s supposed to make the run in a few ticks under five seconds.

All of that heft moves efficiently regardless of which engine I choose to spend time with. When I first read those figures though, I am ready to experience serious lean, a bit of high-speed highway erraticism, a general unease when maneuvering at slower speeds. Then I remember I’m dealing with an expensive luxury machine designed by Germans and built by Americans (that’s right… this is one of the Benz products built on our home turf down in Alabama). The steering is not overly communicative, but I can tell where I’m placing the nose. Stomping on the brakes hauls in the speed quickly, and with zero drama. The suspension works hard to keep the ride both comfortable and confident.

Mercedes-Benz route planners decided to throw in a monkey wrench, however, by introducing a bit of light off-roading. Now, the GL-Class will never be able to tout that it possesses the same level of off-road luxury awesome as anything from Land Rover. Hell, a loaded Grand Cherokee would be a better choice if the road actually gets a little rough. Still, I find my self bombing down dusty trails before arriving at a criss-crossing decent that leaves me staring at the Rio Grande river. Should a family of seven find their route to the chairlifts covered with snow, or their journey to the mall taking place through water-logged roads then they can be happy to know that the GL will get them to their destination with ease.

The luxury three-row sport utility market is an interesting one. It’s filled with a handful of choices that all do pretty much the same thing. Some vehicles might offer more interesting tech, while others boast a wider spectrum of available engine choices. All of them, however, try to grab the attentions of potential buyers with a mix of curb appeal and brand loyalty. For years now, the Cadillac Escalade has been the go-to vehicle for those desiring stylish status in a full-size package. Now, it seems, that buyers are opting instead for the toned-down subtlety of the GL. Whereas the Escalade screams for you to look at it, then stares you down until you look away, the GL slides quietly into its parking space the nearest Whole Foods with no trumpeting of its arrival.

Still, with 429 horses and 516 pound-feet of torque under the hood, one could easily let the Escalade owner understand why the GL has risen to the top. And if you want to actually wake up everyone inside the Whole Foods, you can use the GL350 and tow the damn building off its foundation. That is where the Mercedes trumps most of the competition. It’s a brute in a suit, and it knows there’s no need to shout it out.

Until the GL63 arrives of course… then we’re going to roar.

[Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz was so excited to show us the new 2nd-generation GL-Class, that the automaker flew us to a beautiful Four Seasons in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Many bits of tasty food were consumed, and countless (now empty) bottles of a delightful 2006 Brunello wound up heading to the recycling bin.]

  • salguod

    As a guy who needs a 3 row SUV (family of 5 that tows a camper) the big things for me with these are third row usability, cargo area behind the third row and towing. No pics of the third row or the storage area in back and little mention of any of it. I suspect it's less space than my Outlook (especially cargo) and maybe more than my 5,200 lbs towing. But a lot more dough, starting at roughly twice what I paid for my gently used one two years ago.

    Of course, those who shop this don't cross shop GM's Lambda, even the Enclave. I guess I'm just not in the income bracket to appreciate the need for a $60K SUV when there are more capable, nice vehicles at a discount that will buy you a new FR-S.

    • Actually, the cargo space here is solid. I sometimes forget to snap this area because, well, I don't have kids or a need for something this size.

      Additionally, the third row is of the power-folding variety, which adds the extra bit of luxury required for a vehicle such as this.

      • salguod

        Most SUVs short of a Suburban have little behind the third row. This doesn't look big enough to have a lot.

        Power folding seat? Meh. It just means I have to wait while the motors do their work to put my crap in the car.

        I think motors on everything is overrated. My Outlook has a power driver seat, which is generally nice except when the seat is adjusted for my 4'10" wife and I have to stand my 6'1" self in the rain while I power the seat back. In my manual seat Mazda3, I flip the lever slam the seat back and I'm in.

        • True, I agree that non-motorized is faster.

          Also, your Outlook has tons of rear space. In this class though, the GL has nearly the same amount has the Escalade and WAY more than the Audi Q7

        • joshuman

          Our Suburban came with second row power folding seats. They are indeed four times slower than just doing it manually.

          • Bill

            We have a 2010 GL450 and while I agree about most things not needing to be motorized, these seats move quickly and it has buttons both inside the middle row doors and at the back hatch, which eliminates the need to lean over the bumper (especially when the car is dirty in winter) and pulling on a handle. One touch to open the power rear door, another touch to raise or lower the seat, and you never have to set down groceries. We are very pleased with our GL and even though we usually "buy and hold" cars, we may trade up to the '13. We looked at Suburbans and the one with similar features was almost as much as we paid for our GL.

  • Manic_King

    Wait, new X7? From the rear, without MB logo, I'd guess that's BMW SUV because rear lights and chrome trim between them looks soo current beemerish. Have they run out of styling ideas again….

  • Is it just me or does the opening pic make it look strikingly similar to the current Durango/Grand Cherokee?

    • I don't think it's just you…

    • CherokeeOwner

      Well, the GL does share its platform with the GC and Durango. It'd make sense you'd see a similarity.

      • I thought M-B pillaged the platform prior to their parting ways but didn't want to look like an ass more so than normal

    • Vairship

      I saw the first pic and thought MB SUV, then (distracted) noticed the 2nd pic and went "oh, the new Honda Odyssey minivan".

      When is MB going to admit that this is basically just a minivan/station wagon in drag, since its ground clearance is about the same as my PT Cruiser?

    • Bill

      If you squint, it looks similar to most similar sized SUV's.

  • Jay

    Notice how the "completely new" GL looks merely like a facelift of the old one? Same story with the completely new ML – just mildly altered lights really.

    I was disappointed that the square fender mounted turn signals from the G-wagen didn't make it into the GL in any sort of design homage. Of course, you can always attach your own : )

    And yeah, BMW called, they want their tail lights back. I liked the ones of the first-gen GL better.

  • Van_Sarockin

    No mileage numbers? It's not like I'll be wanting to stop for gas between Dallas and the Taos ski slopes.

    • I didn't pay attention to the exact mileage because… well, who cares with these things.

      However, when I went to swap from the GL550 to the GL350, I noticed that the GL550 consumed nearly half a tank while the GL350 consumed just around 1/4 during the same drive loop.

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