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It had been planned as the replacement for the military-ready Gelaendewagen, but when 2007 rolled around, Mercedes-Benz decided to keep that domesticated G-Class-and instead, pitched the newly developed GL-Class SUV as a more luxurious family vehicle with surprising off-road capabilities. Smart move: The GL-Class is among the best seven-seat SUVs on the market. Crisp styling, a spiffy seven-passenger cabin, and a diesel option give it a leg up on the competition, particularly in fuel economy, and midway through its life cycle, the GL-Class continues to be one of our favorite big guys. The GL-Class returns for 2010 with minor styling tweaks, so while we haven't driven it since our last run in a 2009 diesel edition, we've updated our existing review with the handful of changes noted-and with our admiration for the GL-Class' panache and performance intact. Pricing starts at $60,000 for the diesel edition and rises to $83,000 for the GL550; the GL-Class competes with the BMW X5, the Land Rover Range Rover, the Lexus LX 570, and the Cadillac Escalade.
In a niche filled with hard-edged off-road athletes, the GL-Class stands tall, with muscular but refined styling and a well-crafted interior. We like its fuss-free side view, the balanced two-box proportions, and even the big three-pointed star up front (it's almost the size of an old Honda Civic wheel). For 2010, Mercedes updates the look with new bumpers and grille, daytime running lights, and new fog lamps; newly styled wheels ranging from 19 to 21 inches are on the roster, too. The cabin's a fine workplace, and while the mechanically similar R-Class seems more pedestrian, the GL-Class strikes a better balance of lines, textures, and forms. There's plenty of wood trim all around, a bulging pair of vents atop the center stack, and a more rectilinear theme that distances it from the R-Class, in a good way. This year, all GLs get new gauges and a new steering wheel; diesel models also get standard walnut trim.
With any of its three powertrains, the 2010 GL-Class is one of the best-performing plus-sized SUVs. The least expensive version might be the best one: the newly renamed GL350 BlueTEC diesel. A 50-state-legal "clean" diesel, the 210-horsepower, 400-pound-feet BlueTEC 3.0-liter diesel gives the SUV quick acceleration with only a hint of throb and vibration-while it delivers fuel economy way up at 17/23 mpg, better on the highway than GM's full-size hybrid SUVs like the Escalade Hybrid. For $60,000, it's a little more expensive, but also has a cruising range of about 600 miles. Next up in the performance range is the $62,000 GL450; its 4.7-liter V-8 guts out 335 hp and 13/17 mpg fuel economy, with little protest. For the creamiest power in the range, you'll have to go couch-surfing for spare change to acquire the $83,000 GL550, which speeds to 60 mph in about 7.4 seconds behind the power of a 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8. With fuel economy of 12/17 mpg, you'll need to be very pleased with its rippling exhaust note-and you will be. A seven-speed automatic is standard across the board, and it's nearly perfectly mated to the gas engines, though in past test drives we've noticed some shift shudder with the diesel GL-Class.
Handling is very well balanced in this full-size sport-utility vehicle. The air suspension is damped with ride comfort in mind, but the Mercedes-Benz GL still steers with precision and has strong brakes. A little less rocking motion side to side would improve on the good on- and off-road manners. All GL-Class utes carry Mercedes' 4MATIC full-time four-wheel-drive system, Hill Start Assist, Hill Descent Control, and a load-leveling suspension system. We've crawled through some reasonably challenging mud pits in a first-year GL450 and found it capable enough for the kind of light off-roading most of us would encounter getting to a mountain hideaway or ski chalet. The GL450 can be ordered with an Off-Road package that includes a Class IV hitch, adaptive-damping suspension system, underbody skid plates, and locking differentials. All models are capable of towing up to 7,500 pounds.
It drives "small," but the cabin and cargo space in the GL-Class are ample enough for seven passengers seated in a 2-3-2 configuration. The tailored cockpit has front-row seats with plenty of foot and shoulder room, and in the GL550, ventilation built into the seats. Two adults can easily find a sweet spot in the second row; three is pushing it, even if the GL is a wide body. The third row also has adult-sized room for two, and it folds out of sight at the touch of a button to boost cargo space. With the two rearmost rows of seats out of the way, the GL-Class has 83.3 cubic feet of storage space-more than a Lincoln MKT, but about 25 cubic feet less than a GMC Yukon Denali. There's a whiff of cost-cutting inside only when you realize the base GL350 and GL450 have vinyl seats standard. Leather seating isn't something we're used to seeing on an options list, especially in a vehicle docked on this price pier. Otherwise, it's difficult to find fault with the lushly trimmed cabin, outside of a touch of road and wind noise.
The 2010 GL-Class has not been crash-tested by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) nor by the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.) Standard safety gear includes dual front, front- and rear-seat-mounted side, driver-knee and full-length curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control; active headrests; and PRE-SAFE, which detects imminent collisions and tightens seatbelts and locks doors before impact. Adaptive cruise control, parking sensors, and a rearview camera are optional on the base trim levels and standard on the GL550.
All three 2010 GL-Class models offer power front seats; a glass sunroof over the rear two rows of seats; a power-fold feature for the third-row seat; and a COMAND controller that uses voice or knob controls to direct Bluetooth pairings and audio from the AM/FM/six-DVD changer. An iPod interface, Sirius Satellite Radio, HD Radio, and a hard-drive navigation system are optional on some trim levels and standard on the GL550. There's also an optional 610-watt Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system with surround sound, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with twin 8-inch screens and wireless headsets. Other options include a heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats, and heated rear seats for the less expensive models. For 2010, all GL-Class utes get new wheels: the GL450 wears 19-inch rims, the GL350 diesel has 20-inchers, and the GL550 now runs on 21-inch wheels and tires.
- Spacious cabin
- Crisp styling, inside and out
- Real off-road capability
- Diesel's frugal
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- Ride suffers with biggest tires
- Gas versions aren't so frugal