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When Mercedes-Benz decided to take on SUVs head-on, it didn't hold back much. First it fielded a competitor for the Explorer and Grand Cherokee with the M-Class. In short order it added the R-Class crossover, a smaller GLK ute, and at the top of its new sport-ute lineup, it introduced the GL-Class, a three-row, full-size SUV staged to compete with the Escalade, Navigator, even the Range Rover.
The GL had been planned to replace the military-grade G-Class, but doesn't look the part. It's still one of the more angular designs Mercedes has fielded, and where the same theme doesn't quite work on the compact GLK, it fits the big, brawny GL like a muscle tee. The Benz star on the front end looks as big as a Civic steering wheel--proportional to a body that's nearly as big as a Suburban. It's a fuss-free look that forgoes the overstated luxury of the Escalade and Infiniti's QX for clean surfaces and a double helping of straight lines. The interior's quite a bit more overtly luxurious, with wood trim and glints of metallic trim; its controls are laid out well, and there are fewer of the tiny, inscrutably labeled switches than in Mercedes' past. This year brings some minor tweaks, like LED daytime running lights.
Three drivetrains are offered on the GL, with the diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC being our choice. With 400 pound-feet of torque and 210 horsepower, the 3.0-liter turbodiesel doesn't feel as slow as its 9.4-second 0-60 mph estimated acceleration times. The diesel's torque is a great match for off-roading (though the available off-road package of skid plates isn't offered on it). Fuel economy is rated at 17/23 mpg--better than the Tahoe or Escalade Hybrid--and there's only a hint of the diesel thrumble that signals the type of engine underhood, the kind that delivers about 600 miles on one tank of fuel.
The gas engines on offer are considerably higher in horsepower, and lower in gas mileage. The GL 450's 4.6-liter V-8 guts out 335 hp without protest, but it isn't that much quicker than the diesel, and fuel economy drops to 13/18 mpg. At the top of the range, the 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 in the GL 550 can deliver a 0-60 mph time of about 7.4 seconds. Its buff pricetag and correspondingly muscular performance had better be worth it, since fuel economy of 12/17 mpg will exact its own price.
On all versions, the GL shifts power through a seven-speed automatic to all four wheels, with an electronic all-wheel-drive system that limits wheelspin through anti-lock braking, a system pioneered on the M-Class. The transmission's well-suited to the gas engines; with diesels, we've noted a little more shift shock. Handling is very good for the class, maybe the best of all the full-sizers, with good steering response and a firm ride that can get a little jittery with the biggest 20-inch wheels. The price for smarter cornering in all Benz SUVs is a little more side-to-side head toss, and it's evident in the GL.
The GL's three rows of seats are capable of seating an adult in every one of its seven positions, something that isn't as easy in an Escalade because of its doors and seat-folding mechanisms, or even possible in a five-seat Range Rover. The front seats are as spacious as any big SUV, and they can be fitted with ventilation, a luxury feature we've come to appreciate. Three adults will fit in the second row if they're medium-sized. The surprise is the third-row seat, where the space and seating actually is large enough for a grown person to sit comfortably, even if they're a little taller than the norm. The third row also folds out of sight for more cargo storage--important since the GL isn't as vast as the GM SUVs when it comes to storage behind the back bench.
Safety tests haven't been performed on the low-volume GL, but it offers standard curtain airbags, stability control, all-wheel drive, a rearview camera and Bluetooth. Adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitors are also available.
Every GL-Class ute has standard power front seats; a power-fold feature for the third-row seat; a glass sunroof over the rear two rows of seats; a COMAND controller for climate, audio and navigation systems; Bluetooth; and an AM/FM/six-DVD changer. The diesel GL350 BlueTEC has 20-inch rims, and the GL450 gets 19-inchers. Leather seating is not standard on the GL-Class; Mercedes says it's because some owners want cruelty-free upholstery, so be sure to tick the pricey option box if you're shopping. Most of those features, including leahter, are made standard on the top-flight GL550, which also gets 21-inch wheels and tires. Major options include a navigation system on lesser models; a 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. An off-road package gives the GL450 most of the trail-riding talent of the G-Class.