2011 Mercedes-Benz GL Class Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
February 11, 2011

A nimble ride and elegant, tough styling help the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class charm the mud right off a Range Rover.

At one time, it was going to be the replacement for the military-grade Gelaendewagen, or the G-Class. But by the time it was ready for production in 2007, the SUV market was on fire, and the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class took its own place in the lineup as a true Range Rover fighter.

SUV sales may have tanked, but the GL-Class is still the tank we'd rather be seen driving. It's among the best seven-seat SUVs on the market, with crisp and rugged styling matched by a splendid cabin with room for seven passengers. 

Of the three models, the diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC might be the best of all. Its 400 pound-feet of torque relieve any concerns about acceleration, and it's a perfect match for off-roading (even if the true off-road package can only be found on the V-8-powered GL450). It earns the best gas mileage of the bunch, too, at 17/21 mpg--far better than the thirsty but incredibly powerful GL550 and its 12/17 mpg rating.

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The spiffy seven-seat cabin is sized for adults, in all three rows, and they're relatively easy to get into--something you can't say for the GM utes like the Cadillac Escalade. The Land Rover Range Rover only comes as a five-seater. And the GL-Class matches nearly every feature to be found on the others, with high-dollar audio systems, the knob- or voice-driven COMAND system, DVD entertainment, Bluetooth connections, and iPod compatibility.

The boldest thing about the GL-Class, it turns out, isn't the big three-pointed star on the nose, nearly the size of a Honda Civic steering wheel. The boldest thing may be that Mercedes-Benz has built a better Suburban, and plopped it down in a pricier neighborhood.

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2011 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Styling

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class knows where to fold ‘em: the creased look sets a smart tone for the full-size SUV segment.

Hardcore off-roaders with oversquare grilles aren't as plentiful as they used to be, but even among the diehards, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class stands tall. It's a rare brute-ute that looks totally comfortable all dressed up.

The GL's one of the most convincing mashups of luxury lines and SUV hallmarks. The styling's muscular and still refined. The side view is fuss-free, and the ratio of glass to metal sits just right. The big three-pointed star up front may be nearly the size of a wheel off an old Honda Civic, but there's not much else overstated on any panel of the GL-Class. The straight-edge philosophy does get the benefit of the ute's size: the same theme just doesn't play as well on the smaller GLK. Last year Mercedes updated the front end on diesel and V-6 versions, and for the 2011 model year, the V-8 GL-Class gets the same revisions, with a new bumper and new grille; daytime running lights; and new fog lamps.

Interiors of all the American-made Mercedes SUVs have gained luster and better looks in the past five or six years, and the GL has the best-looking cabin of the three Alabama-built utes (including the M-Class and R-Class). The GL-Class strikes a better balance of lines, textures, and forms than does the more pedestrian R-Class. There's plenty of wood trim all around, even on the diesel where it's now standard. The bulging pair of vents at the top of the center stack give some relief to the rectilinear shapes, and everything's covered in leather or high-quality plastic or convincing metallic trim.


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2011 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Performance

The frugal star of the lineup is the GL350, but every 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is an agile on- and off-road performer.

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is one of the top-performing size-large SUVs, no matter which powertrain you choose. 

Still, we have a favorite. The least expensive GL-Class is the best of the trio. A 50-state-legal "clean" diesel, the GL350 BlueTEC gets its power from a 3.0-liter diesel with 210 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. The torque number's one key point--it gives the GL350 brisk acceleration with only a hint of diesel clatter and throb and vibration. It does so while turning in EPA fuel economy of 17/23 mpg, better in highway numbers than GM's Escalade Hybrid and Tahoe Hybrid, and good enough for 600 miles on a tank of diesel. 

TheGL450 and its 4.6-liter V-8 is next up on the performance ladder. It guts out 335 hp with little protest, but doesn't offer significantly better performance than the diesel model--while it gets much lower fuel economy of 13/18 mpg.

Surf your couch for spare change if you won't settle for less than the GL550. It gets behind the power of a 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8, and speeds to 60 mph in about 7.4 seconds. You'll need to be very well pleased with its rippling, muscular engine note and its powerful acceleration, since fuel economy of 12/17 mpg will exact its own price.

Mercedes' seven-speed automatic comes standard with every engine, and it's a near-perfect match to the gas engines. In test drives of the diesel GL350, we've noticed some shift shudder, but haven't been able to drive a 2011 model year to see if it's still the case.

The GL-Class doesn't earn all its kudos with strong acceleration. It's quite capable at corners, with balanced handling for its size. A standard air suspension is damped with a bias toward ride comfort, and steering is precise and has about the weight you'd expect from a large vehicle. The GL is fairly stiff in its resistance to body roll; softer settings might help produce a little less rocking motion side to side, but we'd also avoid the big 21-inch wheels if you can, since they tend to degrade the ride quality.

Mercedes' 4MATIC full-time four-wheel-drive system is standard across the board, along with Hill Start Assist, Hill Descent Control, and a load-leveling suspension. Whether it's crawling through challenging mud pits or just cutting through late-season snow, the GL is talented enough for the kind of medium-duty off-roading it would encounter on its way to a ski resort or a mountain hideaway. Of the three models, only the GL450 can be ordered with an Off-Road package for more hardcore use: it adds on a Class IV hitch, an adaptive-damping suspension system, underbody skid plates, and locking differentials.

Every GL-Class SUV can tow up to 7,500 pounds.

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2011 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Comfort & Quality

Big enough for seven adults, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is luxurious and well-trimmed, too.

It drives with the feel of a smaller vehicle, but the interior space in the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is sizable enough for seven people seated in a 2-3-2 configuration, and a generous amount of their belongings.

The GL's smartly tailored cockpit has front seats with plenty of leg and shoulder room. On the GL550, the supportive and faintly cushy front seats also have built-in ventilation (it's an option on other models).

One row back, the second-row seats are large enough for two adults and a child in between. Three adults is pushing the available space, despite the GL's wide stance.

All the way back, the GL shines with a third-row bench that's one of the few in existence with adult-sized room. It's not the lap of pleasure, but the back bench really will host people over 18 years old, even if they're a little taller than the norm--and with tilt-and-flip second-row seats, the third-row seat isn't as difficult as it could be to enter and to exit.

The back seat also folds out of sight at the touch of a button to boost cargo space. It's smaller than the big GM utes by a good margin, but even with all seats in place, the GL has ample space for cargo. Fold down the second and third rows, and the GL-Class opens up 83.3 cubic feet of storage space for whatever you choose. That's more than you'll find in the big Lincoln MKT, though it's about 25 cubic feet less than the vast expanses inside a GMC Yukon Denali.

In all, the GL's cabin faintly reeks of high-quality construction. It's only when you realize the base seats are covered in vinyl that you even question the lush walnut trim on the dash and the perfectly textured leather when it's specified. Mercedes explains some buyers want a cruelty-free interior, hence the vinyl--but really, are there that many vegans who want a huge, gas-quaffing SUV? There's a touch of road and wind noise, too, but with its recent redesign, the GL's cabin grew much closer to the high standard set by the Land Rover Range Rover.


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2011 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Safety

No official crash test scores are available, but the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class gets a high score for safety because of its ample standard safety gear.

Though it hasn't been crash-tested yet by either major agency, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class earns a high safety score because of the brand's reputation for great engineering, and a comprehensive list of safety features.

Neither the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) nor the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) has yet tested the GL-Class; both organizations have changed the way they rate vehicles for the 2011 model year.

The GL includes a raft of equipment that gives drivers confidence in preventing and surviving accidents. Standard safety gear includes dual front, front- and rear-seat-mounted side, driver-knee and full-length curtain airbags; active headrests; anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control; and PRE-SAFE, which gauges an imminent accident 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, and recommended since the big SUV has some visibility issues to the rear quarters. Blind-spot detectors are now available; as the name suggests, they alert the driver with small lights on the mirror, when vehicles are approaching in the blind spots.

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2011 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Features

All 2010 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class utes have spiffy features on their standard-equipment list; we'd opt for the leather seating and the high-end audio.

Fitting for a luxury SUV that can cost more than $80,000, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class has lots of standard convenience and entertainment features even in base trim.

For starters, every GL-Class gets 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 are made standard on the top-flight GL550, which also gets 21-inch wheels and tires.

The options list is extensive. An iPod interface, HD and satellite radio, and a hard-drive navigation system can be fitted to the GL350 and GL450, and are standard on the GL550. 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, are recommended options since the GL-Class' seven-passenger seating means kids will be frequent riders. An off-road package imbues the GL450 with most of the off-road talent and underbody protection you'd get in the military-grade G-Class.

Other GL-Class options include a heated steering wheel and heated rear seats on the GL350 and GL450. Ventilated seats are offered, and we'd take them every time--they're a great add-on in warmer climates.

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2011 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Fuel Economy

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-CLass keeps its green card in check with the turbodiesel GL350; from there, it's a step down to gas-engine fuel economy.

It gets credit for the efficiency wrought by a turbodiesel six-cylinder engine, but the 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class scores poorly overall in our green rating because of its less efficient gas engines.

The least expensive GL--and frankly, our favorite--is the GL350 BlueTEC. It's a turbodiesel that uses an aftertreatment for its emissions, so that it meets tough diesel particulate rules in all 50 states. With an automatic transmission and four-wheel drive, the diesel six earns an EPA rating of 17/21 mpg, good numbers for a vehicle nearly the size of a Chevrolet Tahoe (and just about exactly the size of a diesel-less Dodge Durango).

From the diesel's peak, fuel economy across the GL-Class lineup drops sharply. With the 3.5-liter V-6 aboard, the GL450 checks in at 13/18 mpg. Tap the power of the GL550's 382-horsepower V-8, and fuel economy falls to 12/17 mpg--right down there with the least efficient Escalades and Range Rovers.

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Styling 9
Performance 8
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