2012 Mercedes-Benz GL Class Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
February 14, 2012

With rugged styling, fairly nimble handling and diesel economy, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class can charm the mud right off a Land Rover Range Rover.

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.

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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.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Styling

The Mercedes-Benz GL channels its G-wagen ancestors for a sharply creased, very handsome look.

In the days before crossovers--what, has it been ten years already?--SUVs wore their hard-edged styling as a badge of honor. Square jaws and rugged fenders never hurt the likes of the Wagoneer, the Suburban, or the Gelaendewagen, that is, until the likes of the Q7, the X5, even Mercedes' own M Class came along.

The Benz GL stands by traditional SUV values, with its oversquare shape and its tough stance. Still, it's one of the few sport-utes that marry the look successfully to an upscale mission--the Range Rover's another. The GL just looks comfortable in its own skin, in a way even the smallest Mercedes GLK crossover does not. The GL's more refined, and more muscular, at the same time, and the proportion of sheetmetal to glass, of walnut to leather to bare metal, works in lockstep to reassure SUV buyers that this ute's as rugged as it can be. Even the big three-pointed star sits perfectly in proportion, though out of context, it has to be as big as the base steel wheels on a 1999 Honda Civic.

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The interiors of all the American-made Mercedes SUVs (GL, ML, and R Classes) 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. 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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2012 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Performance

Almost agile, the Mercedes-Benz GL Class is capable in corners, if a little stiff in ride.

No matter whether you opt for the big V-8 or skimp on fuel with the diesel, the Mercedes GL won't disappoint with firm, precise handling.

Our choice among the three GLs would be the version outfitted with Mercedes' turbodiesel six, the GL 350 BlueTEC. A "clean" diesel that uses low-sulfur fuel and treats its exhaust for cleaner emissions, the BlueTEC edition produces 210 horsepower and a very useful 400 pound-feet of torque from 3.0 liters of displacement. That level of torque gives the GL 350 a narrow powerband, but very brisk acceleration from a stop, with just a touch of diesel vibration and noise at very low engine speeds. Mercedes pegs its one-tank driving range at 600 miles, and the EPA rates it at 17/21 mpg, among the best of its kind.

The next step up the pricing and prestige ladder is the GL 450, powered by a 4.6-liter V-8 with 335 horsepower. It's relatively unstrained in any driving mode (though we haven't yet towed with the GL), but doesn't feel quicker than the diesel, while its gas mileage drops well off the BlueTEC mark at 13/18 mpg.

Before you get spendy with theĀ 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8-powered GL 550, make sure you can swing its gas mileage of 12/17 mpg. It's tempting, what with the rippling engine note and muscular acceleration to 60 of about 7.4 seconds.

All versions shift power to all four wheels through a seven-speed automatic that's very well matched to the kind of driving most SUV drivers engage in. We've noticed some shift shudder in diesel-equipped models, but haven't been able to drive a 2012 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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2012 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Comfort & Quality

The Mercedes-Benz GL Class is very spacious and well-equipped, though not as titanic as some of the domestic utes.

The Mercedes-Benz GL Class isn't quite as spacious as the largest Suburbans and Navigators. Still, it's quite a large vehicle, with room for seven people when it's pressed to the maximum its two-bucket, two-bench seating arrangement will allow.

The front passengers get nicely tailored seats, with good leg and head room, though the GL doesn't seem as broad as the big domestic SUVs. The standard seats are great for long road trips, but we'd spend extra to add ventilation to those chairs, for ultimate summer comfort. In the second row of seats, two adults will have enough shoulder room for a child in between, but three adults across is pushing the GL's limits of comfort.

Count us in for the GL's third-row seats, too. It's one of the few way-back benches that fits adults well, and doesn't require heavy-duty hips and legs to reach. You won't find the kind of support built into the other seats, but the third row doesn't let down adults for leg or head room, and the cushion doesn't sit too close to the vehicle floor--an easy trick used elsewhere to dig out more headroom.

The third-row seat 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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2012 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Safety

Mercedes' reputation for safety engineering will have to do, until crash-test scores are in.

Neither of the major crash-test agencies has yet put the GL through its paces, but the sterling Mercedes safety reputation precedes this big ute anyway.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) changed their testing criteria in the 2011 model year, and haven't compiled new results for all vehicles as of yet. However, the IIHS calls the GL's soulmate, the Mercedes-Benz ML Class, a Top Safety Pick.

More to the point, the GL has a raft of safety gear that sounds like more luster--and fewer accidents. Along with the usual side curtain airbags and stability control, the GL can be had with parking sensors, a rearview camera and adaptive cruise control. They're standard on the GL550, and we recommend them on the other versions, too, since the big GL has some visibility issues to the rear quarters. Blind-spot detectors are also an option: as the name suggests, they alert the driver with small lights on the mirror, when vehicles are approaching in the blind spots.

The GL also comes standard with PRE-SAFE, which gauges an imminent accident and tightens seatbelts and locks doors before impact.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Features

Leather seats are an option--technically speaking--but otherwise, the Mercedes-Benz GL Class delivers all the expected luxury features.

From its "base" versions to the fully loaded models costing more than $80,000, the Mercedes-Benz GL Class loads up on standard features, with provisions for lots more luxury--and room for a quirk or two.

All GL Class utes come with standard power windows, locks and mirrors; power front seats; a power-folding third-row seat; a rear-seat sunroof; Bluetooth; an AM/FM/DVD player; and COMAND control over the GPS, phone and audio functions.

You may have noticed that leather upholstery isn't standard. It's a specific choice, Mercedes says, because some of its owners want "cruelty-free" upholstery. In practice, it's highly unlikely you'll ever find one of these vinyl-outfitted trucks on the lot, since U.S. dealers like to sell highly optioned vehicles.

On the options list, at least for the GL 350 and GL 450, are features like HD and satellite radio; a navigation system; an iPod interface; a heated steering wheel and heated rear seats. They're standard on the GL 550.

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's seven-passenger seating means kids will be frequent riders. An off-road package imbues the GL 450 with most of the off-road talent and underbody protection you'd get in the military-grade G-Class.

Other GL Class options include ventilated seats, and we'd take them every time--they're a great add-on in warmer climates.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz GL Class

Fuel Economy

Diesel versions earn better numbers, but on the whole the Mercedes-Benz GL Class isn't that efficient.

Large SUVs rarely earn gas mileage ratings that look good in the grander scheme of things. It holds true for the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, though it's offered with a green powertrain option.

The turbodiesel engine found in the GL 350 helps the fuel-economy cause along, but the six-cylinder is rated at 17/21 mpg--a shade less than the hybrid Chevrolet Tahoe. The diesel's driveability make it a worthwhile option, though every so often, your service department will need to refill the GL 350 BlueTEC with special fluid that treats its exhaust for cleaner emissions.

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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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