The redesigned-for-2013 model doesn't move the line in a new direction, but it does everything better than its predecessor - and that's hardly faint praise since the outgoing vehicle was an impressive premium people carrier.
At its core, the GL is essentially a stretched version of the smaller M-Class. That means it rides on a platform closely related to that used in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, although the GL looks and feels nothing like its former DaimlerChrysler siblings.
Like the outgoing GL, three engines are available, and although the nameplates don't change much, the mills themselves are all-new. Anchoring the lineup and projected to account for about 20 percent of all sales in the United States is the diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC, which cranks out 240 horsepower and an impressive 455 lb-ft. of torque from a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6. Representing 60 and 20 percent of the mix, respectively, the GL450 and GL550 use detuned and amped-up versions of a twin-turbo 4.7-liter V8 that crank out either 362 or 429 horsepower.
Regardless of engine underhood, GLs send power to all four wheels through Mercedes' 4Matic electronic traction control all-wheel-drive system. A seven-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters is also standard across the line.
We put all three GLs through their paces on a variety of paved and unpaved roads around Santa Fe, New Mexico, but we'll have to wait until early next year to sample the 550-horsepower, 560 lb-ft. of torque GL63 AMG. The less-hot GLs hit the market in September.
Setting the pace
Stylistically, the GL doesn't deviate much from its predecessor, although a more bold version of Mercedes' front grille is on board and some of the side profile fussiness has been toned down. GL550s get their own, more aggressive front and rear-end treatments and tacked-on fender flares, a look that we think borders on excessive.
Then again, these vehicles are all about excess - especially inside, where the dashboard can be outfitted in a variety of premium materials like open pore wood appliqués and hand-stitched leather, a look at should appeal to the hedonist in all of us. Our full-option, $99,000 GL350 BlueTEC photo car was further outfitted with bordello-approved diamond-pleated leather upholstery that comes with a megabuck Designo styling package. Most GLs will be more modestly optioned, but coddling comfort is still the order of the day.
Controls are conveniently located, especially a center console-mounted knob for Mercedes' increasingly user-friendly COMAND infotainment system. Unlike overly menu-intensive setups offered by some rivals, the Mercedes system requires a relatively short acclimation period.
Second row passengers are treated to decent stretch-out room, although we found the seatbacks to be a little firm. At least the seats now fold electrically out of the way with the press of an (optional) button to allow access to a preteen-or-younger third row. Sure, an adult will fit back there, but the GL's "just right" sizing that puts it somewhere in between a Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban restricts the third row to limber riders. With all the seats folded, we found ample room for cargo. A 7,500 lbs. towing capacity - regardless of engine - means the GL can haul whatever won't fit inside.
Underneath, GLs ride on a fully independent air suspension. A control to tailor the tuning between firmer sport and softer comfort modes is optional, as is a new Active Curve System that automatically tightens up the sway bars to reduce body lean in hard cornering. Though 19-inch alloy wheels are standard, most GLs will probably be optioned up with 20s.
Mercedes knows that most GL buyers will haul their kin from point A to point B, so it loaded the GL with active safety features galore. Standard on all models is a collision assistance system that alerts drivers to a pending incident via visual and audible alerts, and it can prepare the brakes for aggressive application. An optional lane keeping system recognizes when the GL is beginning to stray into another lane of traffic. Using the brakes, it nudges the vehicle back into the lane. We found the system to be a little too aggressively intrusive, but it certainly does its job.
Pushed into the winding byways of scenic Northern New Mexico, our test GLs were remarkably nimble and powerful. GL550 and 450 models never want for power, although they do guzzle premium fuel (the EPA rates them at 13/18 and 14/19 mpg, respectively). Our choice would be the GL350 BlueTEC, which builds power slowly until around 2,500 rpm but sips diesel (at 18/24 mpg according to the EPA, but we bested that highway number in our testing).
Steering is nicely weighted and sufficiently communicative, while body motions were kept in check with the Active Curve System. Ride quality was simply superb, easily besting rivals like the Infiniti QX56 and the Cadillac Escalade. Mercedes-Benz's claim that the GL is the S-Class of SUVs seemed far less outrageous once we hit the road, especially given how well the extensive sound deadening and laminated glass tamed the outside world.
With its standard 4Matic all-wheel-drive sending power to all four corners, the GL is obviously much more adept than the S-Class off road. Washboard roads brought out an occasional clunk in the suspension, but our GL emitted no whimpers over a series of unpaved switchback roads. An optional On/Off Road package brings with it a low range for the transfer case, as well as a multi-height adjustable suspension to raise the vehicle for increased ground clearance.
Few GLs are likely to do more than a little curb hopping, but at least some capability is there for those who want to take the long way home. And with a vehicle as refined as the GL, we can't blame them.
Leftlane's bottom line
Feeling every bit the upmarket family hauler it is, the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is at the top of its segment. Although we usually gravitate toward to-the-hilt models, the pick of the litter here is actually the surprisingly efficient GL350 BlueTEC, a base model that hardly feels basic.
Go easy on the options and you'll find yourself driving the finest family hauler this side of a private jet.
2013 Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC base price, $62,400
2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450 base price, $63,900
2013 Mercedes-Benz GL550 base price, $86,900
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz