2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class First Drive

2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is the leader in luxurious full-sized SUV transport. And it plans to stay that way.

What It Is
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is a seven-passenger full-sized crossover SUV aimed at families wanting luxurious and safe transportation.
Best Thing
Pure luxury, from the quiet interior to the smooth ride.
Worst Thing
Heavy second row seats must be manually put back in place
Snap Judgment
Already the segment leader among premium full-size crossover SUV, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class adds safety to its repertoire of myriad features.


"It's the segment leader," said the Mercedes-Benz PR rep as we stepped through the airport terminal door and out onto the parking lot. Sante Fe's warm and humid air immediately enveloped us, forming a sharp contrast from the chill and dry interior of the airport terminal. My traveling companions and I could see a light sheen on the PR folks faces as well as on the nearby crossover SUVs themselves, waiting almost expectantly like draft horses.

I took PR's pronouncement at face value. After all, Mercedes wouldn't make such a claim if it didn't have the figures to back it up. And the representatives did back up it, later: the GL-Class had 25 percent of the marketshare for full-sized premium crossover SUVs, followed by the Cadillac Escalade at 22 percent; the U.S. has the biggest SUV market share, followed by Russia, China, and Germany, etc. I didn't know all this at the time, of course. Instead, I was eyeing the GL-Class and internally asking questions of my own: does this look good? Really? Why? Do people really buy this over the Cadillac Escalade? Why? Is it a real luxury vehicle? Or a pretender, like some recent luxury vehicles I had driven? And is it worth the high price tag affixed to most Mercedes-Benz products?

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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The final question, though, as I climbed into the passenger side of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, was "where's the air conditioning control?"

Walkaround

The first thing that struck me about the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is how small it looks compared to its competitors, namely the Cadillac Escalade and even the Lincoln Navigator. To me, the GL-Class resembled one of the Mercedes-Benz station wagons--either a C or E-Class--writ large. Compare that to the Escalade, which is built off the massive Chevrolet Tahoe, or even the Navigator, which uses the Ford Expedition. Much of this impression is based on the boxy design of the latter two vehicles. Yet according to Mercedes, this second-generation GL-Class is larger than its predecessor, having grown an inch in length, with, and half an inch in height.

The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class also didn't stick out, design-wise, compared to its Cadillac counterpart. The GL-Class' revamped front grille and headlamps, with the prominent Mercedes three-point star smack in the middle, just didn't flash bling the way the Escalades' "in-yo-face" grill blinded onlookers. On the other hand, many vehicle owners in this segment prefer more subtle ways of showing off their status. Still, a part of me wished Mercedes could have tweaked the GL-Class sheetmetal to be a bit more expressive, like it did with its entry-level GLK-Class.

Sitting Down

The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class interior is quiet. And we mean quiet: During our drive (see below), my co-driver and I deliberately spoke in whispers to gauge how little noise permeated from the three major sources of interior noise: engine, the road, and wind. The proverbial "you could hear a pin drop" applies to the GL-Class interior.

Yet it's not an uncomfortable quietness. Spatially, the GL-Class interior feels cozy for such a large vehicle. A lot of this feel can be attributed to the layout. The seats, for example, are firm and comfortable with just enough bolstering to convey a slightly "sporty" feel. For 2013, the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class comes equipped with folding second row seats for the first time. This feature compresses, then tumbles forward, the seats into a tight package with the touch of a button, allowing easy access to the third row. Unfortunately, the seats have to be set back manually, which we found difficult due to their weight. According to Mercedes, the second row seats operate this way for potential liability issues. Buyers should definitely check the second row seats on this issue especially if they'll be accessing the third row seats on a frequent basis. By the way, we found those third row seats, like many in this segment, best for small children (not babies!) and/or short adults. The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class cargo space suffers severely when all three rows are up, with just enough room for a couple of large duffle bags or a folded baby carriage packed diagonally. Folding down the third row expands cargo space considerably, and both seats fold flat for large, bulky cargo like boxes.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The dash design and infotainment stack of the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class also adds to the cozy feel of the interior. Owners of the previous GL-Class model and other Mercedes-Benz vehicles will instantly feel comfortable with the layout, which carries over in practically every Mercedes vehicle. Fit and finish, from the wood inserts in the dash, the faux chrome around the climate control dials, to the double-stitch leather seats, are superb for this segment.

Finally, we found interior utility in the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class to be a mixed back. On the one hand, we liked the dual sun-visors for the driver and front row passenger, which allows them to block sunlight from both the front and side windows without having to swivel the visors like most vehicles. And our vehicles' 360 Surround View camera system made parking almost fun. Storage, though, was surprisingly skimpy for such a large vehicle. The GL-Class' lockable glove box would barely hold a purse or flashlight; there's no space to hold water bottles in any of the door side pockets; and the storage compartment between the two front row seats just have enough space for a few DVD jewel cases -- if inserted diagonally. Contrast that to storage within the Cadillac Escalade, where the similarly placed storage unit could swallow a laptop or a couple of iPads and still have plenty of room for more possessions.

Driving

Mercedes-Benz always gives the automotive press plenty of time to drive its vehicles. After receiving our fob for our Iridium silver 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, we drove two hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to our destination 8,700 feet above sea level to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dinner, then a restless 6-8 hours of sleep, and we were on the road again, first in the Mercedes GL450, followed by a return trip to our compound in the GL350 BlueTEC diesel model.

Quietly, of course. As mentioned above, we spoke in whispers on part of our trip. The GL-Class nullified road and wind noise even at high speeds. We stomped the GL550's pedal several times just to make sure the V-8 engine was working; it was, thrumming as it delivered 429 horsepower. That was more than sufficient power to bypass the few eighteen wheelers on the road or swiftly bypass that full-sized sedan. We found visibility around the GL-Class to be quite good, the blindspots not as large for, well, a large vehicle.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

And speaking of visibility, we found the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class' 360-degree Surround View Camera system ($1,290) to be nearly indispensible. The system creates a top-view simulation of the full-sized crossover and its surroundings in the middle of the GL-Class' seven-inch color screen. Following its displayed guide lines, we easily parked between two other GL-Class crossovers in a small dirt lot overlooking the town of Madrid (pronounced MA-drid). The GL-Class' light steering made it easy. Same with the crossover's suspension, which muted all road imperfections. At Madrid, we learned about the town's coal mining past, its reclamation by so-called "hippies", and its transformation into an artist colony. Mining had rendered local water supplies undrinkable; Madrid, like many small, out-of-way places across New Mexico, has to import its drinkable water and store it.

Water was not as much an issue in the community of Earthship Our third and probably most interesting major stop on the trip, Earthship is actually a development of "sustainable green building design." Both the lone model and the residences at Earthship are made from natural recycled materials such as dirt and recycled products like glass bottles and used tires. According to both Earthship and Mercedes-Benz reps, Earthship homes are so efficient in their insulation and use of recycled water, sewage, etc., that an average Earthship home's utility bill is around $1,000 a year. On the other hand, an average Earthship home costs around $300,000 to build. By comparison, we felt like the One Percent as we climbed back into our GL-Class and pressed on the engine. We shouldn't have: Mercedes states it has improved the GL-Class' fuel economy by 15 percent compared to last year's model while only adding 15 pounds to the crossover's overall weight. Mercedes estimates the GL450 model gets an estimated 14 mpg city and 19 mpg highway. The Environmental Protection Agency has yet to release its official figures at the time of this review.

Higher altitude can affect a vehicle's fuel economy. Taos, which was the fourth major stop, is located more than 10,000 feet above sea level, and many of us were literally out of breath from the altitude as well as chatting for hours on the road. But we never noted a significant drop in engine performance in our GL450 or in the diesel-fuel GL350 on the return trip. We also didn’t hear that rumbling sound characteristic from the latter's diesel engine or note the fuel's distinctive scent in the still desert air. Several of us took our vehicles briefly off-road where we heard the distant sound of dry dirt crunching under the GL-Class' 19 inch tires. Neither of our two vehicles was equipped to go off-road though Mercedes offers such a package ($2,850). On the other hand, the GL-Class is chockfull of safety equipment. For 2013, three major systems--Attention Assist, which detects if the driver is tired or intoxicated; Collision Prevention Assist, which preps the GL-Class for imminent collision; and Crosswind Stabilization, which keeps the crossover steady in high winds--are available. Fortunately, we never needed any of the systems as we ended our test drives by touring the city of Albuquerque before returning to the resort.

Summary

That Caddy better be good.

Back at the office and that was our first thought as we pulled up our test vehicles for the week. The Cadillac Escalade was scheduled to arrive shortly, and we were eager to compare the two market leaders so close together.

And the Cadillac Escalade would have to be good. Our three-day sojourn in the Land of Enchantment illustrated why the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is the best-selling luxury crossover here in the states. The GL450, which Mercedes said accounted for 60 percent of GL-Class sales, offered everything expected from a luxurious SUV flagship: a powerful engine; premium materials inside and out; excellent fit and finish; comfort, from the wide chairs, to the entertainment systems; modern electronics; safety; and expected quietness from the engine to the road to wind noise. The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class offered all these features as standard, encapsulated in an attractive package. Other GL-Class models primarily focused on the powertrain with the GL350 BlueTEC offering the best fuel-economy, to the G63 AMG (due early next year) offering huge power.

Basic Specs

3.0-liter turbo V-6 diesel, 7-speed automatic, all-wheel drive, 240-hp, $62,400, fuel economy TBD
4.6-liter twin-turbo V-8, 7-speed automatic, all-wheel drive, 362-hp, $63,900, fuel economy 14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway / combined TBD
4.6-liter twin-turbo V-8, 7-speed automatic, all-wheel drive, 429-hp, $86,009, fuel economy TBD
5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8, 7-speed automatic, all-wheel drive, 550-hp, Price TBD, fuel economy TBD

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