Heading into this year's Sport/Utility of the Year competition, nary an editor predicted that the all-new Mercedes-Benz GL450 would roll away with the coveted caliper trophy. Inasmuch as value is one of the three major criteria--the others being in-class superiority and marketplace significance--the GL already seemed handicapped. Its base price of $55,675 hardly sounds economical, not to mention that, when well equipped, as was our tester, a GL's window sticker can easily push $70 grand. As for superiority and significance, heck, several voters quipped that they wouldn't be surprised if the GL missed the first cut. Why? Because so few of our staff had spent quality time at the wheel or inside of Mercedes's first full-size sport/utility. And given that the GL shares a platform with the M- and R-Classes, with which every editor's been intimate, yet never quite fallen in love, we weren't expecting fireworks.

But following two intense weeks with the GL, it was all sparklers and Roman candles for the biggest Benz ever offered in the United States.

Although its proportions aren't subtle--it measures just over 200 inches long, nearly 76 inches wide, and over 72 inches tall--the GL never feels like a full-size brute that can swallow seven; rather, it drives small, coming across more as an S-Class sedan than an Escalade competitor.

Mercedes tuned the GL's chassis to near perfection. From the tight and linear steering to the robust four-wheel vented disc brakes to the standard adjustable air suspension, the GL easily manages to put the sport in sport/utility. The front end bites through turns. The rear end never wallows. And the ride can be either supple or taut--simply depress the dash-mounted button to adjust the dampers from comfort to sport.

Through our objective handling tests, the GL solidified our impressions. Its respectable skidpad number of 0.76 g bettered those of all four GM full-size 'utes as well as the lateral grip of the Ford Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator. Ditto for its slalom speed of 59.2 mph, which was faster than those of every full-sizer save the athletic Audi. Subjected to the handling- and braking-intensive figure-eight test, the GL scurried through in 28.2 seconds at 0.59 g average, fifth best in the field and superior to many of the small, sporty SUVs, including the Nitro, Outlander, and RAV4. In 60-to-0-mph braking, the GL, at 129 feet, finished near the front of the pack, tying with the much lighter CR-V and Santa Fe.