SUVs have changed. For the first time ever, we didn't have a single body-on-frame example in our annual SUV of the Year competition. Remember, when Bob Lutz and Stephen Ross cooked up the Ford Explorer -- the vehicle most responsible for cupiding America's still-raging love affair with the SUV -- it was little more than an enclosed, four-door Ranger. For our 2013 competition, the overwhelming majority of the competitors were car-based. However, there was one vehicle that wasn't, and in the words of Frank Markus, "did more of what we expect an SUV to do." That vehicle is the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL.
The flavor didn't matter. From the fuel-sipping, diesel-powered GL350 to the "how can this be the weaker of the two V-8s?" GL450 to the "3-ton objects should not move this quickly" 429-hp GL550, Mercedes has built an SUV that's better than the rest. Not just in its competitive class: The new, second-generation GL is the best new SUV on the market period, and the winner of our prize.
Going into our weeklong test, some of us (hi, Mom!) suspected that the massive Mercedes would be the one to beat. After all, the very closely related ML finished second to the Range Rover Evoque last year, and we've always liked the three-row GL more than its two-row sibling. Little did we realize just how badly the GL would bully the other 10 competitors. At the end of our testing, we'd narrowed the field down to three potential winners: the GL, the Ford Escape, and the Nissan Pathfinder. But in truth, it was no contest.
Now, of course, there's a 900-pound gorilla (or, with the GL, a 5700-pound elephant) in the room: price. The GL never has been cheap. In December 2006, when we handed the first-gen GL our SUV of the Year calipers, the base price was $55,675. Five years later, the kitty has gone up: $63,305 is the price of admission to the "entry-level" GL350 Bluetec. Of course, the one we drove costs $87,500, a very pretty penny. Should you opt for gasoline propulsion, you'll need $64,805 at minimum. I say minimum because our GL450 showed up with an as-tested price tag of $94,265. Ahem. From there, things go stratospheric, with the GL550 starting at $88,485; the white monster we drove stickers for $108,310. Gulp. Oh, yeah, there's a GL63 AMG on the way. The price for that decadent, unnecessary luxury item? If you have to ask...
So, yes, the GL in all its forms ain't cheap. Until you start considering its segment. After all, the full-size, seven-passenger luxury SUV goes up against rivals like the Cadillac Escalade and the Infiniti QX56, both of which start--like the Mercedes -- at just over $60,000. Then you've got big-money vehicles such as the Lexus LX, which begins life at more than $80,000. The Audi Q7 can be had for a lot less money (around $47,000 to start), but throw in an engine that competes with any of the three offered on the GL and tick a few option boxes, and you're in the same tax bracket as the much bigger Benz. The real point, however, is how totally and completely the new GL dominates this segment. Calling it best in class is the definition of an understatement. It's the best the class has ever seen.
Let's start with the interior. Both the GL450 and GL550 showed up with designo interiors -- Mercedes-speak for "up yours, Audi" -- and we were all wowed. Our very Midwestern Frank Markus says of the GL450's Porcelain Leather, "More than $4000 almost seems reasonable for the Bentley-grade white designo interior in the 450. I want!" Then, of course, there was the Auburn Brown interior in the GL550, and it, my friends, was even nicer. As a few manufacturers have started doing recently, Mercedes now has the option of non-glossy, open-pore wood. And the grainy stuff in the GL550 is the best I've ever seen -- in any car. Oh, and the non-designo interior in the GL350 is nothing to sneeze at. Says Markus, "This is an S-Class wagon, from a cockpit opulence standpoint."
The GL350 Bluetec offers a range of more than 600 miles; the 450 has a payload of almost 1
Arguably nicer than the interior of the current S-Class, the GL's cabin is swathed in leat
available with an 830-watt harman/kardon audio system and 8-inch screens for rear-seat ent
As for interior dislikes, there weren't many. Our whole team agreed that COMAND, Mercedes-Benz's version of iDrive, is in serious need of a major rethink. That said, the 360-degree camera parking system (very similar to Infiniti's Around View) drew nothing but praise as the best the industry currently offers. The tallest member of our staff -- Scott Mortara -- did have an interesting complaint, "My only interior gripe is the seatbelt tensioner. It always pulls at my neck -- really annoying." There was also some concern about the speed at which the middle-row seats electronically fold. While not very fast compared with the other contenders' pull-levers, if your arms are full of stuff, the auto-seats are quite convenient. Especially as the front seats automatically slide forward to make room.
As far as the driving experience goes, consider us impressed. The 5774-pound GL350 and its potent yet thrifty diesel engine returned the second-best observed mpg of the competition, behind the 3038-pound Subaru XV--18.5 mpg compared with 22.4. (The 1.6-liter Ford Escape averaged 17.7 mpg over the same roads and conditions.) Remember, the GL is the largest passenger vehicle Mercedes makes, weighing over 100 pounds more than the G55. The gasoline-powered GLs returned the worst and second-worst fuel economy of the group, but they were 1200 pounds heavier than the next beefiest contender, the Infiniti JX. And the oil-burning, 455 lb-ft of torque wonder is the entry-level engine. The breadth and quality of the GL range also impressed us. The Ford Escape also has three engine options, but they only sent us the two EcoBoosted examples, leaving us to wonder if the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter inline-four (the Escape's base engine) isn't very good. Still, Mercedes has absolutely nothing to hide.
But it does have much to be proud of. "An absolutely amazing piece of machinery," crows Mortara. "An ueber-smooth ride, even in sport mode. You just float down the highway on a cloud and in silence." Floyd adds, "Over the entire two-and-a-half-day stretch, far and away the most fun I had behind the wheel was in the GL450, on both the road and off-road loops. It just shrank around me out on the winery roads. I honestly felt like I was in a sport sedan in spots."
The one disappointment was the high-powered GL550. Yes, it was by quite a margin the fastest SUV here (0-60 in 5.1 seconds!), but its on-road manners left many of us wanting. Says Loh, "Ride is overcaffeinated: jittery and skittish, possibly due to the larger tires and more weight in the nose.."
We all agreed the middle child 362-hp GL450 was the Goldilocks of the bunch. Especially off-road. Harwood smartly points out, "As manufacturers flock to crossovers, the capability is what suffers." Not so with the Mercedes. All three of them absolutely aced our (admittedly mild) dirt section. Markus notes, "Incredible off-road, too. No tricks, no low-range or lock, but it's sure-footed enough to billygoat right up at idle. DSR (Downhill Speed Regulation) works perfectly and allows you to set your speed from 1 to 11 mph. The GL450, with low range and the terrain-response-type dial, is even better. At the highest suspension setting, when the diagonal wheels lost traction, it seemed to lower the suspension to find grip. Even the 550 managed to idle up at 1 mph without spitting a single grain of dust."
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL truly is the complete package. As Mortara attests, "There is nothing more you could want or need in an SUV." Our editor-in-chief Loh puts it more colorfully: "Imagine a gigantic Swiss Army knife, with 50-some tools (one of the tools is a Leatherman, which itself has 50 tools). Now imagine all the blades are gold-plated platinum, and the inlaid mother-of-pearl handle is wrapped in leather from a Himalayan bald eagle. That's basically the GL."
At first glance against our six criteria -- Performance of Intended Function, Design Advancement, Engineering Excellence, Efficiency, Safety, and Value -- the Mercedes nails five of them. Value is, of course, the sticky wicket. But as stated earlier, when you start comparing apples to apples, the GL is no more expensive than the vehicles it directly competes against. And when you consider just how ahead of its class the big Benz is, you realize that the GL is indeed six for six. Impressively well done again, Mercedes.