When Mercedes-Benz announced a new, three-row-seat sport/utility would be built on the second-gen M-Class chassis architecture and that it would replace the mil-spec G-Wagen, one of our editors wrote, "There goes the neighborhood. Mercedes is wimping out by killing off an icon and replacing it with an overwrought station wagon. How could they?"
That editor was me. But I'm pleased to advise you that it all came out fine. Continued customer demand garnered the brick-shaped G500 and G55 AMG a reprieve from the axe, and the new GL-Class came out so well it earned our 2007 Sport/Utility of the Year award. The latter draws it an automatic berth in our long-term-test fleet. The bad news is the party's over, because our Barolo Red over Macadamia beige tester was one of the most popular SUVs to ever spend a year in the MT garage.
Most cabin cruisers like this have 5.3- to 6.2-liter engines, so we wondered if the GL's 335-horse, 4.7-liter V-8 would have enough punch for fully loaded duty. Not a problem. Part of the credit goes to the superb seven-speed automatic transmission, which offers a ratio for every occasion without hunting. This powertrain combo drew universal praise from the staff as quiet, smooth, and powerful. Mercedes has since launched the even gutsier GL550, but we're not sure you need to go there unless you want to. Mileage over our test was a respectable 15.6 mpg, which included off-roading, gas-wasting photo-shoot support, and track testing.
One of the elements that elevated the GL to SUOTY-winning levels is its useable rear seat. There's room back there for real adults, not just 50th percentilers. Our GL had the power 60/40-split third-row seats, and positioning them up and down at the touch of a button proved super-handy, although one editor was bummed that you can access the way back only via the passenger side of the truck. The interior held up well, showing virtually no wear even after 25,000-plus miles of hard work, although the light cabin color dirtied easily.
Not everyone was thrilled with the environment, though. One staffer complained there were just too many buttons and their layout and function weren't intuitive. Mercedes has made great strides in this area of late, particularly in terms of its audio/nav systems, but you'll still need to spend a few hours in the driveway, with the owner's manual on your lap, to learn where everything is and how it works. Two editors observed that the rearview mirrors were on the smallish side for such a large truck that's likely to be towing a boat or trailer.
The GL's adjustable airbag suspension is a thing of wonder. Damping can be set to your choice of Sport, Comfort, or self-adjusting between the two. Most preferred the Sport setting, as the GL just handles better that way. The underguts also are adjustable for ride height, particularly handy for off-roading, although positioned at the highest ground-clearance setting renders the ride a bit choppy, as there's very little suspension-rebound travel left. A staffer took the GL to the home-improvement store and filled the SUV's rear with 20 50-pound sacks of gravel. The suspension adjusted itself to where the GL was level again, and the ride and handling were unaffected, as if to say, "So-what else ya got?"