It may be a hard pill to swallow, but a Mercedes-Benz that's neither a Unimog nor a G-Wagen is capable off-road. Mercedes has made some significant changes to the GL for 2013, including new engines, new styling, and a heavily updated optional off-road package.

This seven-passenger SUV is comparable in size to the Cadillac Escalade -- and outsells it. The 2013 GL is taller, wider, and longer than the 2012, sits on a wheelbase that's more than 5 inches longer than the Cadillac's, and is about the same length, and is wider. Style changes are most apparent below the rear side windows, where the body uses an angular upsweep that matches the angles on the nose and the sharp bodylines. The interior is filled with the lux touches you would expect in a Mercedes, the materials, fit and finish being similarly top-notch.

There are currently three engine choices: the 3.0-liter turbodiesel, tweaked for 2013 to add 30 hp (now 240) and 55 lb-ft of torque (now 455), and two 4.7-liter V-8s. The one in the GL450 is basically a refresh of the 2012 engine and now puts out 362 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque, increases of 27 and 67, respectively. The one in the GL550 takes over for the 5.5-liter V-8 found in the 2012 GL550 and offers 429 horses and 516 lb-ft. When the AMG-tuned GL63 goes on sale in early 2013, it will have a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 good for 550 hp and 560 lb-ft. All four engines are backed by a seven-speed automatic. Towing capacity is 7500 pounds for all non-AMG models.

We had the opportunity to drive three of the four (the GL63 wasn't available yet), and though the diesel and base 4.7-liter are impressive, the 550 is easily the biggest news here. WIth a 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds, it is incredibly fast for a vehicle that boasts a 5700-plus-pound curb weight. Braking is equally impressive: 60-0 mph takes just 116 feet.

Inside, it's roomy and quiet. There is no question it's a luxury vehicle. The ride is pleasant and cushy on the highway in Comfort mode. Putting it in Sport mode makes steering response, shifts, and steering quicker and crisper. In turns, the suspension is tighter and more responsive.

The GL's Active Curve System, available on all models, uses a set of electronically disconnecting anti-roll bars, making Mercedes-Benz the second manufacturer to offer them. However, with the Electronic Disconnecting Front Sway Bar in the Wrangler Rubicon and Power Wagon, the driver can push a button to connect the two-piece bar on-road and can disconnect it off-road -- basically "on" or "off." Mercedes' system uses various sensors in the vehicle that measure things like wheelslip, wheel height, and steering angle to determine how much the anti-roll bars will work. Active Curve responds to what the vehicle is doing, on-road or off, to activate the anti-roll bars (on twisty roads, for example). The anti-roll bars' intervention is variable and automatic, determined by data from the sensors, and can be completely disconnected off-road.

The On/Off-Road package, available on the 450 and 550, is similar to other systems on the market -- such as those in the LR4 and Grand Cherokee -- where you can select the icon that best matches what you're doing, whether towing, driving in snow, or rock-crawling (or as close to that as a Mercedes driver would get), and also allows you to select low range and vehicle ride height. A screen on the IP shows side slope angle and vertical angle when off-road. Base ground clearance is 8.5 inches, which can go up to 12 total with the air suspension.

Is the GL550 expensive? Yes. Our tester cost more than $100,000 as equipped. But for that you get Mercedes luxury, fantastic power, and plenty of capability. It's a shame that only about 10 percent of GL buyers will opt for the On/Off-Road package, as this system makes it really easy to go off-road, where the GL is highly competent. But even those who don't want to explore the back country can enjoy towing, carrying 94 cubic feet of cargo, or chauffeuring six others in style.


2013 Mercedes-Benz GL550 4Matic
BASE PRICE RANGE $87,805
PRICE AS TESTED $108,310
LAYOUT Front engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 4.7L/429-hp/516-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 7-speed automatic
WHEELBASE 121.1 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 201.6 x 84.3 x 72.8 in
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 5720 lb (52/48%)
TOWING CAPACITY 7500 lb
0-60 MPH 5.1 sec
QUARTER MILE 13.6 sec @ 102.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 116 ft
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON Not yet announced
CO2 EMISSIONS Not yet announced
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently