Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
OK, if you're like us, you're asking, "Doesn't Mercedes-Benz already have one SUV with the M-Class — two if you still count the G-Class?" And if you're concerned about the environment, you might ask, "Does the world really need another SUV?" So why has Mercedes-Benz chosen to build the 2007 GL450, a seven-seat, all-wheel-drive sport-utility powered by a 335-horsepower V8, in this era of SUV bashing?
According to its own studies, Mercedes has lost 25 percent of its current M-Class owners to full-size domestic-branded SUVs due to family-size growth. The company also knows that many well-to-do Mercedes-Benz sedan owners park something like an ExpeNaviBurbaLade alongside their E- or S-Class because, as much as they would like to put another Mercedes in the garage, there hasn't been one large enough.
Day of reckoning
Mercedes reckons the GL450 is the ideal vehicle for what it sees as a full-size traditional family and as such, provides for occasions that involve towing a boat/horse trailer or require the cargo capacity for visits to a home-improvement center. Additionally, the GL-Class, as an entire vehicle line, will be sold worldwide with a variety of engines, both gasoline and diesel, to cover everything from the Middle East to the Midwest.
For now, the all-new 4.6-liter gasoline engine will be the only one powering the all-wheel-drive GL450 in the U.S. market, but a new 50-state 3.0-liter "Bluetec" V6 turbodiesel will arrive in model-year 2008, badged as the GL320 CDI. With an impressive roster of standard equipment, the 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450 goes on sale in April at a base price MBUSA says is under $60,000 and tops out at about $70,000 with every available option, including towing and off-road packages.
The GL-Class was once intended to replace the comparatively ancient and crude G-Class (a.k.a. Gelaendewagen), but Mercedes found enough of a following for the military-spec box on wheels that it will continue to produce the G in small numbers.
Built alongside the midsize M-Class and large R-Class in its Tuscaloosa, Alabama, factory, the GL-Class aims to fill the gaps between those two in price, size and intended mission.
Mercedes describes the six-seat R500 ($55,000 base to $75,000 loaded) as an everyday vehicle for "late-forming affluent families" who don't have a need for towing. Think "premium minivan" and you've got the idea. The five-seat ML500 ($50,000 base to $70,000 loaded) is intended to be a stylish, sporty SUV that can tow up to 5,000 pounds and sometimes go off-road, but not with a family of five plus a weekend's gear and a dog, etc.
The seven-passenger GL450, on the other hand, blends the cavernous interior capabilities of the road-going R500 with the SUV qualities of the ML500, but adds power-actuated third-row seats (taking a mere 4 seconds up or down) that can accommodate real adults; a serious 4x4 off-road option with skid plates, low gearing and two locking differentials; and an optional 7,500-pound Class IV towing package.
High standards, low weight
Even in its most basic form, the GL450 comes with the aforementioned 335-hp V8, a seven-speed automatic transmission, Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel drive with traction control, adjustable-ride air suspension, and 18-inch wheels and tires. The standard all-wheel-drive system uses open differentials and ABS to detect wheel slip.
When up to three wheels lose traction, individual brakes stop those wheels from spinning and send power to the wheel(s) that do have traction. Even with the standard system, there's an electronic hill-descent control, and a host of other electronic changes that occur to the ABS, traction and stability controls when the off-road program button is selected.
The optional off-road package adds a planetary gearset and lockable differentials for true low-range four-wheel drive. For most buyers, the 4Matic AWD system is all you'll ever need, but it's nice to know the hard-core 4WD system is available.
Mercedes reps claim the unibody GL450, in its base form, is up to 450 pounds lighter than anything else of its size or capability. That may not sound like much to you, but imagine how that weight would affect the acceleration, handling and fuel economy of a full-size SUV.
Interior highlights include heated and powered front seats, eight airbags (including dual front airbags, side airbags for the first and second rows and three-row head-protection curtains), bird's eye maple trim, manual 60/40-split second-row and powered 50/50-split third-row seating, eight-speaker audio and a multifunction steering wheel.
We've driven much more expensive premium SUVs that don't offer this level of luxury or standard equipment. As self-evident as it may sound, the interior of the GL feels and looks like a premium product. The cabin is an exercise in taste and restraint despite the laundry list of equipment. The seats are exceptionally comfortable and well bolstered, feeling like they might've come out of the specialty AMG performance division rather than the M-B passenger car pool.
Despite its size, the GL offers good sight lines and unlike the sloping hood of the more minivan-shaped Audi Q7, it's easy to determine where the front corners of the GL are due to its sharply chiseled front fenders.
Refreshingly, the optional-equipment list is populated with individual extras you could live without, but can be sprinkled into the mix: bi-xenon headlamps with corner-peering articulation, Harman Kardon surround-sound audio, rear-seat entertainment, added third-row A/C, keyless ignition, radar-based cruise control, park-distance warning, rearview backup camera, satellite radio, power tailgate, sunroof, DVD/sat nav, heated second-row seats, heated steering wheel, auto-dimming/power-folding mirrors, off-road package, 19-inch wheels and tires, and the Class IV towing package.
As impressively exhausting as all that sounds, the most surprising aspect of this 200-inch-long unibody SUV is that it doesn't drive like a truck. We had the opportunity to pilot the GL450 for several hundred miles, on freeways, farm roads and slow/fast mountain passes. If we hadn't looked over our shoulders to see the 83.3 cubic feet of cargo room (with all seats folded), we'd never have believed it was a true seven-passenger SUV. Some of that has to do with the GL450's relatively low 5,300-pound weight, but some of it is due to how well all the parts work together in harmony.
The new 4.6-liter V8 is a free-revving and energetic engine that, when paired with the standard seven-speed automatic transmission, is never at a loss for power or in the wrong gear at the wrong time. It's the kind of perfect pairing that any manufacturer would strive to achieve, with a level of intelligence and habit-learning software that nearly makes the manual-shift pads on the back of the steering wheel unnecessary.
Mercedes' 7.4-second 0-60-mph claim is entirely believable. Enormous disc brakes (14.7-inch front, 13.0-inch rear) are aided by ABS, electronic proportioning and emergency brake assist. Happily, Mercedes-Benz has chosen not to apply its widely criticized (and recalled) Sensotronic Brake Control (SBC), and the result is a powerful and predictable system with a firm pedal.
The three-way adjustable air suspension offers a useful range of damping, from cushy comfort to firm responsiveness — the automatic mode was the best balance. Much of the GL's directional dexterity is derived from this active suspension, but the light and precise power-assist rack and pinion steering helps, too. The front control-arm and rear multilink suspension keeps the GL from feeling like an engine and caboose.
All combined, the GL450 redefines how comfortably and confidently a large sport-utility can and should drive. This is particularly noteworthy compared to domestic truck-based SUVs with similar tow ratings and off-road abilities.
As a "premium full-size tow-rated sport-utility," the GL450 might indicate that the SUV pie is inexorably slivering into ever smaller niches, but as a practical tool (and even as an everyday driver), it sets a new benchmark. Nothing from Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Range Rover or Volvo can compare to the GL's combined size, capabilities and drivability.
We also drove an optionally equipped GL450 with locking center and rear differentials, low-range transfer case, 19-inch monster-lug off-road tires (see photo) and skid plates. Granted, the extreme Dunlop Grandtrek MT2 tires would allow even an R-Class to go some places the GL conquered, but the optional package's height-adjustable suspension (up to 11 inches of ground clearance) and reduction gears were predictably effective for traversing muddy hillsides and steep-banked streams.
The only hindrance we could imagine for the GL450 would be its long wheelbase and 23-degree ramp breakover angle, which could limit some off-road prowess.
Unfortunately, the much touted second-generation Mercedes-Benz "PreSafe" system will not be part of the GL's initial standard or optional equipment — though we expect it to be in the future, as it is standard equipment on the North American S-Class sedan and an option on European M- and GL-Classes, as well. Also, no firm pricing or fuel-economy data was available as of this writing. We'll know more in mid-April '06 when the EPA releases GL450 figures, but expect it to come in somewhere around 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway.
Also, keep this site bookmarked for future announcements on the Bluetec-equipped GL320 CDI. Our initial impression after a brief demonstration drive was that the 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel was quiet, responsive and downright quick with its 221-hp/376-pound-foot output. No word, either, on whether the 4.0-liter V8 version of the new turbodiesel will make it over here anytime soon, but we hope so.
So there are two ways to consider the GL450's arrival: As a too-much, too-late offering or, if you're an optimist, as a unique premium-badge full-size SUV that fulfills a list of needs like no other. The (world) market will determine its fate, but we think the 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450 is a handsome, pleasant and capable vehicle that's been executed to Mercedes-Benz's high standards.
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