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Published: 11/07/2012 - by Mike Magrath, Features Editor
If you grew up as an auto enthusiast, with sports cars cobbled together on shoestring budgets and amateur pride, Mom's car was a safe place. While your car was up on jack stands, Mom's car was sitting on four properly filled tires. While your car was out of commission waiting for parts you really couldn't afford, Mom's car started up every time.
Mom's car was always full of gas, quiet, comfortable. Mom's car was also slow, conservative and downright shameful if you were caught behind the wheel.
Your mom was not driving the 362-horsepower 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450.
Whisper-quiet, immaculately built and powered by a twin-turbo 4.7-liter V8, the all-new GL450 is the ultimate expression of the family SUV. Well, for families who can pony up $64,805 to get in the door, that is.
Designo — Italian for German Luxury
Unless you're a certified Mercedes-ophile, the 2013 GL may not even be a blip on your radar. But the biggest of Benz haulers has received a significant redesign for the 2013 model year that saw the GL grow marginally in all dimensions. The result of this stretch means that all rows of seats (2-3-2 now) have more head-, shoulder and elbow room. A new dashboard and instrument cluster now more closely mimic those in the rest of the Mercedes-Benz lineup and includes a 4.5-inch color display between the dials. The 2013 GLs are also armed with a range of new or heavily reengineered motors; two are direct-injection turbocharged V8s and one is a diesel V6 with 406 pound-feet of torque.
But the most striking thing about the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450 is the newly revamped interior, especially when it's equipped with one of Mercedes' optional Designo upgrade packages like our test vehicle. The $4,800 Designo Porcelain Leather package adds the nicest quilted leather and real wood this side of a Bentley. That's not hyperbole; the leather and woodwork are unmatched and the leather goes back all three rows. Sure, $4,800 is a tough pill to swallow, but this option package looks, and feels, like a deal at that price.
Beyond the slick white leather, the 2013 GL450 is decked out with traditional German understatement. Black leather is dotted with white contrast stitching, while vital interfaces — nav, shifter, climate, instrument panel — are outlined in satin-chrome trim that draws the eye. It's the subtle kind of luxury you hardly notice. Think IWC, not Hublot.
Few things eat miles the way a full-size SUV can, and few full-size SUVs can eat miles with the ease and confidence of the GL450. The big Merc glides at freeway speeds with the spooky quietness of an abandoned carnival at night. A thud here, a whoosh there; but never a distinct, relatable sound from a known source. At 50, 80 or 100 mph, it all feels the same.
The downside to the GL450's 5,875 pounds of road-hugging mass and 4.7-liter V8 is the truck's limited range. Going by the EPA's best guess, the GL450 should be good for 380 miles on its 26.4-gallon tank, but we only managed a max of 270.
Part of the problem was that we never hit the EPA's 19-mpg highway rating on freeway drives or the 14-mpg city rating in urban driving. Our combined fuel economy was 13.3 mpg, with a low of 11.6 and a high of 16.4.
Such is the price of business in the seven-seat, V8 luxury SUV world.
Taking the "S" out of SUV
The "Sport" part of the SUV moniker means different things to different people, but unless you define it as watching ESPN, the GL doesn't fit the bill.
All of the controls are light to the touch. A strong breeze through the window could move the steering wheel, while a misplaced sneeze might activate the brakes. The upside is that the brakes are remarkably well sorted. The long travel prevents sketchiness in the rare off-road or towing situation, and at full ABS they're capable of reeling this beast from 60 in only 113 feet.
This is especially good, as the all-wheel-drive GL450 can get from zero to 60 in 6.2 seconds (5.9 with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and crosses the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 96.9 mph — roughly the same speed as that sports car we built back in the mid-'90s.
All of the straight-line goodness is cancelled out by the GL's inability to behave like anything resembling a reasonable driver's vehicle. With the exception, perhaps, of the Mercedes-Benz G550, the GL450 has the most intrusive and paranoid stability control system in memory.
Out in the real world, it dabs the brakes on wet pavement, on sharp corners at normal speeds and over broken pavement. On the test track, the electronics fought us on the way to a 57.8-mph slalom speed and a 0.74g performance on the skid pad, the 20-inch Pirelli tires never getting the chance to squeal.
Our test-driver didn't hold back on the slalom performance. "The only positive to come out of this ridiculous exercise is that it teaches you to be super-smooth, because any show of aggression with the steering wheel and the GL immediately stabs the brakes, despite the fact that it isn't even close to reaching its grip limit. This is pathetic." In the same vein, the brake-throttle override is overdone, so left-foot brakers will have to adjust their driving to suit this vehicle.
Most GL owners won't even notice, but the level of intervention here is far too high and too frequent to ignore.
The Big "U"
Like "Sport," "Utility" is a loaded word in today's automotive landscape. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450 is not a parts hauler or a farm hand; the carpeting in the rear of this SUV is nicer than the stuff in most homes. It is, however, huge and the automatic fold-flat seats couldn't be easier to use.
With all of the seats folded, the GL is the protector of 93.8 cubic feet of flat storage space complete with tie-downs, which should be more than enough for that new whatever from Restoration Hardware. Fold just the third row and you're down to 49.4 cubic feet. With the third row in full effect, there are 16 cubic feet of space to play with.
Unlike with most SUVs these days, this last figure isn't just some number thrown in to fill out a spec chart. The 2013 GL is a true seven-seater with a functional, usable third row that even adults can tolerate for extended periods of time. The $400 Power Easy-Entry option automatically slides the first and second rows to allow non-gymnasts to ride in the way back.
Rounding out the "U" part of the acronym, our GL450 was equipped with the On-/Off-Road Package that lumps together a two-speed transfer case and a six-mode driving program selector similar to the terrain selector found in Land Rovers. This $1,800 option requires the addition of the $1,050 adaptive damping system and lets you increase ground clearance by a full 4 inches. Thankfully it also adds a front skid plate.
In practice, it works better than necessary given the way the GL will likely be used by its owners. The electronics that so hampered us on the road turn mild/medium off-roading into a drive in the park. Just point it roughly in the correct direction and the adjustable suspension, sophisticated electronics and low-range capability will get you safely to that lakeside cabin you've got with running water, WiFi and satellite TV.
The Rest of the Family
There are two other members of the GL family that also received upgrades for 2013. With its $63,505 price tag, the GL350 is the base model of the GL line. The GL350 comes with all of the same goodies as the 450, but swaps out the 4.7-liter gasoline engine for a 240-hp 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 twisting out a totally adequate 455 lb-ft of torque. The EPA rates this package at 17 city and 21 highway mpg, 3 mpg better all-around than our 450.
In practice, the diesel is only marginally more efficient than the 450, returning 16.9 mpg in notoriously fuel-sucking L.A. traffic. Unsurprisingly, the diesel gets fully trounced by the 450 in all measurable performance tests. Zero to 60 mph takes 8.4 seconds (8.0 with rollout), with the quarter passing in 16.2 seconds at 84.8 mph. Braking is similar at 118 feet and handling suffers the same fate as the 450, with a 57.9-mph performance in the slalom and a 0.74g lap around the skid pad.
If those kinds of numbers matter to you, there's always the GL550. It's even more expensive ($87,805 base) and its 429-hp, 4.7-liter V8 is even thirstier. While the other two GLs we tested rode on puny 20-inch wheels, the GL550 sits atop 21s wrapped in meaty 295/40 series Pirelli Scorpion Zeros, yet somehow weighs a full 162 pounds less than the 450. You don't need to be an engineer to know that this means a faster SUV. Sure enough, it'll spring from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds (5.1 with rollout) and blow through the quarter-mile in 13.6 seconds at 103.1 mph.
The 2013 GL450 is the middle child and arguably the most well-rounded of the three. Factor in base price and the constantly fluctuating cost of diesel and the 450 is the one to have.
Thinking of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450 as an SUV will quickly make budget-minded buyers spin with rage and curse the 1 percent. Instead, try to think of the GL as a hatchback, seven-seat luxury car that just happens to have all-wheel drive and enough ground clearance to clear a parking curb.
Sure, the new GL isn't as long as an S-Class, but the build quality and the comfort are there. The road manners and isolation are there, too, with the big SUV swaddling the driver and all rows of passengers in cocoons of soft leather and perfectly machined trim. We haven't seen this kind of luxury in mass transit since the Pullman sleeper car.
The trouble, then, comes down to perception. Pull up to the valet or the golf course in an S-Class and you've arrived. In the GL, you're merely showing up.
It's Mom's car all over again, but now we get it.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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