You'd sooner expect to see a moose on the streets of McCall, Idaho, than a 2008 Mercedes-Benz GL550. Sure, this little town on Payette Lake in the Rocky Mountains has been suitably gentrified as a resort playland, but let's face facts. The nearest full-service car wash is more than a hundred miles away in Boise, and it's hard to believe that a Mercedes would stray so far from convenient cleanliness.
But maybe that's the point. Even as high-powered sport-utilities like the Mercedes GL look ever more out of place in the drive-thru lane at your local Starbucks, they're still exactly what you want out here in vacation America, even in places where you're likely to get a little dirt on the fenders.
So the 382-horsepower 5.5-liter V8 that's now doing business in the 2008 Mercedes-Benz GL550 might be just the right thing for America after all.
Get on Board the Vista Cruiser
All this comes to us as we're cruising along U.S. 95 next to the Payette River, whispering effortlessly down the two-lane blacktop at 85 mph in the GL550. It's morning, and you can look far off across the basin and see the cattle rousing in the little patches of fog still hovering over the wet grass. Beyond, there's a steep ridge of mountains covered in timber, just as there seems to be almost everywhere you go in Idaho.
This isn't the sort of landscape you see every day. And if you think your fellow Americans are packing themselves into some kind of stripped-down Camry with roll-up windows so they can drive all the way out here and see this, then you're sadly deranged.
The Mercedes GL is this generation's answer to the 1973 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, a vacation platform that will carry the whole darn family, which is likely to include three generations these days (so the demographers tell us).
Asked to deliver a strong message of style, the Mercedes designers have once again got themselves into a lather and the GL550 displays the overheated results — chrome flashing, running boards, fender flares, 21-inch AMG wheels and a three-bar grille with a graceless Mercedes star the size of a family-style pizza.
All the conventions of sport-utility style have been hyped here, but fortunately the GL still has a sense of understated elegance that can withstand this assault by the Mercedes stylists.
When in Doubt, Choose Horsepower
The centerpiece of the new GL550 is a 5.5-liter version of the same 4.6-liter V8 introduced for the all-new GL last year. The larger-displacement 32-valve DOHC V8, which is also used in the E550 and S550 sedans, produces 382 hp at 6,000 rpm, a 14 percent improvement in output. Torque climbs to 391 pound-feet at 2,800 rpm, a 15 percent improvement.
As before, the GL's powertrain does business through a seven-speed automatic that is more notable for its impeccably smooth-shifting performance than for its whizbang specifications. The GL550's fuel economy is EPA-rated at 13 mpg city/17 mpg highway, and compares nicely with the GL450's 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway.
Once you choose the GL550 over the GL450, there aren't many other choices to be made, as the uprated engine brings with it uprated feature content. The GL550 incorporates nearly all of the GL options as standard equipment, including leather upholstery, three-zone climate control, a DVD-based navigation system and a Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system.
As you'd expect, the exhaustive features list carries the GL550's price into some pretty rarefied air, as it climbs from the 2007 GL450's $55,675 all the way to $77,750.
The same thinking also has been applied to the new 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML550, which Mercedes says delivers a 5.6-second time to 60 mph. It comes loaded only and stickers for $53,175.
The Driving Vacation
Along the upper reaches of the Salmon River, U.S. 95 winds back and forth along the riverbank in a canyon so narrow the sky is little more than a lightning bolt of blue. It's the kind of road that can bring out the worst in a big sport-utility, especially one that weighs 5,434 pounds and measures 200.6 inches from bumper to bumper.
But there's not a hint of the bounding body motions that can make fast driving in a big sport-ute as turbulent as a bad landing in a jetliner. The GL's unit-body chassis rides on independent suspension both front and rear, so it's like some great big crossover, and it combines good body rigidity and controlled ride motions.
Even when we found ourselves dicing with logging trucks on narrow roads alongside trout-fishing streams, the GL550 made us believe it was a far smaller vehicle. It's even profoundly quiet, and you frequently look down at the speedometer to discover that you're driving 20 mph faster than you thought.
A lot of the GL's poise comes from the 295/40R21 Continental ContiCrossContact VHP tires, which combine plenty of cornering grip with plenty of steering precision. We're not sure such a low-profile tire will deliver a comfortable ride on a metropolitan freeway, but that said, the three-position damping control for the GL's air-spring suspension does a fine job of controlling body motions.
Looking Out the Windows
There's nothing like big windows when you're gawking at the landscape, and the GL lives up to its VistaCruiser heritage as we emerge from the mountains into the wide-open Camas Prairie, once the homeland of the Nez Perce and now an immense ocean of golden grain.
As you'd expect, the GL promotes a luxury experience, yet the interior materials are tough enough to stand up to the dirt and debris a sport-utility should be expected to encounter in America. The center console even incorporates two huge wells for 32-ounce, Big Gulp-style refreshment (or even one 44-ounce container), long-overdue acknowledgement by the Germans that cups actually exist.
The GL550's practicality also encompasses three rows of seats (actual adult humans can fit in every row), with three zones of air-conditioning. The third seat folds flat into the floor electrically with the push of a button, leaving 43.8 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the second-row seat; and when both rear-seat rows are folded flat, there are 83.3 cubic feet of cargo space.
Safety is also part of a passenger-friendly vacation experience. There's a typically Mercedes-like selection of effective but unobtrusive dynamic safety measures, and it includes not only the usual front and side airbags for the front-seat passengers, but also side airbags for the second-row passengers, not to mention third-row side curtain airbags.
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz GL550 takes its place next to all the specialty luxury sport-utilities that have appeared just as the supply of cheap gasoline has finally dried up. Yet because of its fundamental practicality as a passenger package, the GL550 might have a more secure future than the SUV-style sports cars. The GL doesn't sacrifice the very things that make sport-utilities uniquely useful — passenger comfort and capacity, cargo volume, recreational utility and all-weather mobility.
There's plenty of cost built into this equation, of course, but think about the price of airplane tickets for summer and winter vacations, plus the GL's ability to take you places where no airplane can fit.
This Mercedes invites you to take a driving vacation out there in America. Like an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, it even makes you want to stop at the Gas 'N Go in Grangeville, Idaho, and buy some wacky tourist decals to stick in the rear window. Heart of the Camas Prairie! Home of Idaho's Oldest Rodeo!
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.