Benz Goes Big

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Mercedes Produces Two Heavy Hitters With GL, R-Class Models

I can’t be sure exactly what the cyclist was saying, but his sentiment was clear. It had a lot to do with his shaking fist and angry expression. It seems that while driving to work one morning, I had strayed into the bicycle lane and was impeding said disgruntled cyclist. Strange really, as I wasn’t doing anything differently from any other day—same route, same turning lane, same everything—but I had forgotten one important thing.

The new Mercedes-Benz GL-Class sport utility vehicle is big—seriously big. If you think you know big SUVs, you haven’t seen the new GL. The Range Rover by comparison is a mere gangly adolescent. From its standard 18-inch wheels to its massive front grill, the GL is huge—enough to be sitting halfway in a bicycle lane without the driver even realizing it.

Mercedes-Benz GL-Class SUV There is, luckily, a method to Mercedes-Benz’s apparent madness. Unlike the recently released and noticeably smaller ML line, the new GL has room for seven people and plenty of luggage space to boot. There is certainly no denying that the interior of the GL is pleasantly spacious, combining minivan practicality with all the advantages of four-wheel drive. It’s comfortable too, and unlike many competitors, the rear row of seats can actually accommodate adults and not just children.

The downside is that all of this space has somewhat compromised what the designers could do with the exterior. Whereas the ML is curvy, the GL is, well, chunky, particularly around the overly upright “D-pillar” roof support located at the rear of the vehicle. Having said that, the GL couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a Mercedes—not a bad thing—and it definitely boasts a certain majesty and presence.

Solid looks and seven seats are fortunately not the only distinctions the GL has from the ML. The GL is geared to be a serious off-roader, packing plenty of power with features such as a low-range gearbox, DSR or “Downhill Speed Regulation,” which limits the speed of the vehicle while in descent, ensuring high levels of control, as well as sophisticated air suspension. It’s that same air suspension, in fact, that helps the GL maneuver around corners without suffering excess body roll, delivering a ride comparable to a luxury limousine.

Despite its bulk, the GL—thanks in large part to unseen electronic aids—manages to do a good job of navigating corners, and I was pleasantly surprised at the cornering speeds that were readily achievable. The steering is typically Mercedes-Benz—in other words, not exactly sporting—but it does the job.

There are two available engine options, with the GL450 at the top of the heap. With a 4.6-liter V8 nestled snugly under the bonnet, and 335 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque on offer, the GL450 makes short work of its two-and-a-half ton bulk, rocketing from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 7.4 seconds. This SUV could eat plenty of sport sedans for breakfast, and there is little chance of finding yourself stranded in a passing lane, as is often the fate of lesser SUVs.

Mind you, if the eye-watering performance conjures eye-watering scenes of a different type at the gas pump, Mercedes-Benz also offers a less expensive alternative that sports a 3.0-liter diesel V6 engine. Interestingly, although the diesel GL only offers 215 horsepower, it packs a punch in the torque department by producing 398 pound-feet at a lowly 1,400 revolutions per minute (rpm), which is more than its rival V8.

Fuel economy figures by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggest the diesel-powered GL will return between 20 and 25 miles per gallon depending on city or highway driving conditions. The United States has been late to the party on diesel engines—Europe leading the charge now literally for decades—but those in the know will be quick to take advantage of the significant gains in performance, economy and environmental sustainability that are now widely available.

Both GL versions come with extensive standard equipment, including the ability to lower the third row of seats electronically, although the GL450 takes the luxury honors with its inclusion of rain-sensing windshield wipers, bi-xenon headlights, separate climate-controlled air conditioning for the rear of the vehicle, and a top-notch stereo. The price? A cool ,175 for the diesel and ,675 for the GL450, which is a significant increase over the equivalent ML model.

Mercedes-Benz R-Class Fortunately, if you’re sold on a Mercedes-Benz with plenty of seats, there is yet another alternative. It’s called the Mercedes R-Class, and although it’s marketed as an SUV, most people will recognize it is an “MPV,” or multi-purpose vehicle, better known as a minivan in North America. But if the term conjures images of slab-sided barges, don’t be too hasty in dismissing the R-Class, which is actually quite striking, at least from certain angles. Rarely do minivans get any sort of notice, but the R is a genuine head-turner, and whenever I parked it on the street, the number of people who stopped to get a second look was, quite frankly, surprising.

I first laid eyes on the R-Class at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, in early 2006. There is a certain degree of irony in this as both the R-Class and GL are built and largely designed in Mercedes’ state-of-the-art production facility in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. Given the American love affair with the minivan “people mover” as well as large four-wheel drives, this actually makes perfect sense in a strange kind of way.

Like the GL, the R is a large car. It has a wide front end with slightly bulbous headlights—not unlike a B-Class on steroids in fact. The profile is marred by a thick D-pillar, but otherwise tapers to a nice rounded finish, which certainly fits in well with the current Mercedes-Benz design theme.

The test vehicle I drove was an R350, which came equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 engine that develops a solid 268 horsepower. Like the GL, the R-Class is no lightweight sports sedan, and the V6 is a gem of an engine that powers to 60 miles per hour in an impressive 8.1 seconds—and not many minivans can make that claim.

Unlike the GL, the R only seats six, but it does so in a stylish and sporting interior that features considerable standard equipment, including leather interior, executive chairs, full electronics, dual-zone air conditioning and more. It also has highly advanced electronic aids to ensure that you always stay on the road, but on the downside, the minor controls are a little fiddly and not especially intuitive.

And although it has typical Mercedes steering—i.e. largely uninformative—the R is a pretty good drive nonetheless. The ride is particularly boosted by the 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive system, which again helps on the safety front but also ensures that the vehicle tracks, steers and holds to the road competently. The R remains flat and controlled during fast cornering and steering traits are largely neutral. Like its GL brethren, the R feels like a large car but has an uncanny ability of shrinking around the driver after a few miles under its belt. The seven-speed gearbox is also impressive, and the ride is quite sumptuous, with the suspension doing an excellent job of smoothing out the bumps and potholes on those all-too-familiar poorly maintained roads.

Unlike the GL, the R-Class is offered in four model variants that include the 350, the diesel 320, as well as a 5.0-liter V8 R500 and a foot-stomping R63 AMG model that offers a staggering 500 horsepower. The AMG could be just the thing to impress the other moms and dads at the soccer game, but at ,175, the thrill won’t come cheaply. If practicality is more your style, then the R350 retailing at ,775 or the diesel at ,775 might be the models to take for a test drive.

It’s difficult to dislike the R-Class despite any preconceived notions you may have about multi-purpose vehicles, and although it may not be to everyone’s liking, it makes a robust argument for Mercedes-Benz’s credentials in the people and large-load carrying department.

About the Author

Karl Ferguson is the automotive reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999