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The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is aimed squarely at the Audi Q7 - but is a quite different car

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When your Mercedes M-Class just isn’t accommodating enough, when your seven-seat R-Class hasn’t the ground clearance or when your Gelaendewagen feels as antique as Keith Richards, what’s a Mercedes 4x4 lover to do? The answer is the Mercedes GL-Class.

The GL was conceived back in 2003. After 23 years on the market, the venerable G-Wagen was in desperate need of replacement. Mercedes research in the States showed that 25 percent of its owners were looking for an SUV bigger than an ML, and consequently many were leaving the brand to shop elsewhere. And back in 2003, with a gallon of ‘gas’ in the States costing less than bottled water, sales of so-called full-size SUVs – the Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators – were booming.

The GL feels titanic in proportion on UK roads

When the GL was launched in 2006, the reaction to the ending of G-Wagen production was such that Mercedes decided to keep the old dear and make the GL an additional model

The GL was conceived as a sister car to the M-Class and R-Class and is made at the company’s flexible assembly US plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so production of the three can be rebalanced to follow customer demand.

So what’s the difference between this and, say, the Audi Q7? On the face of it, not a lot. They’re both after the same buyers. They’re both five-metre-long off-roaders, weigh two and a half tonnes and can seat seven.

But they’re not actually the same breed at all. Whereas the Audi is a road car first and off-road device second, this new GL, like the original G-Wagen, is meant to be at least as good off road as it is on it.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz GL headlights

The GL’s no-nonsense styling has aged well. Because of its size (it is just over 5m long and 1840mm high) and the fact that it had to slip in alongside the M-Class and R-Class luxury MPV, Mercedes’ designers didn’t have much room for stylistic manoeuvre.

That said, the Jeep-like lines are classically suited to this market. The big Merc grille and the slick headlamp design help to soften the form of this huge machine, but seen in the context of a typical street, the GL is a significantly bigger vehicle than any other direct rival.

It's not pretty, but the GL is inoffensive-looking for such a huge SUV

Because of the desire to make space for the three rows of passengers, the roofline needed to high and the tailgate upright. Although this means that there’s a reasonable 200-litre boot even with the rear seats in place, the car’s silhouette is big and broad.

Mercedes’ designers did a good job of disguising this van-like profile with a very gently sloping roof and usual C-pillar, which is narrower at the base than at the top. Tinted privacy glass also softens the profile.

Inside, the interior is typical mid-2000s Mercedes: unadventurous but nicely crafted and well made. Aside from the two big, round air vents on top of the dash, the rest of the cabin lacks a stand-out feature, but that’s in the tradition of Mercedes interiors and many buyers will expect nothing less (or, perhaps, more).

The big sat-nav screen dominates the centre console and the (extremely handy) column-mounted gear selector leaves space in the centre console for very easily accessed cupholders. The seats are Germanic in the generosity of their width, even in the third row. 

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz GL interior

The inside of the Mercedes GL will have real appeal. It’s bright and airy inside, thanks to the car’s conventional proportions and a large glass area. 

Sit in one of the big, electrically adjustable leather front chairs and the side window extends from comfortably below your shoulder to above head height. And although the window line rises slowly towards the GL’s rear, it’s still not claustrophobic even in the rear pair of chairs.

The GL seats seven adults in more comfort than any SUV rival

That’s not just down to the general airiness, though. The GL can seat seven adults properly, each one in comfort. Even the rear pair of chairs has good head and legroom and they’re also a doddle to raise and fold (flat into the boot floor) because they’re electrically operated.

A touch of a button will fold either – or both – seats to provide a flat cargo space. And they’re fast folding, going from 0-to-flat in under five seconds. Flip forward the middle row and the load area becomes cavernous, with a capacity of up to 2300 litres and a platform that measures over 2100mm in length. 

There are a couple of shopping-bag hooks in the boot, too, and a load bay cover that can be fixed behind either the middle or rear row of seats. The GL’s is a cleverly designed interior.

And there’s another benefit to that large glass area. Despite the GL’s size, it’s easier to negotiate around car parks and tight roads than a Q7. With its square sides and good mirrors, it’s easy to get a fix on its width. It’s tougher to gauge accurately where it ends, though, so you’ll still seek out the biggest parking spaces on offer. The GL, like many of its rivals, may work in the US and Middle East, but it’s less at home in Europe.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz GL rear quarter

In today’s Mercedes showrooms, you can choose from just two engines: the 382bhp, 391lb ft eight-cylinder G 500 and the 261bhp, 457lb ft V6 turbo diesel unit.

The latter – badged GL 350 BlueEfficiency – offers a handy 0-62mph sprint time of just 7.9sec and a top speed of 140mph. The V8 is a bit swifter at 6.5sec, but it seems a bit pointless when the 350 CDI delivers significantly more torque from just 1600rpm, while the V8 engine has a lower peak pulling power which only hits the maximum from 2800rpm.

Do you really need paddles in a GL? It's not a car that's ever going to be driven vigorously - nor that responds well to such treatment - and 'box is fine in auto mode

Both versions use the 7G-Tronic Plus autobox, which should give snappier shifts than the previous version, which was prone to serious hesitation from standing starts. There is the option of switching gears via the paddle shifters, but it is probably best left in Drive.

Both engines give more than adequate real-world performance, although the GL’s capacity for people and luggage, on top of the 2.5-tonne empty weight, means that performance will be noticeably subdued when it is fully loaded.

The cabin is quiet at motorway speed. The drag coefficient of 0.37 is not class leading, but there’s plenty of soundproofing to maintain executive-car levels of quietness.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz GL hard rear cornering

Like the ML, the GL gets 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive system. It features front, rear and centre diffs working with Mercedes-Benz’s 4-ETS electronic traction control. Normally the torque distribution is 50-50 front-to-rear. But if the system senses a wheel slipping it can re-direct the torque front to rear and side to side to the wheel, or wheels, with grip.

If serious mud plugging is in your future, there’s a pukka off-road package available. It includes a modified AIRMATIC system that raises the body higher to give up to 307mm of ground clearance added to the ability to splash through water 600mm deep.

If serious mud plugging is in your future, there’s a pukka off-road package available

On more demanding roads the GL is as good as, but little better than its off-road-biased rivals – which means it’s more cumbersome than a Q7, Cayenne or X5. It’s also noticeably poorer than the five-seat ML. It might get adjustable dampers with three modes, but none is truly satisfying for brisk road driving.

In Automatic and Comfort modes it lacks proper body control. Movements are more tightly checked in Sport mode, but the ride becomes a touch lumpy. It's not dangerous under braking, and we’ve no qualms about stopping power, but the brakes suffered fade after only a few high-speed stops.

Its lengthy, 3075mm wheelbase limits agility, but axle articulation is first rate, and even without the differentials locked the electronics distribute power so it can drive along with two wheels airborne. Off road, it’s a struggle to exhaust the GL’s ability.

At its highest, the GL’s fording depth is 600mm and ground clearance 307mm. It has 33deg and 27deg approach and departure angles respectively, and will tip over only after listing 35deg. There’s a full-length skid plate underneath, lockable differentials, a hill descent system and a low-range set of gears. In short, it’s as equipped as any big SUV for off-roading.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 2006-2012

There will be few buyers for the V8-engined Mercedes GL. It is swift, but the base price of over £73,000 is well into Range Rover territory, which may be a step too far for a relatively unglamorous, if hugely practical, vehicle. The V8 is ranked at 15mpg in town and just 20.8mpg on the combined cycle. The CO2 rating is 317g/km. The final nail in the V8s fiscal coffin is the retained value of just 30 per cent over three years.

The best argument for the diesel engine is its superior economy. No GL weighs less than 2.45 tonnes, so the fact that the diesel version has an official EU combined figure of 30.7mpg, an urban figure of 24.4mpg and a CO2 rating of 242g/km is relatively impressive. Retained value is much better, at 42 percent over three years.

No GL weighs less than 2.45 tonnes

Both cars will be expensive to insure, with the V8 in the high category of 50 and the 350 CDI in at group 49. The V8 gets an ‘M’ road tax band rating and the diesel is in the L band.

VERDICT

4 star Mercedes-Benz GL

There's no questioning the breadth of ability possessed by the Mercedes GL. It is excellent off road and respectable on it – particularly thanks to its two excellent engines, which give the buyer a choice of sheer polished performance, or real-world pace and decent economy. 

If you regularly carry seven over long distances – or five and huge amounts of luggage – the GL-Class is something of an unsung hero. It's certainly a nice way to travel and seats seven with absolute ease. But you pay handsomely for the privilege.

There's no questioning the GL's breadth of ability

In many ways, the GL falls into an odd gap in the luxury SUV market. Recent price rises for the flagship Range Rover mean the diesel GL is more of a competitor for the seven-seat Discovery, which is also a proper off-roader.

The GL 320 CDI costs marginally more than the most expensive Discovery HSE, but then it is arguably more of a luxury experience, slightly more spacious and probably better built.

It is a very small niche, but if you do want a very highly-speced (the GL350 lacks only leather trim), very spacious seven seater with genuine off-road potential, it is either this or a flagship Discovery. And the GL has the edge over the Land Rover in terms of luxury and build

Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 2006-2012 First drives