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Does Mercedes' second-gen seven-seat GL SUV make sense in the UK, or are rival sports SUVs from the likes of Land Rover more rewarding?

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One thing the car industry has done rather well over these past 10 years is anaesthetise our natural distaste for large automobiles. When the first Mercedes-Benz GL was launched in 2007, it was to fill a seven-seat hole in Mercedes’ North American line-up.

The soccer-mom shed on wheels was ideal for trucking kids and trailers from sea to shining sea, but it was perceived to be proportioned like an aircraft carrier when the German manufacturer attempted to insert it into the UK’s modest-sized niche. 

The original GL was conceived specifically for the US

European manufacturers were late to the feeding frenzy that is the US's full-size luxuy crossover market. For years, domestic and Japanese options had sated demand, but the introduction of the seven-seat Audi Q7 in 2005 marked the appearance of luxury brands from the old world.

Mercedes followed with the GL a year later, and if its debut a the Detroit motor show wasn't an obvious statement of intent, the decision to build the car in Alabama clearly showed where it was intended for.

Fast forward to 2013 and the new GL is still a gargantuan beast, yet our blossoming appetite for buying large SUVs – and our subsequent familiarity with them on our roads – has helped it to shrink somewhat in our perception. 

Certainly there is room for another premium seven-seat option in the large SUV class. It’s a growth segment, but one that lacks competition when compared with the more compact alternatives. So perhaps now there is room in British buyers’ estimation for Mercedes’ five-metre by two-metre prospect.

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Let’s find out if it deserves a place on the short list.

DESIGN & STYLING

21in Mercedes-Benz GL alloy wheels

You won’t mistake the GL for any of its siblings like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. This car is enormous. It’s longer, wider and taller than the model it replaces – a car we said was big enough to be problematic several years ago – and is longer overall than the outgoing S-Class, with more than three metres between the wheels. Not a car for anyone concerned about the size of their office car park, then. 

For all that, the GL is skilfully styled, with attractive details and panel sculpture to distract from the sheer expanse of metal. As the SsangYong Rodius proved, making a vehicle this size look normal, never mind good, isn’t easy. Mercedes can consider its efforts a quiet success.

The bonnet bulge is nicely suggestive of the longitudinal engine underneath

The GL’s is a monocoque construction. Its body is built mainly from steel with suspension of lighter aluminium alloy, but 90kg has been saved from the kerb weight by using aluminium for the bonnet and wings.

That’s 90kg out of an overall 2710kg, mind you. Range Rover TDV8, itself no lightweight and with two extra engine cylinders, is 85kg lighter. Considering the weight Stuttgart has saved from its new SL and S-Class models, that’s a bit unimpressive.

There are two versions for UK buyers: the 255bhp six-cylinder diesel tested here and the full-house 549bhp GL 63 AMG. Self-levelling, load-sensing Airmatic air suspension features as standard, connected to adaptive dampers at all four corners.

Optionally, you can also add extra ride height adjustability and active anti-roll bars, both to dial out body roll on the road and increase wheel articulation off road as part of Mercedes’ Active Curve system.

It seems a pity that you have to spec the optional On & Offroad Package to release the GL’s full off-road ability, but Mercedes knows that most owners won’t need it. Even in standard form, there’s a 30deg approach angle, which is reasonable, but it is slightly compromised by a 25deg departure angle.

The breakover angle of 20deg is respectable, given the vast wheelbase, and the 276mm ground clearance is fine for most rutted tracks. The capability to wade to a 500mm water depth is excellent.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz GL dashboard

If you’re not careful where you’ve parked, there’s an element of the absurd about getting in to the Mercedes-Benz GL.

Like a supertanker navigating the Panama Canal, the car is a tight squeeze for most parking spaces, and if the car next to you has been abandoned inconsiderately, there is much tummy sucking to do to get back behind the steering wheel. Many drivers will also find themselves using the showy running boards as a door step. 

It's worth splashing out on the real leather trim option

Once aboard, however, the GL doesn’t disappoint. The dashboard architecture is almost exactly the same as that found in the smaller ML we tested last year, so it’s visually appealing without any unnecessary showiness beyond a dusting of aluminium trim. The brashness is there but it’s all behind you, a built-in result of so much enclosed, clothed, trimmed and carpeted space. 

Mercedes says there have been marginal gains over its predecessor in shoulder, elbow and headroom in all three rows of seating, although the 9mm gleaned from the roofline right at the back is likely to be the most consequential. Very few alleged seven-seaters have a legitimate claim to seating their full capacity in comfort, but the GL comes far closer than most to fulfilling the brief.

Average-sized adults will fit in the third row (with some selfless adjustment by those seated in front), and thanks to an optional – and essential – motorised version of the Easy-Entry seating system there is even a slither of dignity to entry and exit. 

Unlike the second row, the final two seats in the GL’s 2-3-2 formation fold down electrically as standard, increasing the boot capacity from a respectable 295 litres to a voluminous 680 litres. Fold the middle row flat as well and there’s a near-inexhaustible 2300 litres, which eclipses easily the total load capacity of both an Audi Q7 and a full-size Range Rover.

Standard equipment is comprehensive and includes electric heated seats, Bluetooth, Mercedes' COMAND system with sat-nav and myriad media functions, a DAB tuner and climate control.

The Mercedes' standard entertainment system is fine, with CD, DAB and all the MP3 connections you could need, but there’s plenty more to spend your money on if you so wish.

As well as the Bang & Olufsen surround sound system, you can also specify options consisting of a TV tuner and a rear entertainment package, which includes two eight-inch screens in the back of the front headrests. The only essential add-on, though, is the Parking Package.

Sat-nav is included in the GL’s asking price. It’s legible once up and running via the seven-inch display, but it’s a little tiresome to use due to the interface’s lack of intuitiveness. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz GL rear hard cornering

How do you make a 2.7-tonne Mercedes brisk to drive? Equip it with a turbodiesel engine that produces 457lb ft from 1600rpm. Thus fitted, and driving through a seven-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox, it’s good enough to propel the GL 350 from 0-60mph in 8.3sec, across a standing quarter mile in 16.4sec and from 30-70mph in 8.2sec.

Those numbers are a short way off the latest Range Rover in TDV8 form, but not by an extent worth fretting over. The differences are small and the GL feels, in regular driving, as responsive as you could reasonably ask for.

The GL's capable of wading in water that's up to 500mm deep, if necessary

Its gearshifts, meanwhile, are for the most part smooth and unobtrusive, placing the GL in the right gear and at the right time. The odd exceptions are when it’s a little slow to respond if you’re really pressing on. So best not to, really.

Anyway, the nature of the powertrain doesn’t encourage it. This is an exceptionally quiet diesel engine – or, at least, a remarkably well insulated one. Perhaps it’s like sitting on the upper deck of an Airbus A380; you’re so far removed from the mechanical action that it all seems serene.

Certainly, our noise meter posted some of the quietest numbers we can remember, and although NVH quality is not solely defined by that, it helps. And the Mercedes-Benz GL is quiet.

There are things it isn’t, though. Light is one of them, but still, the GL hauls itself up from 70mph to rest in 47.2m, which is a strong performance. In the wet, it wants more than 50 metres, which is no better than average, but all told the Mercedes-Benz GL is pretty strong either going or stopping.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz GL cornering

A hefty body weight presents some opportunities, and some challenges, when it comes to vehicle dynamics. Big bodies are good for not being unsettled over small, higher-frequency bumps and lumps; like trying to push over a sumo wrestler, it takes some doing. But, likewise, if that wrestler gets unbalanced, it takes the big fella a while to right himself.

Granted, there is none of the dynamic charm of Land Rover’s latest product line - this a benign machine with ethereal, finger-twirling steering - but the GL benefits from the full support of its air suspension, fidgeting only slightly and inoffensively over British roads, and it drives in a perfectly acceptable fashion.

It seems a shame that you have to option up the Mercedes to unleash its full potential

Those seeking more compliance and cornering capabilities will, however, want to equip the 2710kg GL with Mercedes’ optional Active Curve system, whose adjustable anti-roll bars keep a pretty keen check on body movements. The set-up is adjustable via a couple of centre console-mounted switches, which change suspension and stability control settings for differing terrain or towing.

Auto will do for most conditions, and we left it in that for cornering photos (look at the shots and you’ll see a GL that is neither pitching, heaving nor wallowing). It retains, for a car of its girth, impressive composure over even severely cambered and crested asphalt. Not as composed, we’d say, as a Range Rover – it feels marginally less agile, a degree more nose-led and a lot less rewarding – but pretty decent nonetheless, given the sheer size and supposed off-road capability.

And the secondary ride? The way it deals with those little nuggety lumps and bumps? Pretty decent, all told. Somewhere, in attempting to keep a check on the body movements, we suspect that a touch of compliance has been sacrificed with the addition of the Active Curve System, but the compromise is probably worth making, given the extra high-speed composure.

Nevertheless, in either specification this is a car that steers steadily, seems unaffected by crosswinds and makes a supremely able and relaxed long-distance companion. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz GL-Class

If you’re shopping for a genuine seven-seat SUV, it’s worth reiterating just how limited your options are. The Audi Q7 is arguably still up to the task with its own three-metre wheelbase and is substantially cheaper than the GL in entry-level V6 diesel form.

But it’s long in the tooth now and is dynamically inferior to the new Mercedes. The Land Rover Discovery isn’t – quite the opposite – and a GL 350 budget buys you a top-line HSE Luxury model, but its standard back row is for children only. Ditto the optional third row that can be added to the new Range Rover Sport. 

The GL's residual outperform the Q7 and Land Cruiser

Considering its kerb weight, the GL 350 measures up well on projected running costs.

We didn’t get close to Mercedes’ quoted 35.3mpg combined economy figure – we saw 33.2mpg on our touring run and 27.6mpg overall – but, using it as a comparative figure, it’s not an unfeasible distance behind the 39.2mpg declared for the Q7 or the 38.7mpg claimed for the TDV6 Range Rover Sport.

The Audi – in relatively benign 201bhp form – is the class leader on CO2 emissions at 189g/km (compared with 194g/km from the Range Rover and 209g/km for the GL), but as this equates only to a marginal extra increase in the GL’s annual VED rate, it’s unlikely to sway a potential Mercedes customer.

VERDICT

4 star Mercedes-Benz GL

The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, a large 4x4 that is designed, built and primarily sold in North America, risks feeling utterly out of its place on a British back road or in a British car park.

But the Mercedes GL, partly down to its body control, partly down to steep sides that make it possible to place it accurately and partly down to a design that lacks brashness, fits in here – just. 

It's a shame that some of the cost options aren't standard

It feels vast, granted, but if you need to seat seven in comfort, there aren’t too many alternatives. If you need the off-road capability it offers and if you desire and can afford the luxury that it combines with a fine breadth of ability, the GL becomes more than just acceptable.

There are undeniably things to appreciate in the new Mercedes-Benz GL, and it could be convincingly argued that you’re getting rather a lot of space, kit, quality, economy and ability (even without the added off-road kit, it’s mighty capable on mud and capable of towing 3500kg) for the asking price.

Its Mercedes badge, however, does not stop it being squashed by the hefty handsome appeal and ineffable driver reward of anything under Range Rover branding.

For some, however, it will be genuinely desirable. We suspect that, ultimately, it will remain a car that, in Britain at least, sells in the hundreds rather than the thousands each year. But we also suspect that those hundreds will find the GL to be everything they wanted.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 2013-2015 First drives