Aug 24,2006 00:00
The American-bred sport utility vehicle is a constant frustration to the import imitators.
Those brands -- the Europeans mostly -- tend to take carmaking seriously and want to overthink and overengineer their versions of the SUV.
It will have no compromises, drive with the fury of a sport sedan and climb mountains like King Kong.
It joins the boxy and iconic G-Class ($81,675), a leather-lined military-grade vehicle that really can climb like King Kong.
Mercedes hopes the sleek and efficient GL will appeal to its base of U.S. buyers when it's time to replace their Dodge Durango, Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac Escalade, etc.
Some will. Some will still prefer the American SUV, even as it has become better groomed, due mostly to the imports.
GL450 pricing starts at $55,675. The test truck was $68,075.
And it is a fine piece of horseflesh, with air suspension, permanent four-wheel drive with hill-start assist and descent speed control and a special off-road ABS algorithm, all of which takes the place of a two-speed transfer case.
There is the Off-Road Pro package, which adds a two-speed transfer case with locks for the center and rear differentials and a modified air suspension that raises ground clearance to a foot and the low-speed fording depth to about 2 feet.
But don't even think about getting mud on this carpet.
Built with a full metal jacket and all the latest safety features, the interior is trimmed in bird's-eye maple, leather, power front seats and a glass sunroof with a skyview over the third-row seats.
The two 50/50 split third-row seats fold flat at the push of a button, either separately or together.
It's nice to look at inside and out. Some of the interior plastic isn't any better than what's found in a Ford, but the impact of that is diminished by expanses of stitched leather and polished wood.
The second and third rows are spacious in all capacities with good sightlines, though a grab handle on the door pillar would be a welcome boost.
Passengers settle in with reclining seatbacks, a center armrest with storage and slide-out cup holders, lights, seatback pockets and fan control. The low transmission tunnel gives more footroom for three-across seating, but the center seat sits high and forward, like a bar stool.
Stepping into the third row might be the smoothest action of any SUV. And there's legroom for adults.
The small skylight takes away the closed-in effect, and the rear air-conditioning vents are good for dogs or kids. Power folding seats are an up-and-coming must-have SUV convenience; same with the power tailgate.
The GL is nice enough to drive, but not exciting, except for the baritone thrum of the engine.
The 4.6-liter V-8 works with a seven-speed automatic transmission with sport mode and steering wheel shift buttons. The well-stepped shift points to keep the power fluid.
The electronic gear selector stalk - for reverse-park-drive - is a little too minivan to be in a truck, though I appreciate its compactness.
Steering, brake and throttle inputs are well-balanced. The ride is smooth enough, but busy, almost choppy at times, even when in the comfort mode.
The suspension lets it haul flatly around corners, but sometimes it will bobble like a truck when pulling into a driveway - odd how the air springs work.
Fuel economy, using 91 octane, is EPA rated at 14 mpg city and 18 highway. According to the onboard computer, my mileage around town was in the 13s. And then there was that little electronic hiccup. Twice, while pulling away from a stop, the accelerator response was delayed. The first "what-the-heck" moment happened when I wasn't getting forward motion and needed to get out of an intersection.
My reaction was to just press harder on the gas pedal, which worked both times. The throttle woke up and did its job. And the "Check Engine" light came on. The vehicle still drove without issue and there were no other such occurrences, but that doesn't inspire confidence.
The GL seems to have it all, except fuel economy and a little more cargo room. This is a big SUV for Mercedes, but not big enough for many families.
By the time a family of four and a friend or two get packed for a getaway weekend, there's little room behind the third row to stow luggage. That means things will be lashed to the roof rack, which is never a simple project, nor aerodynamic.
Even grocery space is limited behind the third row, but folding the seatbacks gives too much space; bags and bottles get loose and can be a stretch to reach.
The GL is too serious to be fun, a little small to do it all and too pretty to use as a truck. It's just a typical SUV - but without the lock-and-load appeal that sells so well for the American brands.Copley News Service