Extremely capable and highly practical, but the new Merc GL may be just too big for comfort.

What's new?

When your Merc M-Class just isn’t accommodating enough; when your seven-seat R-Class hasn’t the ground clearance; when your Gelaendewagen feels as antique as Keith Richards - what’s a Mercedes 4x4 lover to do?

Come September they’ll be able to fill their crunchy driveways with the biggest 4x4 Benz yet; a monster seven-seater that’s 116mm longer than a Range Rover, stands 1900mm tall, tips the scales at an elephantine 2.5 tonnes, and can be had with a petrol-guzzling 5.5-litre 388bhp V8. The brand new Merc GL has all the makings of the next Chelsea tractor, the next must-have Montissori mud-plugger. It is the new two-finger salute to Ken Livingstone and the anti-SUV crowd.

It probably seemed a great idea three years ago when the idea was hatched. After 23 years on the market, that Portakabin-on-wheels, the venerable G-Wagen, was in desperate need of replacement. M-B research in the States showed that 25 per cent of its owners were looking for a sport-ute bigger than an ML, and consequently, many were leaving the brand to shop elsewhere. 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 red hot.

Come 2006 though, things turned out a little different. G-Wagen owners went ballistic when the factory announced the end of production, so Mercedes decided to keep the old dear and make the GL an additional model. With Americans having felt the pain of $3-a-gallon petrol, sales of the biggest of the big 4x4s have essentially flat-lined.

But Mercedes is optimistic that the new GL will find a following, though no one in the company will predict either how many they’ll build, or sell. The good news for Benz is that the GL is being built alongside the latest M-Class and R-Class at the car maker’s flexible assembly US plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so the production wick can be turned up or down depending on demand.What's it like?

If you have the need for a seven-seat, go-anywhere high-lux SUV, the new GL is one highly competent and capable vehicle. It rides on a stiff new unibody which has been developed from latest ML and features fully-independent suspension, with double wishbones up front, and a four-link set-up at the rear. M-B’s Airmatic air suspension is standard and not only smoothes out the ride, but also allows the GL to be raised 80mm to increase ground clearance.

Despite the rather niche status of the GL, Mercedes is offering a surprisingly wide compliment of engines in the hope of satisfying every need and bank balance. Petrol choices include the brilliant new-generation 4.6-litre four-valve V8 for the GL 450 model. It packs a muscley 340bhp and 344lb-ft of torque. There’s also a punchy 5.5-litre V8 available in the GL 500 and good for 388bhp and 397 lb-ft.For oil burner fans, the GL 320 CDI will feature Merc’s latest 3.0-litre V6 common rail turbo diesel with high-pressure direct injection and four-valves per cylinder. It’s good for 224bhp and 382 lb-ft. There’s also a GL 420 CDI powered by the 4-litre twin turbo V8 that packs 306bhp and a stump-pulling 524 lb-ft of twist.

Each of the engines is coupled with the smooth-shifting, electronically-controlled 7G-TRONIC seven-speed auto – a first in the big sport-ute class.

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See it in the metal and the GL looks a lot like a swollen M-Class, but without the M’s cool side-profile design cues. Instead of the eye-catching, wrap-around rear window, the GL’s side glass runs all the way back to a rear roof pillar, over-emphasising its length. Take away the big three-pointed star on the grille, and the design could have come from a Japanese or Korean studio.

But it’s inside where the GL will have its real appeal. It’s a true seven-seater with plenty of legroom and headroom in both the middle and third rows. And while the GL’s rear doors aren’t as vast as those on the R-Class, they’re big enough to make clambering back to steerage reasonable easy.

A nice feature is the power folding rear seats. 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 load capacity of up to 2,300 litres and a platform that measures over 2100mm in length. Claustrophobia sufferers relegated to the back row will appreciate the large, though non-opening, rear sunroof above their head and the relatively slim rear roof pillars. Front seat riders get their own standard power glass roof.

Anyone familiar with the dash layout of the latest ML will feel right at home. It comes with the same, stunning metal-trim grab bars running along each side of the centre console, the same big chrome vents in the dash, and the same classy-looking angled dials. Mercedes seems to have listened to the moans about iffy interior build quality: the GL’s standard MB-Tex faux leather and real wood–lined cabin ooze style and top-notch finish.

At the press preview last week, the only GL on offer for sampling was the GL 450 with the new 4.6 V8, which will be the volume seller States-side. It’s a terrific engine: quiet and refined, yet eager to rev and capable of delivering a deep, muted V8 roar under hard acceleration. Mated to the seven-speed auto, it’ll punch the portly GL from rest to 60mph in a creditable 7.6 seconds, and on to a top speed of 146 mph. We’re told the GL 500 is good for 0-to-60 sprinting in just 6.6 seconds.

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The ML’s 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive system is carried over to the GL. It features front, rear and centre diffs working with M-B’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 and the ability to splash through water 600mm deep.

As you might expect of a big bus weighing as much as 2500kg, the GL feels roly-poly through the corners unless you switch the dash-mounted rocker to ‘sport’ mode, which firms up the AIRMATIC’s air bladders. But the trade-off for less body roll is a brittle, jittery ride. The speed-sensitive rack and pinion steering is nicely weighted and reasonably precise at speed, though the helm has a rather numb, wooden feel to it.Should I buy one? 

But for its considerable size and bulk, the GL feels surprisingly nimble. And with vented discs at each corner – there are pizza-sized 355mm discs up front, 330mm at the back – it thankfully stops as effectively as it goes.

Right-hand drive GLs land in the UK around September time – just in time for the kids going back to school. And while prices have yet to be firmed up, expect the GL 320 CDI to start at around £45,000 and the GL 450 at around £54,000.

Memo to the school board: we’re going to need bigger parking spaces.

Howard Walker

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