On The Road
- Published on Wednesday, 05 September 2012 01:00
- Written by Gary and Genie Anderson - Special to the Town Crier
Photo By: Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
For those families who need a seven-passenger vehicle capable of handling all types of road surface and towing a large trailer – and want one that is comfortable, luxurious and, above all, safe – Mercedes-Benz will release its new full-size GL sport-utility vehicle this fall.
As with other top-of-the-line cars these days, each generation seems to bring out a new range of improvements, with the most recent to market becoming king of the hill, at least until the next manufacturer redesigns its competitive product. The Mercedes-Benz GL is no exception. We can say with confidence that in terms of features and capabilities, the new model is the best in the field. But then, it pretty much had to be that good – the GL is the best-selling full-size SUV in America, and accounts for a significant portion of Mercedes-Benz revenue.
We got our first chance to drive the new Mercedes in New Mexico this summer, and the company couldn’t have chosen a better place to display the vehicle’s capability in every circumstance it might encounter. On a 250-mile route, conditions ranged from four-lane divided freeways where locals seem to cruise at 90 mph to a one-lane dirt road that descended from the Taos plateau on a series of steep switchbacks down the cliffs to the Rio Grande River below.
At high speed, regardless of the surface, the GL proved completely confident, maintaining its stability with only fingertip pressure on the steering wheel. On tight turns at low speeds, with the electromechanical assist and variable turning ratio, the car could be steered as easily as any small sedan.
Vehicles of this size have been noted for their instability at speeds. In response, the GL is equipped with the Active Curve System, introduced on the ML last year, which uses electronic sensors and a hydraulic suspension system to counteract the car’s natural tendency to roll and lean in curves. In addition, the crosswind stabilization system uses the stability program and anti-lock braking system to nudge the car back into a straight line if an unexpected crosswind, like those encountered crossing Bay Area bridges, should threaten to destabilize the car.
In tight turns in close quarters, whether we were negotiating a rural switchback or cruising through Sante Fe parking lots, the Surround View Camera system with Parktronic (a $1,290 option) provided an additional measure of confidence, with cameras mounted under each rearview mirror, in the front grille and above the rear license plate. The complete system captures a birds-eye view of curbs, parking lines and other cars, while enabling a larger view from any of the four individual cameras.
We had first seen such a system on the new Infinity SUV, but Mercedes has taken the system up a notch, and it completely transforms the experience of driving a vehicle that is nearly 17 feet long and 7 feet wide. But if you’re still a little spooky about parallel parking in a space in front of the coffee shop with everyone watching, the active parking assist in the package will automatically check the size of the space and steer you into it without your even touching the steering wheel.
Market research indicates buyers of full-size SUVs place safety as their top priority, a slam dunk for this company. Journalists were joking that describing just the standard safety items, from ABS to tire-pressure monitoring, would make a full article in its own right. The ones we noted in particular were a collision-prevention assist that signals a potential front-end collision and increases brake pressure; Attention Assist, which monitors the driver’s steering patterns, as well as several other relevant inputs, to ask “Time for a rest?” if the program suggests the driver may be in danger of dozing off; and mbrace2, which puts the driver in touch with a live person if there is a problem.
In addition, the Driver Assistance and Lane Tracking packages ($3,650) take safety one step further by keeping the vehicle from veering off the pavement or into another lane. If the vehicle starts to drift, the steering wheel vibrates. If the driver doesn’t immediately react, the system briefly applies the brakes in one wheel to pivot the car back in between the lane lines. Even the skeptical journalists were won over by how well this system operates and how often its subtle corrections have proven their value.
We tested the three models that will go on sale this month: the economical GL350 BlueTEC, with its 3-liter V-6 turbodiesel providing 240 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque; the popular GL450, with its 4.7-liter dual-turbo V-8 producing 362 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque; and the GL550, with a more powerful version of the 4.7-liter dual-turbo engine, rated at 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque.
Fuel efficiency ratings aren’t available yet, but engineers indicate that mileage will increase 10-15 percent over the current ratings of 21 mpg for the diesel and 17-18 mpg for the two gas engines.
If you need space and versatility, the diesel-powered GL350 with basic safety options, starting at $62,400, is a great option.
If you want more power and good all-around performance despite a hit on fuel efficiency, the gas-powered GL450, in the same price range and with the same available options, is a wise choice.
If you want it all but in a reasonably practical vehicle, then the GL550, with performance and luxury equal to the Range Rover and Cayenne S, should fill the bill at a base price of $86,900.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles to automotive magazines and online services.