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Mercedes-Benz calls it the S-Class of SUVs. Does that make the new GLS the best SUV in the world?
Nothing says you've made it in life as an S-Class pulling up at the kerb and the back door being swung open for you. There are more expensive, luxurious, sophisticated and of course more expensive cars than the big Benz but not without good reason have we been calling it the best car in the world. Its single-minded focus on comfort, on ignoring sporty pretensions, on shutting you out from the outside world and leeching out the stress and detritus of daily life… no car made in any serious volume does it better. Even a journalist with a race track splattered across his t-shirt lights up at the sight of an S-Class, especially after multiple flights from halfway across the world, the last making a lengthy weather related diversion to refuel forcing me to endure an extra four hours next to a lady who would not stop yammering away. 23 hours since I left for the airport I recline the back seat, turn on the massage, ask the lady chauffeuring me to crank up the Burmester, knock my head back into the pillow stuffed with goose feathers, and let out a sigh. Will the newly launched GLS transport me to a better place, as the S-Class always does?
Next morning I wake up to clear skies, snow capped Rockies and an appropriately German-accented tech-talk on what makes the GLS the S-Class of SUVs. Let’s be honest, the outgoing GLS was no S-Class of SUVs. The rebadging of the GL to the GLS in 2015 was timed with the mid-life facelift to the X166 and that wasn’t the best SUV you could buy, forget having S-Class levels of greatness. This new GLS is really all-new, and even though cramped was used by precisely nobody to describe the old GLS, the new one grows in every direction. 60mm is added between the wheels, the driver has to stretch a further 15mm to hold hands with the passenger, 87mm is added to the second row legroom extending it to a total of 1065mm (over a metre! This is a cricket pitch!), passengers in the third row have 878mm of leg room, and the boot with all seats (electrically, of course) folded down is bigger than an average Mumbai flat at 2400 litres. I don’t know of a larger SUV and the consequent cabin space is properly humongous. Will the size be an issue in India? Not really, for the GLS will be nothing if not chauffeur driven. But it’s also appropriate that we’re driving it in the US where only two months ago we drove BMW’s X7; a country where everything is oversized and a 5.2 metre long GLS gets dwarfed by America’s best selling vehicle, the Ford F-150 pickup.
First impressions on the styling — it works! This is smart and good looking in the traditional sense, enormous too what with the optional 21-inch wheels on our test car, and the proportions and detailing are really well thought out without having to resort to shock-and-awe tactics to be noticed. The GLS looks expensive but not garish in the way that most cars and SUVs are becoming, pandering to the tastes of the Chinese market. There is no fullwidth taillamp, a trend everybody seems compelled to adopt, boat loads of chrome haven’t been splattered all over it, and even though the aerodynamic drag coefficient has reduced the windscreen and the sides are near vertical, as is the tailgate, to make the cabin as large as possible. The GLS is exactly what the S-Class of SUVs should look like — confident and not attempting to be young, or sporty, or cool, or of the moment.
The colleague I’m sharing the car with remarks that Mercedes grilles were already huge and unmistakable to begin with and now that a large three-pointed star is housed in the grille they didn’t have to do to their nose what BMW did with the X7’s kidneys to announce its presence. Interesting fact: the Mercedes roundel incorporates all the radars and sensors cleaning up the front end from protruding cameras and since it is an expensive piece to produce (by only one supplier, Hella) there are only two sizes across the entire Mercedes model lineup. To visually enhance and make the three-pointed star larger, the designers have used the grille slats to surround the roundel, thus sighting it at the top of the SUV range. And if you’re a fan of the traditional gun-sight sitting atop the bonnet, bad news, it’s not even available as an option on the GLS. I don’t miss it.
Mercedes always had confident exterior design but you rarely went wow just looking at the interiors. The GLS changes that. With two massive 12.3-inch screens arranged side-by-side, there’s this wide-screen look to the dashboard that looks far more expensive and cutting-edge than its rivals. The resolution is of course high-def and the speedo/tacho display can be customised with different graphics, different displays in the tacho pod including a g-force meter, or you can have a full-width navigation that is augmented by the largest head-up display. The second screen is finally touch sensitive, has a proximity sensor so you don’t have to reach out all the way to touch the screen to activate icons and also incorporates gesture control though Mercedes is loath to use that word or allow you to twirl your finger in front of it to raise or lower the stereo volume. There’s a track pad to cycle through the menus of the MBUX operating system that, finally, can be called best in class. The voice assistant, activated via ‘Hey Mercedes’ understood the accents of journos from various countries on the test drive, we only had to ask once to be navigated to the Bonneville Salt Flats, activate massage on the seats and switch radio stations. However it does wake up whenever you say just Mercedes, which can be a bit of a bother for two journalists engaged in an animated discussion on Mercedes. And the sound, as you would expect, is via an excellent Burmester system that also incorporates a two-way system for voice amplification so you can tell passengers in the third row that they have their own climate control (the fifth zone) without having to raise your voice.
Convenience? Everything is electric, from sliding the middle row at the touch all the way forward making it easy for six-footers to get into the back, to dropping both rows to liberate that massive boot and lowering the car so your driver doesn’t break his back piling in the luggage. The middle row can be configured with a regular bench, or a bench with a big armrest that incorporates an Android tablet to control the MBUX functions along with movies on the optional screens on the back of the seats, or you can have individual buckets which makes the most sense for the Indianspec — and all configurations slide, recline and massage your bum and back. There’s even what Mercedes calls an Energizing Coach that recommends different programs comprising lighting, musical moods, the appropriate massage program and even sets the seats in motion to make you feel good. And you can make the cabin smell like a spa with different perfume modules. Am I impressed? What do you think! And all this is within the first 20 miles till we get to the off-road track.
Now, nobody spending well over a crore of rupees is going to off road their SUV but the GLS is an SUV and it should be capable of going off-road and Mercedes is determined to show that off. The optional off-road package adds a Magna Steyr low-range transfer case identical to what is on the G-Wagen together with steel bash plates and reinforced driveshafts. As standard you get 4Matic that can send 100 per cent of torque to the wheel that most needs it. The standard air suspension can individually alter the ride height at each wheel via the touchscreen for situations like when one wheel is stuck in a ditch or a wheel spring is fully compressed. And there’s a rocking mode where the suspension level is automatically raised and lowered several times, thus alternately increasing and reducing the ground pressure of the tyres and improving traction, getting the GLS to rock itself free when bogged down in a sand dune. There are also two off-road modes, one that allows you to drift and slide on surfaces like sand and the other that delivers more precise control over rocks, which is what we are using.
The off-road ability is seriously impressive, no doubt about that, and there’s even an off-road score where the GLS rates you on your off-road driving. Low-range nearly triples the torque at the wheels, the off road package lets you raise the GLS by 90mm, and that means you just have to breathe on the throttle to have it chugging up rocky slopes. Engineers claim that if you give the G-Wagen a 10/10 off road score, GLS would rate 9/10, but on the upside the GLS would score 20/10 on comfort compared to the G’s live axles. In fact the GLS is so easy to drive off-road that your grandma will be able to take the shortcuts up Himalayan passes that only the bravest Thar drivers with their mud tyres and what not will attempt.
But most impressive is the ride quality. You feel nothing! It’s incredible how the GLS flattens everything in its path!
E-Active Body Control uses cameras to read the road ahead and individually controls the springing and damping forces at each wheel. Running on a 48-volt system, the primary aim of the E-ABC system is to keep the body flat using the sky hook controlling mode that pulls up the wheels over bumps or pushes it down into potholes so the body — and thus the occupants — do not move, no matter what the road looks like. It works like a dream, reading the road ahead, responding in 20 milliseconds and priming each wheel before we even hit the rough patch. We barrel down the off road track like we are driving a rally car and the GLS absolutely flattens the ruts and humps and the result is zero heaving and pitching of what must be a very heavy nose and absolutely mind-boggling ride comfort. This system is an option but, considering the condition of our regular roads, forget the off-road tracks, it absolutely must be standard on the India-spec SUVs. It also works at night, scanning the road lit up by the 112 LEDs per headlight that produce the maximum light intensity permitted by law.
The E-ABC also adds another function to the GLS — Curve Control. Activate it via the drive mode controller and the GLS actively leans into bends by up to three degrees in three stages, like a motorcycle and thus reducing the lateral g-forces on the occupants. This, again, is more a comfort than a handling feature, making enthusiastic cornering easy on passengers. For the driver Curve Control feels unnatural and doesn’t do anything to enhance the cornering ability. That said the body control is significantly improved over the roly-poly old GLS thanks to the hydraulic sway bars replacing physical anti-roll bars. Using the lightning quick responses of electric 48V pump (instead of the belt-driven hydraulic pump), the dampers respond faster to cornering loads to cut out body roll.
At slow speeds the GLS is set up to be more agile but that results in a nervous behaviour at higher speeds so the system alters the characteristics with speed. And the Sport mode also stiffens the rear sway bar to mimic an oversteer effect and thus deliver more agile cornering. The system also recovers energy every time the damper moves, deploying it for that momentary instant when peak power is required. The damper is thus a mild hybrid! It all delivers a marked setup up on the handling performance of the old GLS and body roll is no longer an irritant but the segment benchmark remains the BMW X7 and its (old) M3-matching Nurburgring lap time. The X7 also has better steering response, steering comfort as BMW calls it, than the GLS.
The GLS gets the world’s first V8 with an integrated starter generator, what Mahindra and Maruti call mild hybrid though Mercedes engineers were bewildered by our description as to them a car is either a full hybrid or not a hybrid. The V8 petrol has not been launched India so we restrict ourselves to the straight-6 turbo-petrol that comes standard with the 48V on-board electric system that runs the water pump and air-conditioning compressor and the ISG supplies energy back to the battery via energy recuperation. The so-called EQ boost adds (for short periods) an additional 22bhp to the peak power of 362bhp and an extra 250Nm to the peak torque of 500Nm, dropping the 0-100kmph time to 6.2 seconds and getting the 2.45 tonne GLS 450 to a top speed of 250kmph. On the road it is silky smooth and takes on a surprisingly good guttural growl when given the beans but it doesn’t feel very quick or enthusiastic.
As for the diesel, India gets the straight-six 400 d with 325bhp and 700Nm of torque. The diesel does not yet get the ISG, but it's worth going for the petrol if you really care for a great ride quality. The E-Active Body Control, driven by the 48V system is truly a game changer. It delivers a remarkable ride quality, reducing the body movements by half over the standard Airmatic. I have not driven anything that flattens bad roads and dismisses surface imperfections with such disdain, and that includes the S-Class. Comfort is the single biggest reason why the GLS steamrolls rivals, that and an enormously spacious and beautifully kitted out cabin.