Mercedes-Benz GLS First Drive Review

Mercedes-Benz GLS First Drive Review

Which is the Best SUV in the World? Even with the Rolls-Royce Cullinan and Bentley Bentayga in the mix, most would hand it to the Range Rover. After all, you cannot ignore the eye-watering price you’d pay for the two hand-built SUVs. The Germans, though, are easing onto British turf. Two months ago we sampled the controversially-styled BMW X7, one that was benchmarked firmly against the Range Rover’s luxury. And now Mercedes-Benz have thrown their hat into the mix with the all-new GLS, what they call the S-Class of SUVs. Let’s be honest though, the outgoing Mercedes-Benz 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, though, 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.

Mercedes-Benz GLS grows in every direction

The GLS is now 77mm longer at 5207mm, 22mm wider at 1956mm and 60mm has been added to the wheelbase stretching it out to 3135mm. Front shoulder room increases by a further 15mm, 87mm is added to the second row legroom extending it to a total of 1065mm (over a meter!), passengers in the third row have 878mm of leg room and the boot with all seats (electrically, of course) folded down is a huge 2400 litres.

I don’t know of a larger SUV and the consequent cabin space is properly humungous. 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 meter long GLS gets dwarfed by America’s best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup.

The styling works

This is a smart and good looking SUV in the traditional sense, enormous too what with the optional 21-inch wheels on our test car. The proportions and detailing are 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 full-width 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 3-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 3-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.

Tech laden cabin

With two massive 12.3 inch screens arranged side by side, the GLS has 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.

Energizing Comfort

Everything is electric from sliding the middle row at the touch all the way forward making it easy for 6-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 while 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 the back of the seats, or you can have individual buckets which makes the most sense for the Indian-spec — 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.

Off road with the GLS

Now, nobody spending well over a crore of rupees is going to off road their SUV but the Mercedes GLS is an SUV and it should be capable of going off-road, something Mercedes is determined to show off. The optional off-road package adds a Magna Styer 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 drives with their mud tyres and what not would attempt.

Most impressive is the ride quality

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 to deliver exceptional ride comfort.

We barrel down the off road a track like we are driving a rally car and the GLS absolutely flattens the ruts and humps. 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.

Curve Control

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 in the Sport modes 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.

EQ Boost

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 will not come to India so we restricted ourselves to the straight-6 turbo-petrol that comes standard with the 48-volt on-board electric system that runs the water pump and air-conditioning compressor. 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 will most likely get the straight-six 350d with 282bhp, 600Nm of torque and a 0-100kmph time of 7 seconds along with a top whack of 227kmph. The diesels do not yet get the ISG but that will come in time for the GLS’s launch in India and, trust me, you really do want to spend the extra money for ISG and thus the 48V system to drive the E-ABC.

S-Class of SUVs

For long the S-Class of SUVs was a mere marketing tag line. No longer. The Mercedes GLS challenges Range Rover and BMW X7 head on for the Best SUV in the World honours. And the game changer is the E-Active Body Control. It delivers what is a truly 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. Luxury will the single biggest reason why the GLS, with an expected ex-showroom price of a crore of rupees, will steamroll its rivals when it comes to India next year. The enormously spacious and beautifully kitted out cabin only add to the desirability of what now is the S-Class of SUVs.

Mercedes-Benz GLS 450 4MATIC

Bore x stroke83.0mm x 92.4mm
Rated output270/367kW/hp at 5500-6100 rpm
Rated torque500Nm at 1600-4500 rpm
EQ Boost16/22kW/hp (250Nm)
Compression ratio10.5: 1
Mixture formationHigh-pressure injection
Front axleDouble wishbone, air springs, single-tube gas-filled shock absorber, stabiliser bar
Rear axleMulti-link suspension, air springs, twin-tube gas-filled shock absorbers, stabiliser bar
Braking systemVented disc brakes all-round, electric parking brake, ABS, Brake Assist, ESP®
SteeringElectrically assisted rack-and-pinion power steering system
Wheels8.5 J x 19 H2
Tyres275/55 R 19 W
Track, front/rear1669mm/1692mm
Turning circle12.52m
Boot capacity, German Association of the Automotive Industry355-2400litres
Kerb weight acc. to EC2445kg
Payload785kg (up to 895kg)
GVWR3230kg (up to 3340kg)
Tank capacity/of which reserve90litres/9.0litres
Acceleration 0-100 km/h6.2 seconds
Top speed246kmph
Combined fuel consumptionn/a
Combined CO2 emissions2n/a

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