Back in 2006, the best way to get a large luxury SUV with real off-road ability was to buy something from Land Rover, but then Mercedes introduced the GL-Class. Built with luxury in mind, but with using knowledge gained from decades of off-road excellence with the G-Class, the new GL took the market by storm. It was comfortable, capable, and it came with several engine options. The new SUV was so impressive that it was named Motor Trend SUV of the Year in 2007. The second generation GL was released in 2012, and Mercedes made it lighter, more powerful, more fuel efficient and more luxurious. Now its 2015 and every major luxury automaker has a large three-row SUV with some semblance of off-road abilities, so does the GL-Class still have what it takes to be crowned the best? I took delivery of an up-level GL550 and spent a full week trying to beat it into submission to find out.
On the exterior there is little to distinguish the GL550 from the masses of SUVs already on the road. It is a simple two-box shape with upright sides and blunted ends. But that is the traditional German way. You don’t want to be too flashy; you should be able to blend in to the crowd. But once you stop and give the GL an actual close look, there are a lot of subtle details and design flourishes that hint at its six-figure price and flagship-level quality.
The headlights are shaped handsomely, and the elements inside them look like modern art sculptures. The subtle creases and dips in the body work draw the eye down the behemoth, and add a touch of excitement to a normally bland shape. The Obsidian Black Metallic paint adds that extra dose of class and menacing stance to the overall look as well.
Adding that last touch of street allure, our tester came with black 21-inch AMG wheels.
While the exterior may be designed to blend in and hide a price-point, the interior has been created in a way that will let every passenger know that this is a true luxury machine that is worthy of time and attention. This particular car came loaded with the optional design interior package that included porcelain colored Nappa leather throughout the cabin and a special black headliner. The second row seats are heated, there is a huge panoramic sunroof across the top, and there is more technology than a NASA control center inside of this machine.
The GL550 has the Mercedes COMAND system, navigation, Bluetooth, mbrace with MB apps, Sirius XM, harmon/kardon stereo system, 3-zone climate control, massaging front seats that are heated and cooled, active parking assist, surround view camera, and this beast even has heated and cooled cupholders.
The GL550 is also packed with a ton of safety tech like blind spot assistance, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and more. Basically, if they make it, this thing has it. In fact, there is so much equipment and safety tech, that it can be a bit overwhelming at first trying to sort through it all.
Once you figure out all the equipment, and get moving, you find out what the GL550’s real selling point is; the way it drives. Under the hood of the GL550 sits a twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V8 with 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque mated to 7-speed automatic transmission and Mercedes-Benz’s 4MATIC AWD system. That combination means that this giant seven-seater can embarrass a lot of sports cars coming away from the lights. It also means that you can tow with it, or take it off the beaten path.
The suspension for the GL550 is Mercedes’ fancy AIRMATIC air suspension, and the SUV comes with adaptive damping as well with user selectable modes, and the result of that is a giant truck that drives much smaller when you get on a twisty road. Now I am not about to try and convince you that this thing is as crisp to drive as a good sports sedan, but I will say it is much better and shaper than SUV of this size has any right to be.
That fancy suspension also works its magic when the going gets dirty and you take it off road. During short trips through fields and dirt tracks, the GL550 feels poised and agile, and constantly comfortable. In fact, the only thing I have been in that feels anything like this is the Range Rover. The big difference there is that the last Range Rover I drove had a price tag in the $120,000 range, whereas this Mercedes-Benz GL550 with all its options rings in just at just $102, 770. Quite a bargain in the grand scheme of things.
I will admit the Range Rover had more space and it is better off-road, but in any other scenario, I think I would prefer the much cheaper GL550. It really is an incredible machine.