Expansive update is big on specs

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The Mercedes GLS. Photos: David Thomson

When Mercedes-Benz updated the second generation of its king-sized sports utility late last year, the company also changed the vehicle's name. So, the SUV previously known as the GL gained an extra letter along with its facelift, becoming the GLS.

This new nomenclature brings the vehicle into line with the marque's current three-letter naming protocol. Under this, the GL appellation is applied to all SUVs (it's derived from the German term for an off-road vehicle, "gelandewagen''). The third letter then links each model within the overall SUV range to its equivalent conventional car.

So, the GLC is the SUV equivalent of the C-Class car line, and the GLE is the SUV match for the E-Class. As for the GLS, it is presumably the S-Class of Mercedes sports utilities.

Even by the standards of its class, the GLS is a big machine: indeed, it's top in class for wheelbase, overall length and height. It has grown a little as part of the facelift too, thanks to a new nose and tail that add an extra 5mm at either end.

Up front, the facelift introduces a new grille festooned with a large Mercedes-Benz star, a new bumper and changes to the LED headlights. The rear bumper is also new, as are the taillights.

While sticking with the GL's spacious seven-seat layout, the cabin changes in both design and specification.

The revised dashboard, similar in appearance to that of the smaller GLE, features a large free-standing infotainment screen rather than the smaller screen that sat within the dashboard of the pre-facelift machine. New instrument graphics, a new steering wheel and a range of new connectivity features are included.

Although the 190kW/620Nm 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine that powered the test car is a carry-over from the GL, it is mated to a nine-speed rather than seven-speed automatic transmission.

The test car was the standard $139,000 GLS 350d, rather than the Sport version, which costs $21,000 more.

It's well-equipped for an entry-point variant in the large luxury SUV segment: satellite navigation, a 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, rear side-window blinds, a power-operated tailgate, leather trimmed and heated front seats, power-folding middle-row seats, a power-adjustable steering column, heated steering wheel, a power sunroof and tri-zone climate control are just some of the interior features. Safety systems include a surround-view camera, active blindspot monitoring and lane-keeping assistance, active cruise control, auto-dipping headlights that pivot when cornering, active parking assistance and a driver-fatigue monitoring system.

My first impression of the test car was of a machine that, while nicely updated, is fairly conservative in style. The cabin gave much the same impression, being nicely finished with lots of stitched leather, but not especially bold in a visual sense.

The driving position is both commanding and very comfortable. Accommodation is spacious in the second row of seats too. The third row of seats, which can fold flat into the boot floor when not required, is easily accessed thanks the power-operated tumble-forward function for the middle row. Headroom is the back is great, but the backrest angle of the second row must be set quite high to provide adults with reasonable legroom.

Luggage space ranges from a tight 295 litres with all three seating rows in use to 680 litres with the third row of seats stowed, and a massive 2300 litres when the middle row of seats are stowed too.

Given its size, the GLS proved a surprisingly easy steer around town. It's helped in this regard by its remarkable turning circle, and by its fine surround and rear-view camera system.

Venturing beyond city limits, the test car was quick to impress with its refinement.

The suspension (a double wishbone front and multi-link rear with AirMatic variable springs and damping) does an excellent job of soaking up surface imperfections at highway speeds. But the even bigger trick up the GLS' sleeve is its extraordinary aural refinement; I've driven only one car in the past year that's been quieter to journey in over coarse-chip surfaces than the GLS, and that was a $600,000 Rolls-Royce.

The drivetrain plays a major part in making the GLS a smooth cruiser. With its substantial torque peak of 620Nm reached at just 1600rpm, the 3-litre turbo diesel does not need to be worked hard to deliver its best. And the new nine-speed gearbox makes gear changes so slick they are pretty much imperceptible, except under heavy throttle loads, when you may hear the change in engine note that denotes a gearshift, but still not feel it. Manual shifting via paddles on the steering is also possible, though hardly necessary.

A knob to the right of the main multimedia controller allows the driver to choose between sport, comfort, slippery and full off-road drive modes, as well as a mix-and-match individual setting. Comfort is fine around town and would be great for a long-distance autobahn haul, but the combination I found best for highway driving in Otago was the individual setting, with steering and damping in sport mode, and the engine and gearbox in comfort.

Even with the suspension and steering in sports mode, mind, the GLS is not the sort of vehicle one throws into a corner like a hot hatch; if comfortable progress is the aim, it responds best to being guided through tighter bends with due consideration given for its sheer size, mass and height.

Keeping the engine and gearbox in comfort gives the latter the chance to reach ninth gear at the legal limit, which in turn allows the GLS to deliver to its full economy potential. Rated to produce a very good 7.6l/100km return on the standard cycle, the 350d came surprisingly close to that on test, managing a commendable 8.1l/100km return.

Engaging sport mode for the engine and gearbox reduces refinement, but shows another surprising side of the 350d to maximum effect: a 0-100kmh sprint time of 7.8sec for a large 2.5-tonne entry-level luxury SUV is pretty sharp.

Venturing seriously off-road was not on the agenda on this test; if that's what you wish to do with a GLS, then there is an extra-cost off-road pack. For $3600, it provides a locking centre differential, low-range transmission, underbody protection, a special off-road-plus drive mode, variable ride height and special off-road algorithims for the suspension anti-lock and stability systems.

The test car did, though, comport itself well on gravel and on slippery and in some cases snow-coated dirt tracks.


Expansive update is big on specs
At a Glance

Overall: 4 stars

Design and styling: 4 stars 

Interior: 4 stars

Performance: 4 stars

Ride/handling: 3 1/2 stars

Safety: 5 stars

Environmental: 4 stars

For: Fabulous aural and mechanical refinement, high-quality, roomy interior.

Against: Styling quite plain, no sports car through the twists and turns.

Verdict: Not quite the S-Class of the SUV world, but impressive nonetheless.


Price (as tested): $139,000

Engine: 2987cc six-cylinder turbo-diesel, maximum power 190kW@3400rpm, maximum torque 620Nm@1600-2400rpm

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic all-wheel drive

Brakes and stability systems: All-round disc brakes, ABS, ESP, BA and DSR

Safety rating: Five-star NCAP

Wheels, tyres: Alloy wheels, 275/50 R20 tyres

Fuel and economy: 7.6 litres per 100km on EU combined cycle, capacity 100 litres

Emissions: CO2 199g/km on combined cycle

Dimensions: Length 5130mm, width 2141mm, height 1850mm