FIRST DRIVE | The Mercedes-Benz GLS is the S-Class of SUVs

Size, strength and effortless comfort are offered in the new GLS limousine-style SUV

27 June 2019 - 08:11 By Michael Taylor
New Mercedes GLS is a lot less visually confronting than some of its rivals. Picture: SUPPLIED
New Mercedes GLS is a lot less visually confronting than some of its rivals. Picture: SUPPLIED

You can’t help but be impressed by the GLS, even if you don’t like the SUV limousine genre. It does so very many things exceptionally well and so very few of them poorly and it seems like Benz has finally committed enough resources into turning the GLS into the S-Class of SUVs.

And, as a bonus, it’s a lot less visually confronting than some of its rivals.

The BMW X7 looks like it wants to eat your children. The new, similarly-sized Mercedes-Benz GLS SUV doesn’t; it looks coherent and unfussed.

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The budding huge limousine-style SUV range has the X7 and the Rolls-Royce Cullinan and now the new generation of the GLS as its front-line players. The new class act here is the GLS, which will launch with both petrol and diesel straight sixes.

The V8 twin turbo motor in the GLS 580 has four litres of capacity and is the first V8 in the world to use an integrated starter motor as a mild-hybrid system, punching another 250Nm at low revs.

DESPITE THE OVERT CONCENTRATION ON LUXURY AND CALM, THE GLS NEVER SEEMS OVERT: JUST LUXURIOUS AND CALM.

The in-line six-cylinder motor in the GLS 450 4Matic uses the same electric motor setup to deliver extra urge and the 270kW of power and 500Nm of torque from the internal combustion motor is strong, but well short of the 360kW and 700Nm of the GLS 580.

The diesel will arrive with two versions of the in-line turbo straight six. The first, the 350d, will have 210kW and 600Nm, while the 400 raises the stakes to 243kW and 700Nm.

The new GLS borrows technology from throughout the impressive new GLE SUV to create a 5,207mm-long monster that has most of the ride, luxury and refinement of the S-Class and a surprising amount of off-road savvy.

It has three rows of seats and the choice of either a three-seat 40:20:40 bench seat for the middle row or a pair of single captain’s chairs.

There’s also more luxury here than you’ve ever seen in a Benz SUV, with wonderfully comfortable heated and ventilated seats and even the two-pew third row can be optioned with seat heating, cupholders, its own air conditioning controls and four USB sockets. There’s even an in-car communication system so the third-row sitters can talk to the front-row sitters.

Benz claims the rear seats are good for people up to 1.9m tall (which I’m not but still found them comfortable enough, though difficult to get out of) and there is still space for up to 355l of luggage behind them.

There is 10cm of push-button, fore-aft movement for the middle row of seats. The two rear rows can be folded flat with one push of a button, delivering 2,400l of luggage space. The GLS still boasts 890l of luggage space if the third row is down.

The flagship GLS 580 will wield 360kW and 700Nm. Picture: SUPPLIED
The flagship GLS 580 will wield 360kW and 700Nm. Picture: SUPPLIED

It runs Benz’s latest MBUX user interface, which is far more intuitive than it once was and even if you tell it you’re too hot, it will turn up the air con for you. And that’s with up to five zones for the climate control to work with.

There are 11 USB interfaces on board, turning it into a rolling powerbank, while the side-by-side 31cm dash display screens look wonderfully coherent and clear, and there’s also a head-up display and gesture control.

The second row can be ordered with a pair of 30cm Android tablets that recharge in their headrest slots, plus a smaller 18cm unit in the centre console that can manage the telephone, music and navigation systems.

The standard audio system clocks in with seven speakers, while two Burmester surround-sound options use either 13 speakers and an extra amplifier or 26 speakers and a subwoofer. They even amplify speech from one end of the car to the other.

What is it fighting? The newest and most obvious entrant is the BMW X7, which is huge but a touch shorter than the GLS at 5,151mm.

There’s no obvious Audi, though, with the Q7 being both older and shorter, and the newer Q8 lacking in a third-row option for seating. The Bentayga and the Cullinan both highlight the difficulty in cladding these huge road eaters in attractive bodywork.

That makes the GLS the best looking of a bad bunch, frankly, and Benz is on a winner here with its clean, softly touched skin sculpting, unfussed grille treatment, chunky LED lighting and clear family links to the GLE.

The GLS shares a lot of its skeletal stuff with the just-launched GLE, right down its all-wheel drive systems and its air suspension.

The car automatically lowers by 15mm on highways or in Sport mode, drops by 25mm to make it easier to get in and out of (and to load the luggage area) and it can be raised by 60mm for off-road work.

Benz’s latest MBUX user interface is more intuitive, and if you tell it you’re too hot, it will turn up the air con for you. Picture: SUPPLIED
Benz’s latest MBUX user interface is more intuitive, and if you tell it you’re too hot, it will turn up the air con for you. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Active Body Control figures out how hard the bump strike will be and orders each individual air spring and damper to compensate for it. It works remarkably well, too, and ticking the box for it also includes the Curve function, which tilts the big body in to each corner to stop passenger queasiness in its tracks.

The Off-Road package now has more tricks up its sleeve, including a driver off-road score system that judges the driver’s performance in hard-core situations.

Its downhill speed is controlled by the cruise-control buttons and can be toggled down to 2km/h, and it can lift itself up to 90mm high and walk through 600mm of water. It can rock itself to get out of muddy or sandy bogs, it can bounce its way out of sand and it can even punch pressure down through the air springs onto an airborne tyre, pushing it back onto the ground to get more traction.

How Does it Drive? This is something it does really well. It’s a mile eater, in the way of classic luxury limousines, and it’s wonderfully comfortable.

What it’s not is a sports machine, even in its Sport or Sport+ modes, weighing around 2.5 tons. It’s about comfort and class and, considering its sheer footprint, elegance.

And it works. The nine-speed automatic transmissions were seamless in all three tested powertrains. The highlight is clearly the V8, which has performance on offer from the instant the throttle pedal is even breathed on.

Benz says the 2.5-ton machine will whip to 100km/h in 5.3 seconds, which is exactly how it feels. The 450 is a 6.2-second proposition, while the strongest diesel adds a tenth of a second.

The impressive thing isn’t the speed, but the effortless nature of it, even under the hardest acceleration. The V8 sings sweetly, but never overtly. It climbs up the instant torque delivery of the electric motor, channels it to each axle through the constantly variable all-wheel drive and then the V8 kicks in with its own strength.

And by then, it’s gone in an unhurried surge of demeanour and manners.

The six-cylinder version is similar, but less smooth and less strong, though still drawn from the very top shelf.

Then there’s the diesel, and it’s so smooth that an average driver would struggle to guess the fuel type without looking at the rev counter.

There is scarcely any noise from the wind, even at more than 150km/h, and the road noise has been stupendously isolated, especially considering the rubber ranges from 19 to 23 inches.

Despite the overt concentration on luxury and calm, the GLS never seems overt — just luxurious and calm.

According to Yolanda Oduntan of Mercedes-Benz SA, we can expect the new Mercedes GLS in the country during the fourth quarter of 2019. Prices and engine derivatives will be communicated closer to the launch date.​

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