2011 Mercedes-Benz GL450 (USA)

For many years now, cars have been getting progressively larger, even though many of them do not seem to match the growth in external dimensions with a corresponding increase in size inside. In Europe, at least, where roads are relatively narrow, and parking spaces are at a premium, there is an emerging concept of “too big”, and many of the larger SUV type vehicles will, in the opinion of many, come in that category. Whilst there will always be a market for very large vehicles, it will remain small, and that makes it ever harder for manufacturers to make the business case to invest in new products and expect a return. However, there are sizeable markets where space is less at a premium, and a big vehicle will still have far more appeal to many buyers than a small one. America is a prime example of this. So, in 2006 when Mercedes launched the GL Class, a vast 7 seater SUV which made the rather large ML Class look as if it was not trying, it was with an eye on markets like the US for which the car was created, and the sales figures have born this out. A GL Mercedes is a rare sighting in Europe, but in America around 25,000 examples a year have been bought, which over a 6 year product life amounts to a lot of cars and a decent return on investment. To me, the GL Class has always been one of those “guilty secret” cars, that you find appealing when perhaps you should not. A vast behemoth, with square edged styling and seating for 6 people more than ever usually travel in my car really ought not be the sort of thing that appeals, but for some reason it just does. Sourcing one and then coping with its XL-sized dimensions in Europe was not that easy, but when I discovered that Hertz in the US had bought a whole load, I could easily see a way of sampling the car. Categorised in a group by themselves, the rental prices appear high, but I was able to secure a fantastic deal by booking a smaller SUV and paying for the upgrade on the day, which meant that I got my hands on the key to a brilliant white GL450 for around $100 a day. A fantastic deal, for sure, but only worth having if the car itself is any good. Is it? Well, read on


In the US market, the GL is sold with three engine options: a 350 Bluetec diesel, and the petrol powered 450 and 550. The majority of sales have been of the GL450 and indeed this was the version that I received. Despite the 450 name, the engine in this model is actually of 4.7 litres in capacity. A turbocharged V8, it develops 335bhp, and is coupled to a 7 speed automatic gearbox. All wheel drive is standard. The engine is particularly smooth and refined, and it goes about the job of moving this 2.5 tonne beast with no fuss or drama, and is well up to the challenge. Whenever there was any need for acceleration, a gentle movement of the accelerator pedal was all it took for the GL to gain more than enough speed, and it did so quickly.


The burble of the V8 in the GL Class is very subdued, almost too much so, as on the rare occasions when you could hear it, I realised what a pleasant sound it is, and longed for a bit more of it. It was only a low speed with a few revs on when you could hear it at all. Cruising on the freeway, the engine note is very well suppressed indeed. There was a surprising amount of wind noise coming from the passenger side. My suspicion is that this was not an endemic fault of the GL, and the fact that it was only one side made me suspect something was amiss. Close scrutiny revealed nothing visibly wrong, but that the logo on the windscreen was different from the Mercedes ones in the rest of the glass, so I suspect that the test car had received a new windscreen and it was not quite sealed properly. I did also notice that a seal on the front edge of the sun roof was detached, but the noise sounded like it was coming from the screen pillar area.  The gearlever is the same as you will find on other large non-sporting Mercedes models, mounted on the right of the column. You simply flick it up for Reverse or down for Drive and push the button in the end of the lever for Park. Plenty of people have complained about  this operation, but I actually find it very easy to use. Apparently there are 7 forward ratios in the gearbox, but you would struggle to work this out by listening for gearchanges, so smooth are they. All this performance does come at a price, as I found out when I went to the fuel station. With the needle still reading a quarter full, I put in $94 of fuel, which bought me 22.82 gallons. Doing the maths tells me that the GL had averaged 19.8mpg (US), which amounts to 23.66 Imperial gallons. Considering the weight of the car, that is probably not a bad result, but many of those miles were done at a steady speed on the freeway, so you would probably be lucky ever to see a figure much better than this. Is it any wonder why the European market favours diesel propulsion for cars in this class? Despite being a large and heavy vehicle, the GL is not at all heavy or intimidating to drive, Far from it. The steering feels just like that in much smaller machines, with some weight and feel, but the GL is easy to manoeuvre and feels quite precise on the road. It is a heavy car, with a relatively high centre of gravity, so a certain amount of decorum is probably a good idea for the twisty roads. I did not take this car up in the Canyons, but I did find some less than straight roads and can report that although there is modest body roll, the handling is quite reassuring. Less so are the brakes, which felt worryingly mushy. A very firm push of the pedal was required to get any stopping at all. Reading other reviews of the GL suggests that this is not an issue confined to my test car, but is far from a universal feature. There is a foot operated parking brake with a large hand release, mounted low on the left of the dash. A heavy car and a long wheelbase usually help with the ride characteristics and certainly the GL had no issues with the varied – and often terrible – surfaces of Southern California. There is a lot of glass in the GL, so visibility should not be a problem, and indeed coping with car parks was not hard, though remembering just how big the car is was essential. In traffic, relying just on the door mirrors, though, you could easily get into trouble, as there is a significant blind spot, but the warning system, which illuminates in either mirror when there is a car in that blind spot, and n audible beep if you then indicate proved extremely helpful. Clearly the fact that you sit that much higher than non SUV type vehicles helps.

You don’t need any badging inside the GL to know that this is a Mercedes, as it conforms well to “house style”. The interior is beautifully presented, with slivers of wood veneer on the doors and centre console and quality stitched leather on the dashboard and steering wheel. Although there are quite a lot of buttons, the overall impression is not one of “too busy”. The main instrument binnacle comprises two large dials for speedo and rev counter, with smaller insets for fuel level and an analogue clock, which has rather larger hands which look a bit awkward in the small form factor of the display. Between the dials is a digital display area for the odometer, trip meter and warning lights. The dials are very clearly marked and easy to read. One easy way you can tell that this is a Mercedes is from the column stalks. They are both on the left, as the gearlever occupies the right hand side of the column. The thinner of the two,  which operates the cruise control, is mounted the higher of the pair and where it falls more readily to hand than the chunkier one which does indicators, front and rear and wipers mounted down a little low to be really convenient. A large rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel operates the lights. The centre of the dash is topped by a pair of air vents and then dominated by the touch sensitive screen which operates the audio system, satellite navigation, bluetooth and vehicle information and also shows the climate control settings. There are quite a few surrounding knobs and buttons, with audio controls on the left and a keypad for bluetooth operation of your phone to the right. Climate control functions sit beneath this, and comprise a mixture of a pair of dials and more buttons, and then there are some other switches beneath all this. There are repeater buttons for some audio unit functions on the steering wheel boss. It all proved quite easy to use and relatively intuitive.

The test car feature the optional running boards, and whilst I am not sure that visually they improve the overall look of the GL, they do make getting in and out for those of us who are not blessed with long legs that much easier. Once installed, getting comfortable was easy, with power adjustment for the seat in every direction and also electric adjustment of the steering wheel position. The driver’s seat proved very comfortable, and thanks to the height of this vehicle, you get an excellent view over other traffic. Combined with the ease of operation of the controls, this is a relaxing place to be, and you could easily see why a machine like this would appeal to those who want a mixture of luxury and space.

I would guess that one reason why people would buy a GL rather than an ML is for the extra space inside the bigger car. Mercedes sell this model as a 7 seater, though as with many of the genre, even when they are as large as this, you won’t get 7 people and their luggage in at the same time, unless they are only bringing the proverbial toothbrush. The middle row of seats will easily accommodate three adults. The seats are in a fixed position, but there is ample legroom, headroom and shoulder room, so the occupants here would doubtless be very comfortable indeed. Although you could probably clamber though a small gap created by folding the seat backrest forward on the driver’s side of the car, Mercedes clearly intend that access to the rearmost row should be from the passenger side of the car, though even from here it is not that easy to get in. Once installed, there is pretty decent space for two, with plenty of leg room, and it is does not feel like you are sitting on the floor, so you can sit “normally”. Even with all the seats erect, there is more than a vestige of a boot available. I was able to get my large suitcase and laptop bag in there, which is not something that you can always do on 7 seaters. The space is clearly very tall if you wanted to load up high, though this would require you to remove the retractable load cover. To create more space, you can fold the rearmost seats down, individually. This is done electrically, with switches located on the right hand side of the load area. The backrest drops onto the cushion, to create a flat floor and far more load space. A nice touch is that there is another mounting point for the load cover, so this can still be used to cover the entire contents of the boot. The middle row of seats are split asymmetrically. The cushion lifts up and the backrest drops down, to create more flat floor, and a vast cavern all the way back to the tailgate. The tailgate is electrically assisted, which is just as well, as it is heavy. You open it either by holding down the release button on the key fob, or with a switch on the driver’s door. The button to close it is on the underside of the tailgate itself. There is plenty of space inside the passenger compartment for odds and ends. Door bins are augmented by a good sized glovebox, and there is a deep cubby under the central armrest as well as several small lidded compartments at the bottom of the centre of the dash and at the front of the centre console. There are twin cupholders in the centre console. Middle row rear passengers get their own controls for climate, and there are air vents mounted on the roof as well as on the back of the centre console.

US specifications for the GL350 Bluetec and 450 are the same, and cover most of what you would expect to be standard on what is a far from cheap vehicle. Features include the MB-Tex “leather” trim, 6 speaker audio unit with CD, MP3, USB and Bluetooth, dual zone climate control, heated 8-way electrically adjustable seats, roof rails, rear privacy glass, wood interior trim, 19″ alloys. Upgrade to the GL550 and in exchange for the extra $23,000, as well as the more powerful engine you get real leather, 21″ alloys, running boards, climate control for the rear seat passengers, heated rear seats, memory settings for the front seats, a navigation system, an upgraded Harman-Kardon audio system, satellite radio, power operated tailgate, the blind spot warning system and a few other items. Many of these were fitted as optional extras on my test car. At $61,950 for the basic GL450, this is far from a cheap car, but still represents decent value for money when you consider the quality of engineering and build, the list of standard features and the sheer quantity of metal that you are getting.

When I arrived back at the Hertz LAX facility, the rental agent asked if I had enjoyed the car. Ignoring the fact I had just spent nearly $100 on less than a tank of fuel, the answer was an unequivocal yes. He smiled and said that the GL is popular among what he called “famous people” when they rent cars from Hertz there, and I can easily see why. In fact, this car epitomises what Mercedes used to stand for: solid engineering, and a quiet competence at doing everything that you want without being unduly flashy. In America, where this is far from the largest vehicle on the road, it does not stand out like it would in Europe, and it would seem that almost all the GLs on the road that I have seen have avoided the worst temptations to bling it up, unlike some of its rivals.  A new version of the GL Class goes on sale in America any day, and sadly, it would seem that Mercedes have taken the styling in the wrong direction, as it looks fussier than this outgoing model. An excellent car to rent, for sure, but were I in the market for a car of this size and price, I still don’t think I would buy one. It has an equally prestige rival, a car which I was lucky enough to get to drive earlier in the year: the Range Rover. Until the rumoured XL version of the latest model appears, if you really do need 7 seats, then a Range Rover will not do, but if you just want a large luxury SUV, it remains the one I would pick.



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