In fancy SUV land, the Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class is king of the hill—not just in the Mercedes lineup, but arguably everywhere else, too. So the arrival of a new version for the 2020 model year is cause for some industrial-strength examination.
Fortunately, there’s a lot going on in this thing, so your eyeballs will get a workout. It’s available in two versions at launch: the GLS 450, with a 362-hp engine, and the GLS 580, with a 483-hp V8; either way, it has gobs of tech (both new and evolved), and it treats passengers like the royalty they are. It’s also a legit off-road beast — the kind that can help bail you out of the worst jams.
The Good: There’s quite a lot to love here: smooth ride, commendable trail performance, swanky interior. But nothing will impress your friends, neighbors and strangers at stoplights more than the car’s ability to bounce rhythmically up and down. Found in Free Driving mode, the move is actually intended to help free a vehicle stuck in the sand by quickly bouncing it through the full depth of the air suspension, mimicking the rocking movement we all know from our own sand traps. But it’s also spectacularly fun at parties, and has that increasingly rare quality of being a genuine surprise.
Who It’s For: Let’s talk about that, shall we? Mercedes describes the GLS as the “S-Class of SUVs,” referencing its own market-leading luxury flagship. That’s true, but only up to a point. The S-Class has that rare quality of being a truly executive experience — replete with grace notes in the design, considerable outward elegance and endless passenger comfort and convenience. More than that, though, it has an aura of stratospheric wealth, and is the only premium-luxury full-sized sedan that arguably can truly compete with the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce.
The GLS…ain’t that. It’s a big, really nice SUV, but it’s no S-Class. That is to its credit, though; it makes it the perfect SUV for folks with families, a hankering for quality, capability, and luxury, and gobs of disposable income.
Watch Out For: MBUX, the new infotainment system introduced in Mercedes’s cars last year. It’s a fantastic, intuitive system, but it still has usability bugs. Particularly in the voice control system, which is summoned by the words “Hey Mercedes.” As presently tuned, it has a hair-trigger responsiveness that causes it to manifest if anyone dares utter the word “Mercedes” in its presence, and there’s no obvious way to tell it to go away once it starts looking for commands you don’t mean to give.
Also, the lane departure system has a new way of kicking you back into your own lane by using the brake instead of nudging the steering wheel. The effect is unnerving and jarring, as though it’s an obstacle-detection or blind-spot system rather than a simple lane-keeping assist. If you do it while driving down a road alone and changing lanes without signaling, it can inject a moment of panic when you think there’s a car there. It needs to be dialed down a hair.
Alternatives: That’s easy: The Land Rover Range Rover, Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator and BMW X7. Audi’s Q7 isn’t quite on the same level in terms of over-the-top luxury and features, and the Audi Q8 isn’t because it’s a bit smaller and sportier. Gazing upwards, you have of course the Bentley Bentayga and the Rolls-Royce Cullinan.
Review: There’s a sneering refrain among automotive media about how owners of off-road-capable SUVs “never take them beyond the pavement.” Sure. Most sports cars never see the racetrack, and most pickup trucks never haul anything more than Ikea furniture, either. But I have another theory about why people find comfort in capable SUVs. It’s not that they have aspirations for trail-riding or dune-bashing — both of which the GLS can commendably manage — but it’s that they know their rides will have their back if they ever get into trouble.
It’ll help them through snow, help them off the beach, and help them tackle a gnarly trail they didn’t expect to find themselves on. Even if it’s just used once or twice a year, it will be valued because that’s when it will matter most. Furthermore, raising the ceiling of capability enhances the quality of everything beneath it. You’ll reach the edge of adhesion on a slippery surface in an entry-level crossover far faster than you will in a GLS, given its across-the-board capability, programming and engineering. It’s a ride that does everything well, and many things really well.
I learned this on our drive across northern Utah, which took us through some beautiful scenery and along tantalizing roads. One of the features that stood out on the latter was the E-Active Body Control and its Curve function, which leans the car into bends to help manage the experience of body roll, especially in brisker driving. You may not notice it right away, but it’s there — and is best considered a cumulative effect. G-forces “stack,” getting worse on passengers as the curves pile on; this modulates that steady accumulation of discomfort.
Regular driving was quick and confident, with both engines producing reliably thrusty performance — and the V8, obviously, delivering the most grunt overall. The 48-volt mild-hybrid system helps things along by enabling smoother start-stop capability and additional power for all the new safety, performance and comfort features infused in the GLS.
Off-road, the GLS proved itself exactly as described: a ready tool to simply bail you out or encourage exploration. We traversed fairly sketchy rock crawls and managed steep inclines. The car is so good at this stuff, Mercedes felt confident enough to gamify the experience: You can enable a scoring feature that allows the GLS to asses your off-roading prowess with a score of 0-100. You add points by appropriately managing your pace and momentum across different features and deftly articulating your way over rocks, tree limbs and other obstacles. You lose points with haphazard throttle application or clumsy, trepidatious maneuvering. It was fun, and I can see it being a novel way of competing in the off-road set as the capability trickles down to more accessible vehicles. There were times when I could quibble with its scoring, though — most notably when I was driving down a fairly featureless stretch in a way the car deemed too fast.
Inside, the GLS is perfectly lovely and comfortable, with sophisticated material selections and pairings, cushy seats containing (optional) massagers and a solid, well-constructed vibe from front to back. It feels thoroughly well-executed and runs whisper-quiet, making quick work of both rough roads and the little pavement hiccups that can wear on you during road trips or commutes. The extra advantage of being able to ditch that commute at the first sign of dirt two-tracks is merely icing on the cake.
Verdict: The new GLS-Class is the ideal evolution of the model, with multiple compelling new features and commendably enhanced ride and comfort. The gremlins are in the new tech — the voice recognition, the aggressive lane-centering. Those will surely be fixed in time, and can be disabled if they bother you. It’s disappointing that a brand as evolved as Mercedes would let them squeak through to begin with, but they’re minor glitches, given the great pile of innovation this rig delivers in general.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class Key Specs
Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six / 4.0-liter turbocharged V8; nine-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 362 / 482
Torque: 369 / 518 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 5.9 / 5.2 seconds
Top Speed: 130 mph
Mercedes-Benz hosted us and provided this product for review.
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