In an an era of $3-a-gallon gasoline, who would be wacky enough to build a large, all-new, gas-guzzling, luxury-loaded, pricey sport-utility vehicle?
Mercedes-Benz, that's who.
And the M-B folks don't consider themselves the least bit wacky, pointing to a long, storied history of building quality motor vehicles embraced by millions of Americans.
OK, so maybe the new-for-2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450 -- the automaker's first full-size luxury SUV -- will appeal to a particular niche of buyers.
Here's a hint: It's those who can pay a starting price of $54,900 -- with options that ballooned the tester's sticker to a whopping $68,075 -- and spring for the premium-level gasoline required on a vehicle that gets only 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 18 mpg on the highway.
That counts me out.
If you're still interested, let me tell you about the tested GL450:
It looks nice? Not stand-out-from-the-crowd gorgeous, but pleasant enough with a subtle wedge profile, a bold grille and a little sculpting on the four doors.
The 4.6-liter power plant (given the vehicle's "450" designation, one wonders if they came up with the alpha-numeric name before measuring the engine) has a V-8 configuration with 335 horsepower and 339 foot-pounds of torque, the latter coming in as early as 3,000 revolutions per minute.
This gets the job done in almost all situations. The nearly 5,300-pound GL450 does not sprint off the line like a dragster, but the V-8 takes care of business just about everywhere else -- including city street lane changes, freeway merges and uphill climbs. Oh, yes, you can also tow up to 7,500 pounds.
Handling is impressive, with very little body sway even on corners taken at high speed. The vehicle's full-time four-wheel-drive system helped, of course. In city traffic and on open interstates, the GL450 drove and felt smaller than its full-size label.
The seven-speed automatic transmission shifted with nearly seamless grace; I was able to feel gear transitions only in the low gears on hard accelerations.
This GL450 is reportedly an off-road warrior, but I didn't test it on a hard-core course, not wanting to return a nearly $70,000 vehicle with rock dents and pine tree scratches.
But my mild off-road run with the GL450 indicated that it has no problem digging in and getting dirty. A downhill speed regulator and hill-tackling technology are nice touches, but I'm guessing that most GL450s sold in the United States will rarely leave paved surfaces.
Brakes are world-class -- big four-wheel, ventilated discs that will give driver and six passengers a serious G-force experience if applied in a panic-stop situation.
The safety package is likewise top-drawer, and just what one expects from Mercedes-Benz. Highlights include two-stage driver/front passenger air bags, front/rear side air bags, active front head restraints, electronic stability control, traction control and an on-board emergency communication system.
Reading the list of standard features will keep you busy for a full half hour.
Mercedes-Benz knows its American audience with the inclusion of six cupholders and two bottle grippers in the front doors, and standard luxury touches are plentiful: maple wood trim, eight-way heated/power front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, six-disc compact disc player, sunroof above the third row of seats, rain-sensing wipers and a load-leveling air suspension.
As I said, the extra add-ons push the tester's price into the borderline-obscene range, but many are designed to appeal to the automaker's upscale buyers: power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rear audio controls, power folding exterior mirrors, Sirius Satellite Radio, power tailgate, three-zone climate control and power rear-quarter windows.
With 200 inches of length to work with, seven human beings can actually be comfortable in this vehicle. And in another shout out to prospective U.S. buyers, the GL450 can haul more than 80 cubic feet of cargo when the seats are folded/flipped.
In sum, this appears to be Mercedes' attempt to build a serious competitor to the similarly pricey Cadillac Escalade.
Many will likely look at the GL450's sticker and say, "Too rich for my blood."
But undoubtedly, there are those who will eagerly say, "Gimme, gimme, gimme!"
Mercedes-Benz GL450 at a glance
Make/model: 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450
Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, four-door, four-wheel-drive, luxury sport-utility vehicle
Base price: $54,900 (as tested, $68,075)
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8 with 335 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 339 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm
EPA fuel economy: 14 miles per gallon city; 18 mpg highway (premium unleaded required)
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with overdrive and special features
Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion with special features
Brakes: Power-assisted, four-wheel, ventilated discs with anti-lock and other braking enhancement features
Suspension: Independent, double-wishbone on front; independent, multi-link on rear (stabilizer bars front and rear)
Fuel tank: 26.4 gallons
Maximum cargo volume: 83.3 cubic feet
Curb weight: 5,249 pounds
Height: 72.4 inches
Length: 200.3 inches
Wheelbase: 121.1 inches
Width: 75.6 inches
Track: 65 inches on front; 65.1 inches on rear
Ground clearance: 7.9 inches
Towing capacity: 7,500 pounds
Tires: P265/60R18 all-season radials
Final assembly point: Tuscaloosa, Ala.