As of this moment in 2019, if you want a three-row, seven-seat luxury SUV, you're going to have to spend a good deal of money. Your options are the Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class or the Land Rover Range Rover if you want something European, the Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator if you're OK with something American, or if you swing Japanese, there's the Lexus LX 570 or Infiniti QX80. Soon a new BMW will join the fray, the X7, and new, smaller crossover-style SUVs are coming from Lincoln and Cadillac — but for now, them's your choices, as they say.
Of the six currently on the market, the Mercedes-Benz is one of the fresher ones, having seen its last facelift in 2016 (the Range Rover last saw an update in 2012), but it was just a mild refresh; it still uses a lot of older Mercedes-Benz systems and components. Does its age versus newer entries like the Lincoln Navigator put it at a disadvantage?
The GLS' styling reflects the old-school look of Mercedes-Benz: more distinctive and upright than the swoopier styling seen on the brand's latest endeavors. The benefit of that upright styling is plentiful interior headroom and cargo space, but the look is starting to age — and it's likely to look even more out of date when parked next to the new 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE mid-size SUV, which will start gracing showrooms this year. The pressure is on from the competition, too, with the new Lincoln Navigator providing some interesting options for buyers and the Cadillac Escalade about to get a big refresh later this year. Given the GLS is one of the few remaining vehicles in the Mercedes showroom that hasn't seen a major update in a while, I wouldn't be surprised to see a fresh model in the very near future.
There are several flavors of GLS-Class. My test vehicle was the entry-level GLS450, powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine. It makes 362 horsepower and 369 pounds-feet of torque, and it's mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission that powers a permanent all-wheel-drive system. While this sounds like a healthy level of power and torque, it doesn't feel like it; acceleration is relaxed at best, with an emphasis more on smoothness than spirit. The transmission doesn't shift terribly quickly, and the overall experience comes across as unhurried and refined rather than sporting.
Upgrade to the GLS550 and you'll get a twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V-8 pumping out 449 hp and 516 pounds-feet of torque, or you can go all out and get the hairy-chested Mercedes-AMG GLS63, which is equipped with a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8 making 577 hp and 561 pounds-feet of torque. The three powertrain possibilities (each separated by a price jump of roughly $25,000-$30,000) mean there are options to suit everyone's power needs — provided you have the cash.
The 3.0-liter V-6 is perfectly adequate for around-town use, highway cruising and people hauling. Upgrading to the larger engines doesn't appreciably affect tow ratings; the GLS450 and GLS550 are both rated to tow 7,200 pounds, while the GLS63 gets a slight bump, to 7,500 pounds. It's wonderfully quiet out on the highway, with more wind noise than engine noise making its way into the well-sealed cabin.
The GLS450 handles like a big SUV: a bit floaty, a bit vague in the steering and somewhat top-heavy when changing directions. It doesn't have the active suspension that's newly optional on the high-tech GLE, but it wouldn't surprise me if the next one offers it. It feels heavy because it is heavy: The GLS450 is more than 5,300 pounds, and more powerful models are even portlier. It's lighter than the hulking American behemoths (despite the Navigator's aluminum body) but more than 300 pounds heavier than a Range Rover. Again, though, the whole idea here is that you're not driving this thing aggressively anyway, so why not make it a sedate experience all-around? It's cushy, comfy and rather slow. Mission accomplished.
Fuel economy isn't great, but it is above average for the class. The twin-turbo V-6 with the nine-speed automatic and standard all-wheel drive nets the GLS an EPA rating of 16/22/18 mpg city/highway/combined. My results were a better than expected 20.2 mpg in a week's worth of city and highway driving. That's slightly better than the V-8-powered AWD Escalade's estimated 14/21/17 mpg and about even with the larger, twin-turbo V-6-powered Navigator's 16/21/18 mpg with all-wheel drive, both of which owe their numbers to their 10-speed automatic transmissions. All of them shame the Lexus LX 570 with its V-8, eight-speed automatic transmission and paltry 13/18/15 mpg rating.
Classy But Dated Inside
What makes you not mind the fact that the GLS450 isn't all that entertaining to drive are its interior accommodations. Yes, the interior is at least a decade old in terms of buttons, switches, climate controls and more, but despite its visibly aged style, it's still extremely nice in there. Top-quality materials abound, with real leather, real metal trim and beautiful wood adorning everything. It even smells like luxury inside thanks to the quality leather.
My test vehicle included the $6,000 Grand Edition Package, which brings Designo Porcelain and Espresso Brown real Nappa leather with special stitching, light natural-grain striped wood trim and special badging. Seated amid this much comfortable leather, nestled in spacious, supportive, adaptive multicontour thrones with massage functions, you can overlook the fact that it looks like the climate-control knobs skipped an upgrade the rest of the lineup got.
Visibility is excellent thanks to tall windows and an upright seating position. This genuinely feels like a proper SUV, not a car-based crossover and the compromised space that entails.
Unfortunately, the front seats' spaciousness does not extend to the rows behind them. Second-row legroom is compromised; it doesn't feel nearly as spacious as the smaller GLE crossover SUV's backseat — and it's not, with 38.5 inches of legroom versus the 2020 GLE's maximum of 41.1 inches with its optional adjustable second row. There's plenty of width and headroom despite the seats sitting higher than the first row, stadium-style, but your knees are more likely than not to contact the first-row seatbacks. That's unexpected in such a large SUV but not that uncommon in old-style ones, most of which were built on rear-wheel-drive truck platforms. According to the spec sheet, the GLS has the least first- and second-row legroom of its competitors. The third row is decent but still best suited for small adults, children or very brief trips — you won't want to spend any time back there if you can avoid it. Getting in and out of it isn't as easy as in some competitors, as the actuation of the second row's tilt-and-fold function is manual, not powered, folding via a pull cord and handle behind the second row.
Unfortunately, the front seats' spaciousness does not extend to the rows behind them.
A rig this big should have some decent cargo-carrying ability, and it does. With the third row up, the GLS has 16.0 cubic feet of cargo room. That's a bit more than the Escalade's 15.2 cubic feet and the Lexus LX 570's 9.1 cubic feet, but less than the big Navigator's 20.9 cubic feet. Fold the third-row seatbacks (which do not fold flat in the GLS) and it expands to 49.4 cubic feet, better than the LX 570's 44.7 cubic feet but short of the larger Cadillac and Navigator. Fold the second- and third-row seats, and your maximum cargo volume is 93.8 cubic feet, just a tick below the Escalade's 94.2 cubic feet but well ahead of the LX 570's 83.1. The Navigator dwarfs them all with a maximum of 103.4 cubic feet — and we should note that both the Escalade and Navigator are available in longer versions, expanding both models to a maximum volume of about 120 cubic feet of cargo.
The 2019 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class has not been crash-tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. As is common practice with most Mercedes-Benz vehicles, a minimal number of safety systems are standard, with significantly more available for an extra fee. The base model gets little beyond an attention assist (which sends an alert if the driver becomes drowsy) and active braking assist. Forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking and automatic cruise control come with the $2,250 Driver Assistance Package. That package also nets you lane keep assist, blind spot warning and more. An active parking assist package is optional, complete with surround-view cameras. Of the various competitors, only Lexus makes a lot of its advanced safety systems standard.
The new 2019 GLS450 starts at $71,145 including destination and such niceties as a standard moonroof, dual-zone climate control, heated seats, a power liftgate and rain-sensing wipers. My test vehicle was a Grand Edition, which includes that $6,000 package with ambient lighting, a unique wood and leather interior, active LED headlights, 20-inch wheels and special badging. It also had a $5,800 Bang & Olufsen premium audio system, Mercedes' Premium Package (with navigation, keyless entry, lane keep assist, a power passenger seat, blind spot assist), Distronic automatic cruise control, multicontour massaging front seats, heated and cooled cupholders and so much more, all for a hefty grand total of $99,620.
As much money as that sounds like, it's not out of line for the class. Both the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade start in the same ballpark, and their loaded versions also top $100,000. Both models have more room inside than the Mercedes, and their optional extended models offer a lot more room. While the Cadillac is an aging model due for a big redo this year, the Navigator is updated and has morphed into a fully competitive, stylish alternative to the Benz. The Lexus LX 570 is also up there in years, and it starts at a much higher price of more than $90,000 — but that's the only way it comes, and it's loaded. Compare all four here.
We'll probably see a new GLS in the very near future, but until then, the big Benz remains a solid choice, providing a relaxed driving experience, a comfortable and luxurious environment and useful cargo space for families.
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