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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - GL-Class - 320 CDI 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Genuinely massive interior, excellent economy, good road manners, off-road potential
Room for improvement
Questionable ergonomics of column gearshift and behind-spoke sequential gearshift buttons

27 Apr 2007

IT WOULD be incorrect to say we weren’t intrigued – maybe even a little excited – when we heard Mercedes-Benz was planning on reintroducing its famed G-Wagen.

The angular Austrian-built – and still-built - Benz 4WD was focussed utilitarianism at its Germanic best and was actually sold here during the 1980s as a sort of cross between the basic simplicity of the Japanese 4WDs of the time and the upmarket Range Rover.

With more diff locks than you could poke a stick at and easily mistaken for a block of flats when parked, the G-Wagen was only briefly in attendance here and its subsequent quasi-legendary status is in some ways a bit of a puzzle.

As it turns out, the new GL-class Benz isn’t related to the G-Wagen in any way, as the G-Wagen itself, being a joint project between Benz and Steyr-Puch, wasn't really related to any other Mercedes.

But if sheer audacity in terms of bulk and ability counts for anything, the new GL-class Mercedes is the reigning king of all that’s excessive in the maligned 4WD world.

Measuring the same length as Audi’s gargantuan, bigger-than-LandCruiser Q7, but quite a bit higher, with a longer wheelbase and approaching 100kg heavier, the GL-class – especially when pumped-up to its maximum suspension height – makes the iconic Toyota look puny.

Derived from the relatively new Mercedes ML-class, the mighty GL comes at this stage in just two versions: the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel GL320 CDI and the V8-powered GL500.

Almost needless to say, the GL is the first Benz seven-seater as well, with a quite generously proportioned third-row seat optional.

And both models come as standard with the Off-Road Pro Pack offered as an option on the ML. Among other things, this means the suspension height can be jacked up to as high as 300mm, giving a fording depth of 600mm (a tad shallower than the Range Rover Discovery’s 700mm) and a roof height even a basketball player would have trouble reaching.

But, even though the weight is well up on the ML-class, by around 200kg according to Mercedes-Benz specifications, the GL is anything but barge-like on the road.

With just 3.0-litres of turbo-diesel V6 to propel it, the base GL320 feels agile enough – it gets to 100km/h in 9.5 seconds – and is satisfyingly easy on diesel too, with a combined figure of 9.7L/100km. That’s pretty close to what we recorded during our week spent with the GL320, and works in well with the 100-litre fuel tank to suggest touring ranges approaching 1000km.

To be frank, the GL is quite an intimidator at first sight, especially when it’s jacked up to its full, indignant, over-the-head stance. And that’s not helped when you step aboard and realise you haven’t driven a Benz for a while and are confronted by the lever on the right of the steering wheel that turns out to be the gearshift. Strangely, it was only flicked once during our week to indicate a right turn.

With a wary eye towards this aberration – somehow the BMW 7 Series, which also uses a right-side lever to select gears, doesn’t present the same problem – the GL was coped with okay during the test period but there was always the fear someone would forget and launch in reverse when trying to signal a left turn. Of course nothing of the sort is ever going to happen on the move, although an unwary user could easily select an unwanted gear when the GL was stationary.

The second part of this was the behind-spokes buttons for the sequential selectors that are all too easily activated when turning the wheel. A few times we found the GL spinning away merrily in a lower gear than necessary just because we had inadvertently instructed it to.

But the 165kW V6 is a jewel, still among the quietest, smoothest of turbo-diesels and gifted with enough torque to lift the nearly 2.4-tonne body easily out of harm’s way. Even for a diesel, it’s a low-revver, with maximum power developed at just 3800rpm, but the torque, and the barely off-idle engine speed at which it reaches its maximum, is exceptional. 510Nm at 1600rpm makes Toyota’s new LandCruiser turbo-diesel V8 look positively archaic.

Then there’s the ride. Suspended on air springs to provide not just extensive off-road capabilities but also a supple, controlled and load-compensating ride out on the tarmac, the GL has a lovely, controlled feel about it that engenders plenty of well-placed confidence.

For a massive off-roader, the GL’s speed-sensitive steering relays a nice feeling of control to the driver and goes from lock to lock in just 3.2 turns, to give a turning circle that feels as if it’s less than the actual 12.1 metres.

If there’s any downside it’s that the big cabin tends to act as a sounding board for vibrations as the GL proceeds along the road. There’s a muted drumming that is not really intrusive but takes away some of its otherwise quiet on-road nature.

Over and above all this, the US-built GL makes a respectable fist of looking and feeling like a Mercedes-Benz inside. The seats are big and comfortable, power assisted at the front and use Mercedes faux leather in a way you’d never notice.

The dash is the same as we’ve become accustomed to in the ML-class with a classic, clean layout featuring massive, oval twin centre air-vents and a nicely readable, hooded instrument display with two dials flanking a digital centre readout for trip computer information.

Controlling suspension height, or selecting the drive mode (2WD, auto 4WD or 4WD lock) is a matter of twirling serrated knobs in the centre console area, while two clearly marked buttons between them activate or deactivate the GL’s adjustable hill-decent control or select low-range.

Even in the GL320 there’s sufficient standard equipment, including eight airbags, active front head restraints, front and rear parking sensors, power front seats, climate-control air-conditioning, a tyre pressure monitor (black mark for the GL’s compact space-saver spare) a rear – but fixed – sunroof and a nice eight-speaker sound system with a six-disc CD stacker.

Our test GL was a five-seater so we didn’t get the chance to see how much better the Mercedes is than other third-row offerings but reports suggest it’s a more passenger-friendly arrangement than most. We did marvel at the 2300-litre load capacity though.

And, with the assisted soft-close top-hinged tailgate, at least the business of shutting up isn’t too much of an issue.

This is such a big vehicle with such a wide range of possibilities that we really need to experience the GL in some of the other environments for which it’s designed. So far, the GL320 is a big, friendly, versatile 4WD that makes more sense than most.

When you combine excellent on-road manners with potentially formidable off-road capabilities, then offer performance and fuel consumption levels that are quite amazing for a vehicle of this weight and size, you can only walk away, wondering who could possibly better it.

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