2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class Test Drive and Review

01
of 07

Meditations on the Full-Size SUV

2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

I just got back from driving the 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS-class SUV, and it has sent my mind into a spiral of reflection.

In the old days, way back in the latter part of the last century, things were simpler. There were dress shoes, and there were sneakers.  Keds or PF Flyers. Chuck Taylors.  That was about it. A few choices of colors and designs, but not so many that the local kids shoe store couldn’t stock them all. Any young person today transported back in time would think the choices were almost Soviet in their paucity. You could make the same comparison with clothes. There was no such thing as “athleisure.” There were sweat pants and trainers, t-shirts and muscle tops. The same was true with types of cars. There were sedans, sports cars, station wagons and pick up trucks.  And the odd balls like the Jeep or VW Microbus. Pretty simple.

Finally in the mid-80’s Chrysler shook things up with the first mass-market minivan. They sold like hotcakes and were soon populating suburban roadways from coast to coast. Then along came the Jeep Cherokee, followed shortly by the Ford Explorer, and SUVs began to nibble away at minivans by providing almost the same utility without the inherent stigma. That was not always the best choice in those days, as SUVs were body on frame, unlike unibody minivans, and were therefore stiffer, heavier, and more truck-like. 

Over the years the SUV category has grown, and in the last decade it’s taken off.  Now every major manufacturer has several models, and prices have gone nearly stratospheric, like one of the newest offerings, the Bentley Bentayga SUV which starts at $229,000.

02
of 07

Descendant of the Motorwagen

2017 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

But Mercedes has been a bit slow on the SUV front – which is unusual given their history as the manufacturers of the first practical car, Karl Benz’ Motorwagen of 1886. They finally got around to offering a full-sized SUV in 2006, at that time named the GL, now re-named the GLS. Their M SUVs – now called GLE - have been made since 1997. But their first SUV was actually the G, often referred to as the G Wagon, short for Geländewagen. It was originally built as a military vehicle at the suggestion of the Shah of Iran and appeared in 1979.

Approaching the new 2017 GLS, it’s apparent from the first glance that it’s a Mercedes. There is no mistaking the round display on the front grille, and the lines are drawn in the same fashion as previous models, and other current Mercedes.  There are some refinements and alterations from earlier model years, and a certain simple sleekness to the stance.   The way the rear window and the roofline point to the middle of the trailing edge of the vehicle are pleasing in their clean basic shapes.  The running board makes it easier to step up and into the vehicle, and the double moon roofs open the interior to the world above. 

The GLS now comes in four flavors – the GLS350d, the diesel version, with a 9-speed automatic transmission and 255 horsepower at $67,050; the GLS450 with a 3-liter V6 biturbo that produces 362 horsepower at $68,700, the GLS550 with a 4.7-liter V8 biturbo that creates 449 horsepower at $93,850 and the oh-yes-we-can AMG GLS63 with their signature one-man, one-engine 5.5-liter V8 biturbo rated for 577 horsepower at $124,100. Prices exclude delivery and destination charges. Fuel economy is decent for a full-sized SUV – at least with the V6.  Mercedes reports 17 city and 22 highway mpg.  And even the big guy, the AMG, achieves 13 city and 17 highway.  And as everyone says, when you’re paying that much for a vehicle there’s probably money there for fuel.

03
of 07

What's in a name?

2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

Confusing though the nomenclature may be, I’m happy to say driving these various versions of what Mercedes call their “full-sized luxury SUVs” demonstrated their ability to design and build a comfortable, powerful, sweet-driving solid version of the SUV that through some crafty combination of technology and simple engineering allows the not small, maybe even a bit on the large sized vehicle, at just under 17’ long, to drive as if it were actually much much smaller.

With three rows of seating – 2, 3, 2 – the GLS seast seven full-sized adults. The back two rows fold down in various configurations, so whether you’re hauling people, dogs, sporting equipment, or a full Costco run, the options are plentiful. 

Mercedes brought a bunch of automotive journalists out to western Colorado near Arches National Park and Moab, Utah to drive through some magnificent scenery and put the range of GLS’ through their paces. I started with the GLS 450 and worked my way up to the AMG before giving the diesel GLS 350d a spin.

In each variant, the feel behind the wheel is of calm competence, and secure command of the vehicle and the road.  There’s no effort, and the various controls are all laid out in the normal way – except for the gear shifter, which is on a stalk, on the right side of the steering wheel. There’s no shifter on the console between the driver’s seat and the front passenger, as you find in many other cars and SUVs. This took a bit of an adjustment.  Moving the lever changed the gears, with the position indicated on the display directly in front of me. It’s a non-truck thing, I thought. 

04
of 07

Three-on-the-Tree

1956 Ford Pickup
1956 Ford Pickup. Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

Then we pulled in to a gas station in Moab to fill up, and at the pump next to us was an elderly gentleman in a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and blue jeans, pumping gas into his ’56 Ford pick-up truck.

“’56?” I asked, making sure I was right.

“Yes, sir, she is,” came the reply.

And I realized a lot of trucks have three on the tree, and there’s pure truck precedent for the shifter placement after all. 

05
of 07

On the Road

2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

Driving down the gently winding country roads, a river to one side and red rock walls to the other, the GLS SUVs maintained their courtly aplomb. Acceleration was readily available and power was strong in all of them, though of course the diesel engine is more measured in its response, and the bigger the engine, the wilder and smoother the snap to attention when mashing the pedal to the floor. The air suspension Mercedes called AIRMATIC does a great job of softening any bumps without creating a slow motion Jell-O sensation to the experience. There’s a round selector knob on the console next to the driver, with Comfort Mode and Sport Mode, where Sport Mode changes the shifting pattern, the steering tightness, and the stiffness of the suspension. On the AMG there’s also a Sport + Mode, because lord knows that regular plain old Sport Mode just won’t do with the 577 horsepower hand-built by one person engine. It was remarkable, and worth noting, how astonishingly fast and sure-footed the AMG is, the advanced price of entry aside. 

And while the shifter lever and position was something to which I became adjusted without much fuss, the main information screen remained a bit vexing. The size and placement are great – unlike the Lexus RX screen which obscures a portion of the driver’s view of the road.  But it’s not a touch screen, and that’s unfortunate. To operate all the car’s systems including navigation, seat settings, entertainment and the like one has to utilize a different knob and cantilevered overhanging piece of the system that incorporates several buttons. 

It’s all a bit confusing, and too complicated in this day of ubiquitous touch screens.  The screen looks like a tablet – an iPad or Android tablet – and the automatic response is to touch the screen and expect things to happen. Maybe in the future Mercedes will come round. The navigation system, back-up cameras and everything else work well, once they’re properly engaged. But the interface is sorely lacking.  Instead of adapting the system to the driver, it seems as if Mercedes is expecting the driver to adapt to the system. 

06
of 07

In the Driver's Seat

2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

The GLS brakes work really well, I can personally attest, as we came upon a turn unexpectedly and in order to make the right turn without injury to the GLS or anyone else on the road I was called upon to brake a bit more aggressively than is my wont. Hooray for great brakes, and inadvertent, unexpected test drive moments that end well for all concerned. 

Another feature that was new to me, but does appear in other vehicles in other categories is the seat massager. On the screen working my way through the menus I came across the option to activate the seat massager, with different setting levels.  The passenger seat has one, as does the driver’s seat of course. There are horizontal bars embedded in the seat that roll up and down at variable rates, depending on the setting you’ve chosen. Maybe for long long drives this feature helps keeps your muscles toned, but I didn’t find it particularly soothing or useful, and it certainly didn’t take me back to the edge of a Big Sur cliff and an Esalen massage. But that’s maybe a bit unfair of a comparison. 

07
of 07

Journey's End

2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
2016 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

Competitors, according to Mercedes, include the Lexus GX460, the Cadillac Escalade, and the Infiniti QX80. Personally I would throw in the Land Rover Range Rover and the Porsche Cayenne, though they both have fewer seats and the Porsche is shorter than the GLS, 191 inches to the GLS’ 202”, while the long wheelbase Range Rover, 2016, is actually a few inches longer than the GLS. Depending on options, and the specific model, these are all in the same neighborhood and a purchase decision really comes down to personal preference on styling and details. 

Winding our way through the magnificent Southwest, with scenery as unique and captivating as anywhere on the planet, the GLS provided exactly the right amount of “hey I’m here and you’re driving me” in the most well-mannered with muscle-in-reserve style as any full-sized SUV I’ve driven. If you need to accommodate a bunch of kids, or adults, and want to do it in comfort, style and safety, the GLS line certainly fits the bill. Or, if like the cowboy and his ’56 Ford, who told me “I use my truck to haul hay and pull a horse trailer,” your needs run more towards utilitarian working man, well, the GLS will take care of that, too.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel. For more information, see our .