Let's just start out by acknowledging the obvious. This, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, is a very nice truck.
I mean swank.
It's a league far beyond my Honda Odyssey minivan — which does have leather seats, navigation and a sunroof. And frankly I'm pretty happy driving the Honda most days. But tomorrow it will be a little harder to get into my minivan, because I just spent two days cruising around New Mexico in Mercedes GL SUVs.
The thing about these vehicles — and when I say this it will become clear that I don't usually drive a Mercedes — is that there are features and options that not only had I never seen, but that I had never conceived. The cup holders heat and cool. The middle seats flip forward and double over with the touch of a button. A computer steers my car back into its lane if I begin to drive off the road.
The navigation system can not only find your restaurant but tell you its Zagat ratings. The back seats have their own DVD system with wireless headphones. If you're worried about whether that parallel parking space is too small, the GL-Class will park itself.
So with the understanding that it's an impressive vehicle, let's take a look at the details.
The GL450 is equipped with a 362-hp, twin-turbo V-8 engine that can tow up to 7,500 lbs., comparable to a Chevy Suburban. It's rated at 14 miles a gallon in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway. Mercedes will also offer a more efficient, less expensive GL350 turbo diesel model, and thirsty GL550, with a 429-hp V-8, with all models sporting a seven-speed automatic transmission and all wheel drive. There's even a GL63 AMG that will boast a 550-hp V-8, for the Bieber-Kardashian set.
Yet with all that power, the company clearly had the suburban housewife in mind when designing this car. The soft leather seats heat, cool and even give you a massage. The body is more reminiscent of a Toyota Highlander than a Ram pickup. And there are more safety features than any State Farm agent could wish for.
I first hit the road in the monster GL550 heading north from Albuquerque to Santa Fe along the picturesque "Turquoise Trail." The 550 felt right at home in this rugged landscape, and I wouldn't have worried if a detour had taken me off-road.
Alas, I stayed on the highway and, frankly, this is just too much car for someone who spends her time on flat pavement. With a nudge of my toe, the 550 and I were cruising at 70 mph. Just a bit more pressure had me accelerating to 90 past some slowpokes in the right lane. When I was stuck behind a minivan going about 65, this 429-hp machine felt like a boy trapped in a schoolhouse. It just couldn't wait to be free and play. It would be too easy to collect speeding tickets shuttling kids around in this thing.
The two-hour drive gave me a chance to try out some of the safety features, by design and by mistake. When I glided across the center line without my blinker on, or without enough decisiveness, I'd feel two slight bumps in the steering wheel to warn me I might be drifting into traffic. The alert is so subtle it's almost a pleasure. There are no annoying beeps or dings.
Later, when I slipped over the line on the right into an exit lane that the GL apparently didn't see, the car veered back left. It was a jarring moment that I didn't appreciate, especially since the Mercedes got it wrong. Had I truly been running off the road, I might have appreciated this feature.
The next day I drove up to Taos in the GL350. The 240-hp V6 turbo diesel was plenty of car to cruise through the desert at speeds up to 100 mph without a hint of hesitation. It hugged the road on high-speed turns, using its "Active Curve System" that sends more power to the wheels that need them to keep the vehicle upright. It also handled a dirt-and-gravel drive down switchbacks to the Rio Grande with grace.
The GL is laden with sensors that monitor not only what's going on around the vehicle but how you're driving as well. The "Collision Prevention Assist" calculates the braking power you'll need to stop without hitting the car in front of you and gives you just that much in a panic-braking situation. The "Crosswind Stabilization" corrects for sudden wind gusts. And the mildly creepy "Attention Assist" monitors your driving behavior for the first 20 minutes you're in the car and if, during a long ride, the car decides you seem sleepy, it flashes a cup of coffee on the screen above the steering wheel and asks, "Time for a rest?"
These are certainly awesome features, marvels of technology. The question is whether you want to pay for them, because you'll have to shell out about two years tuition at a private university to bring a well-equipped GL home. The 350 starts at $62,400 but Mercedes executives acknowledge you're more likely to spend about $70,000 to get the features you want. The 550 hefts a sticker of $86,900.
I can't help thinking these vehicles suffer from schizophrenia. They can haul horses or take corners at high speed. Yet they don't want their customers to break a sweat folding down the rear seats and don't require them to know how to parallel park. It's a 7-seat sports car/work truck with a nanny embedded inside in the form of safety equipment and the "let me do that for you" options.
Still, if you're looking for something you can use to drive to school and to the ski house and haul your kids' horses to the show, you couldn't do better than this. Good nannies never come cheap.
Mercedes provided transportation, lodging and coffee for this review.