Prestige sells. And nobody knows this better than Mercedes-Benz, as its flagship S-Class has for decades epitomised prestige on wheels. But none of the German carmaker’s other models, barring the Geländewagen, has managed to come close to the S-Class’s stature. In the world of SUVs, that title is held by the immortal Range Rover, which has become the byword for prestige in that class. It’s this long-standing monopoly that Stuttgart is hoping to challenge with its renamed full-sized luxury SUV, the GLS.
The former GL-Class now gets an extra letter appended to its name, and the carmaker doesn’t shy away from making the most of it – it carries the maximum weight in its model line-up. So, the new GLS is positioned as the S-Class of SUVs.
That’s a bold claim, even for Mercedes-Benz. The combination of refinement, elegance and confidence exuded by the S-Class is virtually unsurpassed even in the highest echelons of the motoring world, and for a two-and-a-half-tonne leviathan on wheels to claim the same levels of comfort, luxury and sure-footedness might sound presumptuous. And it is.
This is a large luxury SUV that can carry up to seven passengers in great comfort, but it simply cannot match the S-Class’s benchmark credentials. Mercedes should probably have waited until the next-generation GLS was out before calling it the S-Class of SUVs. Because, apart from the new name and minor alterations – limited to the lights and bumpers and a redesigned instrument panel, a new three-spoke multifunction steering wheel, a slightly tweaked centre console with a touchpad, and new colour and trim options – there isn’t anything that’s changed radically. Even with these, the cabin looks more similar to that of the previous-generation S-Class than the current one. Dials are analogue, the dashboard and centre console are more upright than the smooth flowing lines of this one, and the seats aren’t as plush.
Now, before you think the new GLS is rubbish, let me clarify that the above is purely relative to the S-Class. Take the S-Class and the tall claim out of the equation, and the GLS is one of the most refined, luxurious SUVs on the market today. In fact, there is no other model on sale currently that could boast the same levels of sophistication and driving dynamics while carrying seven adults in comfort. Yes, there are the Infiniti QX80, Nissan Patrol and Toyota Land Cruiser – all super-comfortable, super-spacious SUVs – but none of them can offer the kind of confidence you feel behind the wheel of the GLS.
Thanks to the retuned Airmatic suspension with adaptive damping, and Active Curve System, which uses active anti-roll bars on the front and rear axles to reduce the body’s roll angle, the 2.5-tonne monster feels planted and composed even around corners. The steering, which is direct and well weighted at highway speeds, is light while pottering around town, and the turning circle is so short that it’s hard to believe you’re behind the wheel of a car of such proportions.
Under the GLS 500’s bonnet is a 4.7-litre biturbo V8 engine, good for 455bhp and 700Nm of torque, sent to all four wheels via a nine-speed auto that’s been developed completely in-house by Mercedes. Shifts are quick and near-seamless, and the maximum torque is available from as low down in the rev range as 1,800rpm. There’s an even more powerful variant, the 5.5-litre biturbo V8-powered GLS 63, which adds 135bhp and 60Nm to the GLS 500’s output; however, I don’t see the point of a seven-seater SUV going any faster than 5.4 seconds to 100kph.
To ensure all that pace is far from potential danger, the GLS boasts features like Collision Prevention Assist, Crosswind Assist, Attention Assist, Brake Assist, electronic all-wheel drive traction system, ESP with Curve Dynamic Assist, Distronic active cruise control and speed limiter. The optional Driving Assistance Package adds Cross-Traffic Assist, Active Lane Keeping, Pre-Safe Plus, and Active Blind Spot Assist, among others.
Whichever way you look at it, the GLS is a great SUV, unmatched in its class as a versatile people mover that’s capable off-road, and exceptionally smooth and refined on the road. If you’re particularly looking for a seven-seater premium SUV, look no further. However, if you’re signing the dotted line thinking that you’re buying the S-Class of SUVs, you could be disappointed, as the current-generation S-Class has moved the game along quite far. I’m sure the next-generation GLS will be worthy of that tag, but until then, the S-Class of SUVs is still the Range Rover.