First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class

The best full-size luxury SUV on the market; hands down.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GL ClassWhen engineering wizards at Mercedes first conceived of the full-size GL-Class SUV, they momentarily imagined it as a G-Wagon replacement. Thankfully, that never came to fruition. Instead, the G-Wagon would live another day?at least through 2019?and the GL was designed to be a more minivan-ish, soft-roading family hauler.

After its initial launch in 2007, the GL quickly became one of Mercedes-Benz best-selling models in the US with sales numbers (around 26,000 units annually) actually growing as the GL got on in years. For 2013, Mercedes has re-envisioned the GL with subtly updated bodylines, and updated interior, and a few new drivetrain options.

With a base price around $60,000, the Mercedes GL-Class competes with the likes of the Cadillac Escalade and the Infiniti QX56. Though God only knows who in their right mind would cross-shop the Escalade with the GL. That?d be like a horse and buggy with the SpaceX Dragon.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GL ClassThough it doesn?t look it, the new generation GL is longer, wider, and taller than the previous incarnation. In spite of these enlargements, the 2013 GL only weighs 50 pounds more than the 2012, which improves fuel economy.

The 2013 GL?s looks are more masculine and striking than the previous generation but do still retain some of the minivan-ish lines. The front fascia has been masterfully reshaped for better aerodynamics without sacrificing its bold, iconic, and somewhat menacing look. Around the rest of the body, other tweaks have been made; the D-pillar, for instance, now has a slight up-kick to it and flared wheel arches have been added to the GL550.

Mercedes offers four models of the GL for 2013: a clean diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC, GL450, GL550, and the soon-to-be unveiled GL63 AMG. The majority of sales will fall to the GL450 in the US with the rest split between the GL305 BlueTEC and the GL550. Sales figures of the GL63 AMG are still to be seen.2013-Mercedes-Benz GL - Engine

Interestingly, under the hood, the GL450 and the GL550 are nearly identical. They both share the same 4.6-liter direct-injected (amusingly called ?Multi-Squirt?), biturbo gasoline V8. In the GL450, the engine has been detuned and produces 362 horsepower and 406 poundfeet of torque. The more powerful GL550, however, produces 429 horsepower and 516 poundfeet of torque.

Mercedes boasts fuel efficiency in the newest generation GL-Class is up 20-percent over the previous generation. But don?t let those stats fool you; no GL drivetrain will achieve fuel economy numbers much higher than around 17MPG. In fact, the GL450 and GL550 will average around the 15MPG mark. And if you have to ask what the GL63 AMG fuel economy numbers will be like, you should just keep on car shopping; because if you have to ask, you can?t afford it. If I had to guess (and I do) I?d wager an average around 10MPG.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GL - DashboardImportantly, it?s on the interior where the GL really hits its stride. Not surprisingly, all interior materials are of the highest quality both in terms of visual aesthetic and tactile stimulation. Available with an optional Designo (pronounced dee-zeen-yo) leather interior and three rows of seating, the GL is both elegant and versatile. Option it with the Bang & Olufsen sound system and the GL interior is transformed into a literal symphony to the senses. 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL - Seats

Despite the GL?s hefty base price, the standard COMAND system–which includes a seven-inch touch screen, Bluetooth, and a six-disc DVD/CD changer–does not include satellite navigation. As buyers add optional packages to the GL, however, and the GL will include some pretty nifty tech treats. Most impressive is the 360-degree Surround View camera. When the vehicle is in reverse, a series of cameras mounted around the vehicle are digitally stitched together to show a virtual bird?s-eye view of the vehicle?clearly displaying everything within several feet of the GL.

The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class has been loaded (or can be loaded) with tons of safety features. In the spirit of brevity, I?ll outline the most noteworthy: ACTIVE CURVE SYSTEM, which limits body roll during cornering; ATTENTION ASSIST, which will alert the driver to take a rest from driving at the first signs of drowsiness; Active Lane Keeping Assist, which alerts the driver of unwanted lane departure by vibrating the steering wheel ever so slightly; COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST, which will flash warnings at the driver if it senses the risk for a collision and also prepare the parking brake for emergency braking as soon as the driver applies the brake; and lastly PRE-SAFE, which will pre-tension seatbelts and even move the front passenger seat to a safer position if an impending collision is detected.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GL - Off RoadFor buyers who want the off-road capability of the G-Wagon with the family-oriented versatility of the GL, Mercedes offers an On/Off-Road package. Featuring a two-speed, electronically controlled transfer case that provides 1:1 on-road gearing and 2.93:1 ratio for off-road capability, the GL can quickly become a weekend warrior workhorse at the push of a button.

As impressive as the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is on paper, delightfully, it is even better in the road. While the diesel-powered GL350 BlueTEC has some trouble pulling up hills at highway speed, the GL450 and GL550 are veritable rocket ships.

The GL Production Chief, Axel Heix, admitted to me the feature of the new GL of which he is most proud is its car-like handling. And he?s right to be proud. The GL handles better than virtually any other full-size SUV on the market, save the Range Rover.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GL - NavigationAs brilliant as the GL is to behold and to drive, I am still left scratching my head when looking at the sticker price. None of the GLs we drove on the press launch was priced under $92,000. Mercedes divulged the average GL buyer is a bit of an odd bird. The average GL buyer is a 48-year-old man whose yearly income is around $292,000. It is by far the youngest Mercedes customer with one of the highest average incomes (next closest is the income of the average SL buyer).

I reckon, though, you?d have to be a young, rich family man to justify the cost of the 2013 GL as it isn?t really capable of doing double what, say, a Chevy Traverse, Dodge Durango, or Ford Explorer can do for half the money.

Despite my penny-pinching ways, I can see how–for the right buyer–the GL is a fabulous investment. For better or worse, it has no real side-by-side competition in terms of build quality, amenities, and aesthetics. So if you?re in the market for a full-sized luxury SUV that will seat seven, look no further than the GL.