Big Benz baby slurps fuel, swallows families

Last updated 10:43 26/03/2013
Mercedes-Benz GL SUV.

BIG BENZ BABY: Mercedes-Benz GL SUV.

The Chevrolet Suburban (top) and the now defunct Ford Excursion.
BIG BOYS: The Chevrolet Suburban (top) and the now defunct Ford Excursion.

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The Mercedes-Benz GL SUV is big. Three rows of seats big. More than 2400 kilograms big.

The wonder of this giant SUV is that once you are chugging along a secondary road with a good head of steam, it somehow doesn't feel all that gargantuan. While the GL is no shrinking violet, it's not like the big boys that were all the rage in the early 2000s.

I'm referring to the once-popular Chevy Suburban and Ford Excursion, land-bound barges which slurped down petrol by the barrelful. Both were over 5.4-metres long. (The Suburban lives on, with much smaller sales; the Excursion is dead.)

The GL serves the same alleged purpose as those hulks: To haul you and your extended family and their junk. Yet all too often these big SUVs are commandeered by the driver riding alone. Hence today's full-size SUVs call for better drivability and increased fuel efficiency.

The GL is 5.1-metres long, and seats as many as seven people. Fold down the middle and rear seats and you'll open up 2640 litres worth of space. I've seen smaller Manhattan studio apartments.

The truck's bulk is well disguised by a mix of gentle folds and body contours, a sculpted tailgate and a spoiler jutting off the roof. They trick the eye into reading the sheet metal as separate components rather than an oversized blob. Up front, the shape of the headlights is dynamic, playing off the bluntness of the grill.

The hood slopes and drops off at the sides, improving sight lines and giving the driver a good idea of the fenders' width, making it less stressful when backing out of tight garages or navigating cramped side streets.

All-wheel-drive is standard. The GL moves through curves with confidence despite a soft, cosseted ride.

Like an increasing number of oversized vehicles whose engineers seem to have taken their cue from Range Rover, it has an adjustable air suspension. The ride height changes depending on the situation. It squats at highway speeds and can be raised to crest over obstacles in the road.

Still, as countless Suburban owners have learned, fuel efficiency matters, particularly when you're standing in front of the petrol pump, cringing.

The 362-horsepower GL450 has a 4.6-litre V8 that gets 14 miles per gallon in town (16.8 litres per 100km) and 19 (12.2l/100km) on the freeway. Not super economical. The more-powerful models, the 429-hp GL550 and the 550-hp GL63 AMG, get even poorer mpg.

Potential buyers might consider the diesel model I tested. The GL350 BlueTEC has a 3.0-litre, turbocharged diesel V6. This alternative powertrain is mated with a seven-speed automatic transmission and manages 19 (12.2l/100km) city, 26 (9l/100km) highway.

Pricing starts at US$63,050 (NZ$75,500), making it slightly cheaper than the GL450. (In New Zealand, the Mercedes-Benz website tells us that the GL pricing starts at $152,900 plus on-road costs). The super-performing AMG version, with a 5.5-litre V8, is US$117,800 (NZ$141,050) in the US. My test model carried a heap of optional packages, raising the sticker to US$84,110 (NZ$100,700).

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Diesel is incredibly popular in Europe, and it's heartening to see more diesel models making their way to the US. Not long ago there were only a few diesel SUVs available, including the BMW X5, Volkswagen Touareg and Audi Q7.

Now Mercedes offers versions of the ML and GL and, soon, the smaller GLK. Porsche has a diesel Cayenne and the Jeep Grand Cherokee will soon offer a diesel V6.

The GL350 makes only 240 horsepower and, characteristic of a diesel, it churns out 455 pound-feet of torque (616 newton metres). That means power delivery is very different from a high-revving, high- horsepower engine.

Think of it more like a charging polar bear rather than a jaguar's high-spirited sprint to top speed. Poke at the diesel GL's accelerator and it takes a moment to react. Once it's moving, the full strength and anger are already there.

Hence the BlueTEC hustles up even the steepest highway hills while never seeming to labor hard. Revolutions per minute are remarkably low - max engine speed is 4750. Stab the gas to make a sudden pass, though, and the moment's pause can seem interminable.

Drawbacks are few. My GL started up in extremely cold temperatures without any hesitation, and unlike old diesels, doesn't spew black smog. Still, every 16,000 kilometres or so, drivers have to refill the 8.3-gallon (31.4 litre) urea tank with a fluid, called Adblue, which helps counteract diesel's exhaust pollutants. While you can do it yourself, most owners have it done at the dealership, which means added cost.

If you do pack the family in, most of your passengers will find the GL plenty roomy, including those in the second row. The third row is harder to access; better for kids than grandparents.

As for the US$20,000 worth of extras on my test model, the best option was the US$1090 panoramic sunroof, making the cabin lighter and airier.

The GL is definitely the giant on Mercedes's lot. Fortunately, it's a gentle one.

-Washington Post

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