As I fired up the GL450, I noticed that the big Merc's trip computer had begun calculating my mpg. I watched in startled fascination as the idling SUV's fuel economy began to drop from the previous night's calculation. Although Mercedes deserves props (or brickbats) for releasing such a glorious gas hog at the tail end of America's SUV craze, the dropping digits left me wondering how the GL450 could possibly rationalize this lampshade-on-the-head consumptive behavior. Even if the target market's interest in fuel economy is more political than wallet-driven, the GL still needs to stump-up some serious self-justification.
The GL class was originally designed to replace Mercedes fabled, venerable and resolutely brick-like G-wagon. And then someone at DCX noticed that the Swiss Army's favorite off-roader still resonates with nostalgic, over-compensating militarists, and saved the old girl from summary execution. The GL450's designers went in another direction– and then stopped for schnapps slammers, figuring they could just crib from Japan and Sweden in the morning. The result looks like a Toyota RAV4 from the side, a Toyota Highlander from the front three-quarter, a Lexus GX from the rear and a Volvo XC90 from the front. You might even say it's ugly, but I couldn't possibly comment.
Inside, we're back to the Fatherland, via Vance, Alabama. Deeply rubbed wood is set into three hectares of distinctly cow-like hide, unironically christened 'TEX.' Of course, Benz' new rig is knee-deep in toys: a fiendishly complicated COMAND cockpit management and data system, helm-mounted fingertip shifting, power tailgate, etc. While the GL450 is a luxobarge on stilts, there are still a few notable sybaritic omissions. First: air-conditioned seats. The GL's bigger-than-your-local-bar's-plasma-screen windshield creates an in-car global warming experience. Despite the killer chiller, at 110 degrees in Palm Springs, I felt like a McDonald's McDLT: cold on one side, hot on the other.
Second: proper iPod integration. Semi-miracle of miracles, the GL's optional iPod kit connects your digital jukebox to the SUV's kick ass stereo via a jack in the glove box, and switches songs from the steering wheel. However, you cannot switch albums. You have to disconnect the iPod, select a new album, and then reconnect the device. It's about as user-friendly an interface as BMW's iDrive, and twice as annoying. Which brings us to the third anomaly: you can't order both the superb rear-seat DVD system and iPoditude. That doesn't make sense.
Standing on the gas also defies logic. Five-thousand two-hundred and fifty pounds of bulk proves no match for 339 foot-pounds of German torque (at a leisurely 3,000rpm). The sprint from zero to sixty may require 7.5 seconds of your time, but it feels far less temporally taxing. More importantly, cruising at 80mph is a breeze, and passing at 90mph is no more than a gentle gust. Lifestyle load luggers will surely appreciate the fact that the GL's twistastic 4.6-liter V8 can tow 7500 lbs.– just 200 lbs. less than the much more powerful Escalade.
The GL450's seven-speed slush box is the best automatic transmission I've ever had the pleasure of thrashing. The cog-swapper has a supernatural knack for putting itself in the right gear at the right time; its computerized brain quickly adapts to fuel misers and hoonatics alike. When I first took possession of the GL, it shifted at an entirely responsible 4,000rpm. After a few hundred miles, the gear box was holding on to the revs right up until the 6,250 rpm redline. On the highway, seven speeds equaled better than 20 mpg, though they were no help around town.
The GL's handling is equally shocking. Throw her into a sweeping turn on a tight two-laner and she'll hang on without rolling, squealing or flashing traction control Morse Code. The GL's fully independent suspension and class-exclusive unibody construction help the beast dance like a [fat] gazelle. After hammering the GL up route 243 from Banning to Idyllwild, I noticed the distance to the back window. Based on the GL's poise and, well, grace, I would have sworn this sucker was five-feet shorter. Off pavement the Merc's nearly as athletic. With the suspension jacked up and the off-road aides on, the Benz breezed over every crevice, rut, rock and tree branch we threw under it. The only problem is sheer size; narrow trails are a paint-scratching nightmare and deep mud is a quagmire waiting to happen.
Besides looking like baby Huey, the GL makes an excellent case for itself as a luxury SUV on rails. Fair enough. But we know most Americans have no need whatsoever for this much truck. We also know that 14mpg (at best) in town makes the GL an irredeemable gas guzzler. The question is this: in an upper income fight to the death between political correctness and social snobbery, who wins? The obvious answer is Lexus' hybrid SUV. But never underestimate the power of a badge. The GL450 wears its Mercedes moniker with pride. Will wealthy American SUV drivers do the same?