I flew into Los Angeles with aspirations of driving something powerful; I had visions of some mighty motor displacing six liters or more. Anything with the letters AMG on the back would have suited me just fine. Instead I was staring at a gigantic Mercedes GL 320 CDI. That's CDI as in "diesel." I reckoned it was going to be a long drive to San Diego. I reckoned wrong.
Walking around the Mercedes GL class, I struggled to find inspiration. The SUV's descending belt line and downwards sloping swage lines create a forward facing arrow-like shape– which does an excellent job of hiding the GL's massive bulk. It's a Midwest corn silo SUV; the closer you get, the more amazed you are at its size. But the overall effect is squared off and blunt, even workmanlike. The GL's snout– complete with bootylicious big Benz badge– rescues the beast from invisibility on both the brand and design level.
I climbed up the side of the beast, planted myself behind the wheel and began looking for the CB radio, finding only the usual Mercedes COMAND stack. The view from the driver's throne is certainly commanding– as long as your viewing angle doesn't dip lower than 30 degrees below the horizon. Beneath that, all things are invisible– small children, motorcycles, Toyotas.
The GL320's materials quality isn't up to Range Rover's "tough luxury," but the assembly is outstanding. The ‘Bama-built Benz looks and feels built to last (as in longevity, not relative traffic position). Less enjoyably, the not-so-cheap tester's range of adjustments and toys were quite limited, and the sound system's quality and functionality had me searching for my IPod. On the positive side, the GL's interior space utilization and practicality– multiple seat flips, cupholders, cubbies, etc.– is ideal for a large family with a gaggle of messy tikes.
Including the conjunction, the big Benz' driving experience can be summed up in three words: imperious and impervious. Straight line driving is dreamy and plush, with no vibrations to speak of. Other than that… the GL 320's limited visibility rules-out quick and aggressive lane changes; every move requires careful planning. Fortunately, I was only required to turn twice in 100 miles, so I didn't have much opportunity to experience the pleasures of helming the leaning tower of Benz.
The GL 320 CDI's steering was a tad vague at the straight ahead and the brakes oddly squishy, but the dynamics were wholly appropriate with the rest of the driving experience. I wasn't bothered about testing the stoppers' performance in a panic stop; I felt I could pretty much run over or through anything that crossed my path without noticing (save in a legal and moral sense). Cruising along serenely, captain of a dreadnought class vehicle, I instantly understood why these giant SUV populate the American interstates.
And if perchance I ventured to Big Bear, I felt confident the GL 320 could handle anything nature threw my way. Like most Mercedes owners/drivers, I've seen the commercials. What more do you want? One button off-road handling and traction gizmo recalibration? Done. Seventy-five hundred pounds of towing capacity? Riva owners of the world rejoice!
The GL 320 CDI's diesel engine's performance is extremely well suited to the vehicle's mellow mission. Although the GL CDI's 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 powerplant produces "only" 215hp, the oil-burning SUV drives like a tsunami. It accumulates speed relentlessly, surfing on a never-ending wave of torque (398 lb-ft @ 1,600 – 2,800 rpm). The truck had enough power to indulge every passing whim with calm assurance, while tree stumps quivered in fear.
Given the GL's 5313 pound curb weight and the aforementioned braking pillow-cum-pedal, I had to temper my accelerative enthusiasm, lest I evoke runaway train metaphors. Pricing for this leviathan starts in the mid $50k's, but quickly makes its way into the $70k's.
And speaking of money– or at least political correctness– anyone who purchases a giant SUV must, at some point, face the mileage issue. The BlueTec diesel powering the GL 320 CDI offers a great salve to the well-heeled, environmentally-conscience SUV driver. I managed 23 mpg at a steady state 80mph. In EPA terms, the GL320 CDI represents a 30 percent improvement over its gas-equivalent.
At last, the best of the German-engineered modern diesel engines are making their way to the US of A, erasing all memories of the Detroit's abortive efforts in the 1970s. These next gen diesels offer significant fuel saving, cleanliness and outstanding drivability. And now that we're finally getting great diesels, the price of the fuel has rendered mileage gains moot, and obviated rational contemplation of the diesel engine's price premium.
But don't let this hinder your consideration of a diesel-powered truck or car. If you appreciate torquey smooth performance, the GL320 CDI's diesel is the next best thing to a powerful, thirsty, expensive, CO2-belching V12.