13 Nov 2013

Mercedes-Benz GL350 AMG Review

Alex Wakefield reviews the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL350 BluTEC AMG Sport

Mercedes-Benz GL350 AMG Sport
I’ll admit to being ambivalent towards 4 x 4s. I’ve been in many and always enjoyed the experience that leads so many to buy one; the elevated driving position, feeling of safety, and the knowledge that you could go almost anywhere you wanted in any condition, despite the fact that you probably never will. Yet I’ve always been slightly embarrassed to be seen in one, and for whatever reason I’m prone to feelings of self-consciousness that don’t sit well with the target audience. I feel compelled to tell people that the car is not mine.

I’m not alone in these feelings because my concerns seem to be mirrored by the public at large. What were at first large, unwieldy, agricultural vehicles, even until very recently, have morphed into much more manageable so called ‘soft roaders’ – vehicles with the ability to tow a horse box across a muddy field, but which don’t possess the ponderous dimensions and wayward handling of their larger brethren. Much more recently, we have seen the increasing popularity of the crossover – a hatchback with raised ground clearance and occasional all-wheel drive capability.

Whilst we’ve been concentrating on them, manufacturers have been trying to broaden the appeal of their full size 4 x 4s. The Range Rover is now a fully-fledged limousine, with genuine off road ability making it, some say, the best car in the world. Porsche have given us the physics defying Cayenne and thereby brought about the ruination of their image at the same time as lining their pockets with pure profit, because people love these cars. Mercedes Benz have had a presence within this market since the late 1970’s, when they gave us the Gelandewagen, or G-Class, although the ML-Class has been responsible for volume sales since the late 1990’s.

At a recent media driving day, I encountered a queue of other drivers wanting to test the latest G350 BluTEC – the modern iteration of the Geländewagen - and instead, asked for the keys to a Citrine Brown GL350 BluTEC that was getting very little attention. Although there is a confusing similarity in the name, these two are very different vehicles and, engines aside, are completely unrelated. The GL is a car that ably fills a niche marketplace for 7 seat 4 x 4s and shares a lot with the high-concept R-Class MPV.
Mercedes-Benz GL350 AMG Sport

It bucks the trend of the downsized, apologetic crossover by being unashamedly enormous. The model has recently received a comprehensive facelift which if anything, celebrates the bulk of the car even more, with additional chrome trim, massive wheels and shouty LED headlights. You climb aboard (and you do have to step up noticeably from ground level), over the illuminated sill plates into the cabin, which is clothed in a sea of good quality black leather.

The solid dashboard is what we expect from a Mercedes Benz. The coatings, switches, levers and buttons all exude a quality feel. This model is an AMG Sport – not to be confused with the utterly insane GL63 AMG, although it shares the same metal engine start button. Turning the car on fires up the 3.0 V6 turbo diesel engine, thrumming smoothly away somewhere in the distance. This is a car for North Americans you realise, when engaging the column shift into drive and easing away. If it were not for a recent stint behind the wheel in a medium wheelbase Sprinter van I would have found it comically large, but on the other side of the Atlantic such dimensions are quite commonplace.

Expecting the car to be ponderous, slow and dreary, I switch the driving mode dial to Sport and moved through the dual carriageway surrounding the Mercedes Benz headquarters onto a test route I had previously used to sample two high-performance AMG models. Whilst not in the same league, the seamless power delivered by the 258BHP diesel engine is a surprise, as this is transmitted to the four driven wheels without much lag. There’s a short delay whilst the engine gives off a pleasant growl but the claimed 0-62mph time of 7.9 seconds is easily achieved. This is not a slow car and once bowling along, surfs a 620Nm wave of torque.

The test route is not all about straight line speed, although the GL350 is capable of 137mph if you feel so inclined. Cruising along with the other traffic in search of country lanes, it’s easy to forget how big this car is. It shrinks around you, instilling confidence, and the squared off front and rear ends help you to place the car accurately on the road. The ride is smooth, the driveline hushed, the seats incredibly comfortable and supportive. Through the wheel, the driver is somewhat isolated from the road, but as the car is hustled off the A5, it’s clear that some enjoyment can be had over and above the sheer physical satisfaction of punting something so large along at such a pace.

Push hard and it’s no surprise that understeer prevails. Despite the best efforts of the engineers, there’s no getting away from the two and half ton kerb weight, but this is only ever an issue if you are being really foolish. What’s most impressive about this car is the almost total ability to disguise the enormous bulk and kid you into believing you are piloting something much smaller. So much so in fact, that it’s actually quite a shock to get out and take in what you have just been driving.

In the back are two rows of electrically operated seats; a split bench with three spaces, and a folding two seat arrangement behind them that will accommodate fully grown adults. All of these rotate forward, creating a gargantuan flat load space. There’s some element of manual operation in bringing the middle row back into the upright position, and those seats are heavy. The metallic Citrine Brown paint of the test car is not particularly photogenic, but is striking and sets off the exterior brightwork and 21 inch AMG alloy wheels.

Those wheels are sprung by air suspension and it’s the smooth ride that impresses most once back aboard on the return journey to Milton Keynes, despite the fashionably large wheel rims. It makes me wonder if the ride would be even more impressive with smaller diameter wheels and tyres. The 7 speed automatic transmission responds quickly and combines with the fast, but numb steering to encourage the driver to arrive at the entrance to bends and roundabouts much faster than seems possible. The brakes are excellent, giving the driver a good impression of what is going on behind those large rims, causing this enormous car to shed speed without difficulty.

Back at HQ, it’s time to think about what this car sets out to achieve. It’s a showcase of how technology can overcome physics. But the weight, overhangs, pretty wheels and road tyres do not make this a good 4 x 4. I wouldn’t want to test an £80,000 vehicle off road, but suspect the bulk would cause the GL350 to struggle. Unexpectedly, this car is at home on the open road. Before I took it away, the chaps showing me around the car all confided that this was the vehicle they would choose to take home, and I can understand that sentiment, especially if home was a 500 mile drive away.

The GL350 BlueTEC is an incredibly able car, laden with obvious gadgets inside the cabin, but it’s underneath that the real wonders can be found. A two and a half ton truck, that seats seven, delivers a combined 35MPG and will steam on to 137MPH whilst keeping occupants entertained with a home cinema system deserves more attention than it gets. It’s far more than just a family bus for wealthy stockbrokers, with an aversion to contraception, but you’ll need a large driveway and zero conscience if you plan to add one to your fleet.

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Review by Alex Wakefield