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We test Merc's supersized SUV

2007-04-26 17:29
Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Mercedes-Benz
Model GL320CDI
Engine 3-litre V6, turbodiesel
Power 165 kW
Torque 510 Nm
Transmission 7-speed semi-automatic
Fuel Consumption 11.8 litres/100km
Airbags Yes
Price R710 000

Lance Branquinho

Mercedes-Benz has a massive new premium SUV, the GL, to flesh out their model range. And when a model is said to be premium in the three-pointed star range, it usually surmounts to something very special.

Blending the ostentatious luxury, synonymous with German brands, and all the traditional off-road necessities - low range, differential locks - the GL brooks no argument as a humble SUV. This is an über-SUV with formidable 4x4 abilities.

At frist glance the GL is conclusively premium though, especially in size. It really takes up most of your natural field of view.

If you are a shy, retiring type with a penchant volunteering to care for little, furry mammals over weekends, the GL probably is not for you.

And this first impression conundrum, summarily, is what happened the first time I saw the GL320CDI. After a stressful day at the office it happened to be parked on my number in the underground parking garage, which is littered with oversized supporting pillars and oddly parked cars of colleagues. And the GL was very snugly parked between two pillars.

When you are in a hurry to get home and beat the rush-hour traffic, manoeuvring the mammoth GL out of a claustrophobic underground parking garage isn't too easy. That's not all! The next challenge was to guide it up a narrow city street scattered with suicidal delivery drivers. After that ordeal the GL tackled the traffic congested N1.

How big is your house?

Pictures cannot do the proportions justice. The GL is quite simply gargantuan. It is 5.2 metres long, as wide as an ocean liner, weights a touch over 2.4 tons and consequently has so many blinds spots when driving you might as well have blinkers on. Take a look at those wheels, the GL rides on 19-inch mags, and they look decidedly average against the silhouette of the bodywork...you get the idea.

The GL looks like the illegitimate lovechild of the venerable Gelandewagen and a C-class: not quite as stunning as a Range Rover Sport, yet not nearly as odd-looking as an Audi Q7.

The styling does little to disguise its bulk, and disappointingly the insets on the grille and around the light sections might look like chrome...until you tap your knuckles on them and they make a sound like something far plastickier.

Actuate the surprisingly light door handle and as you open the GL and it dawns upon you what it is all about: capaciousness.

The interior is simply vast. Even if you had to sell your house to afford a GL you would not be left feeling short-changed.

With stitch-seamed leather everywhere the interior is superbly finished, the centre-console is stylish, the rear passengers have two DVD players - one in each of the front seats headrest - and the space is endless.

Some SUV's may offer the option of a third row of seats, but the GL easily accommodates them: it is a true seven-seater.

True to form though, they make you pay extra for some of the niceties - such as the DVD players - as well as some of the necessities. The rearward facing field of view camera, an absolute necessity when negotiating crowded parking lots, being a key standard feature omission.

Diesel power

Powering the GL is a 3-litre V6, turbodiesel, engine which produces 165 kW of power at 3 800 r/min, and 510 Nm of torque between 1 600 and 2 800 r/min. Although the 7G-Tronic gearbox has a surfeit of ratios, 165 kW is never going to move a 2.4 ton vehicle about with any alacrity.

If you keep the turbo boosting above 2 500 r/min you'll surge forward on a wave of torque; but power away from standstill and the laws of physics and inertia are quite tangible. The GL is swift at cruising speeds, it's just not particularly quick around town at low speeds in cut and thrust driving: where it will spend most of it's working life.

The diesel motor stirs along very quietly whilst being fabulously smooth and quite frugal too: returning just under 12-litres/100 km in a mixed driving cycle. Although the GL is disconcertingly large at first it does shrink around the driver, and is quite wieldy, displaying neat handling and precise, beautifully weighted speed-sensitive power steering.

Raise the adjustable Airmatic suspension to it's maximum ride height and you have a very ample 307mm of ground clearance. With a low range ratio which can be selected without stopping the car, and 100 percent differential locks for the transfer case and the rear axle the GL has infinitely more off-road capability than any of its owners are ever likely to explore.

Whereas the previous generation ML lacked serious off-road, quagmire conquering ability, the GL by contrast is more Geländenwagen like, dispatching most off-road obstacles with a disdainful ease which tends to flatter the driver.

And the point is?

When Mercedes-Benz launched their first generation ML in the late 90's SUV's were very much in vogue. Yet today, with vacillating oil prices and all manner of grave ecological consequences allegedly being visited upon us, oversized and ostentatious 4x4's are about as socially acceptable as belonging to the South African seal-clubbing association.

The GL though, is a triumph of engineering over perception. It might take up a ridiculous amount of road space, but it has the capacity to move seven people and all their stuff around on and off-road effortlessly at reasonable economy, which really debunks the inefficiency argument.

Beautifully made and splendidly capable both on and off-road, the GL, in essence, is all the SUV you might ever need.

Hard to justify above the significantly improved ML range, those with large families and a yearning for some ubiquitous off-road capability combined with the urban image value of the three-pointed star will understand the market niche GL has filled.

If the GL is the last of the uber-sized SUV's we get to see, it certainly represents the pinnacle of SUV evolution.


  • Efficient diesel drivetrain, with seamlessly integrated off-road traction technology
  • Hugely spacious and comfortable interior
  • Redoubtable build quality
  • Peculiarly capable off-road


  • Some cheap bits of exterior styling trim
  • Reverse camera, DVD-system and Satellite navigation should be standard
  • Bulk intimidating and blunts performance a bit


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