Mercedes-Benz describes its 7-seater GLS as "the S-Class of SUVs" and we attended the launch of the super-luxurious off-roader in the Lowveld to test the validity of the manufacturer's claim.
By John Floyd
The success of the SUV in the global market is astonishing. It’s the family station wagon of a new generation and, for many owners, a dutiful mum’s taxi. The popularity of SUVs has been exploited by multiple manufacturers, who produce a range of SUVs: from compact ones with basic spec, to those with “it’ll never fit in the driveway” dimensions and opulent interiors.
"Manufacturers' existing client bases are shifting from conventional cars to SUVs and this is particularly prevalent in the premium end of the market," said Florian Seidler, co-CEO of Mercedes-Benz SA and executive director of Mercedes-Benz Cars, "(and) the GLS is the S-Class of SUVs". To put that claim into perspective, the S-Class, of which the S500 is our reigning champion in the First Class category of the Cars.co.za Consumer Awards, is widely regarded as the world's best large sedan. Can this newcomer deliver comparable levels of on-road refinement and cosseting luxury?
The build quality and feel of the switchgear in the GLS' cabin are reminiscent of a luxury sedan's.
All three models were available at launch: the GLS350d, GLS500 and the mighty Mercedes-AMG GLS63. We opted for the GLS500 to take us from Liketi Lodge to Hazyview on a combination of tar and gravel roads of very variable surface quality.
Climbing into the hills, the GLS500, whose 4.7-litre V8 biturbo engine delivers 335 kW of power through a 9-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic all-wheel drivetrain (the last two of which are common to the GLS350d), made short work of the winding passes. As the roads narrowed you become aware of the over 5.0-metre length and 1.9-metre width of the GLS, but its supple-yet-agile suspension and excellent steering lock belie the size of this hefty 7-seater.
Luxurious cabin environment
The interior is definitely S-Class-like in appearance and quality; it's undoubtedly a luxurious environment in which to travel. In fact, some of the latest onboard technology employed in both S-Class and E-Class ranges are seamlessly integrated into the GLS. As usual, various styling packages are available to supply the ambience you require in the cabin. A sizeable screen displays information from the Comand system, including infotainment functions and graphics of the vehicle's set up.
Following a vehicle swop we experienced the entry-level the GLS350d derivative and were not disappointed. The 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel motor is a proven unit and its combination with the 9G-Tronic transmission made the GLS350d the perfect vehicle for the next leg of the journey, which saw us crossing into Limpopo and traversing the Selati game reserve to our final destination at Kapama private reserve, where a challenging off-road course awaited the media contingent.
The GLS' Airmatic air suspension system benefits ride comfort in on- as well as off-road conditions.
A raft of safety systems
Approaching Bushbuck Ridge we found ourselves facing a bakkie approaching us head on and were grateful for the faultless handling that allowed us to avoid a collision. It also makes you more aware of the multitudinous number of safety systems (both active and passive) that are standard across the GLS range, making it one of the safest vehicles available.
The AMG derivative was next up and this is one that just cannot fail to impress. Punching out 430 kW (an increase of 20 kW over its predecessor) and with maximum torque of 760 Nm available from 1 750 rpm, it is not surprising that the GLS63 is claimed to accelerate from zero to 100 kph in 4.6 seconds. Unlike its siblings, this one’s 4Matic all-wheel drive is fed by an AMG Speedshift Plus 7-speed transmission, but with such power at your disposal, do you really need those two extra gears?
The entire appearance of the AMG-fettled GLS63 is very different to the rest of the range. With its lower ride height and adorned with deep spoilers this one is definitely for the black stuff... You do not buy this one to go into the great outdoors.
The dials on the right of the console are used to select ride height (top) and off-road driving modes (below).
Up to 6 transmission settings
On Day 2 we were at an abandoned quarry where the Mercedes-Benz team set up a challenging off-road course on which we drove both the GLS350d and GLS500 (the AMG model was sensibly parked at this stage of the proceedings...)
This is where the transmission's Dynamic Select can demonstrate its mettle. It allows the GLS to adapt to the driving conditions with up to 6 transmission settings. They include Comfort, Sport and Slippery as well as Off Road, all of which is simply controlled electronically from the centre console. If you are envisaging a more testing type of off-road driving on a regular basis then it would be worth going for the optional Off-Road Engineering Package offering the Off-Road+ mode.
Standard air suspension
Do you want extra ground clearance? That's easy – the Airmatic air suspension lifts the GLS' ground clearance to 306 mm and water-fording depth to 600 mm (the latter was not tested as the Lowveld's extremely dry at present). To ensure minimal contact damage, there's underbody shielding that protects the GLS from being damaged by heavy ground impacts.
The course consisted of a series of very steep ascents and descents as well as several very tight turning areas and just to make it doubly testing the organisers incorporated some very sharp ridges that challenged the breakover point of this 3.0-metre wheelbase vehicle. The GLS tackled the course with ease, as had been the case with every section of our route.
GLS deals with steep climbs and tough breakover angles with aplomb, but not at the cost of occupant comfort.
We found the most impressive derivative of the newcomer's lineup was the GLS 350d. It offers an excellent and comparatively cost-effective package at the upper end of the premium SUV segment.
So is the GLS indeed the "S-Class of SUVs"? Given its impressive performance, excellent build quality and the fact that it incorporates the very latest Mercedes-Benz technology, there is absolutely no doubt the GLS merits that title.
Mercedes-Benz GLS prices in South Africa
GLS350d R1 283 900
GLS500 R1 444 400
GLS63AMG R2 246 900
Prices include a 6-year/100 000 km maintenance plan.