It's great to be the good-looking sibling in any family.
In Mercedes-Benz's family of large SUVs, the full-size GL is the least radical and therefore most attractive – arguably – of the bunch. It foregoes the safety pin through the eyebrow retro brashness of the painfully boxy G-wagon, and the practical as a plaid-sweater festooned with baby spit-up family hauler image that the R-Class seems to convey.
In this clan, the GL is the blue jeans-rocking, truck-next-door type, looking familiar to everyone, even if she's much bigger than city-centric but anorexic SUVs.
And its attractiveness extends beyond the Mercedes-Benz family, as proven by the sales charts. It outsells all its full-size SUV competition in both Canada and the United States, even with Detroit-based entries that are significantly cheaper, and available from many more dealers. In Canada, its 1,660 sales in 2011 also led the class here in its last full year, in a small (in Canada) but lucrative segment for luxury auto makers.
Designed now on an all-new platform with a more powerful turbodiesel engine, the second-generation GL-Class now makes a more compelling argument for itself over the significantly cheaper R-Class. The longer R-Class actually offers more interior room, cargo space, a similar if now less advanced diesel engine, and a starting price that's 15 large less than that of a base GL.
Considering that the GL's main target buyers are parents with three or four children that prioritize comfort, safety and functionality, says the company, the GL's fiercest rival may be sitting next to it in a Mercedes-Benz showroom. That would be a Canadian showroom as of this fall, as Benz's U.S. arm has decided to drop the R-Class for 2013, though it will continue to be produced in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for Canada and places such as China, the Mercedes minivan's largest market.
Arriving in September, the 2013 GL range will at first consist of three models: the GL 350 BlueTec diesel V-6 (starting at $73,700), the similarly priced but more refined GL 450 V-8 ($75,900), and then way up the price and power scale, the range-topping GL 550 ($95,900).
The GL diesel's 240 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque are up by a worthy 30 ponies and 55 lb-ft , a noticeable gain when you consider that the turbo-diesel's displacement remains the same as before. It has also dropped 90 kilograms of weight from its large body, promising fuel savings of up to 20 per cent over its predecessor, at least when the versions with stop/start arrive (they won't be here until a few months into production).
The GL 450 V-8 will use Benz's twin-turbocharged 4.7-litre V-8 that puts out 362 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque, and is a detuned version of the 429-hp, 4.7-litre V-8 that's standard with the $95,900 GL 550, with its turbine-like 516 lb-ft of torque. For those who really crave the ultimate in SUV size and oomph (and ridiculousness, some would say), there will be a GL 63 AMG version coming in 2013, with a larger 550-hp twin-turbo V-8 and a monstrous 560 lb-ft of torque.
From the driver's seat, the GL 350 is noticeably slower and less refined than the 550, the two versions we sampled at the model's introduction near Santa Fe, N.M. The GL 550 is as cultured as a complimentary butler, proving smooth at all times, yet punchy when asked. Supreme comfort is expected, and delivered, in any vehicle such as this, making its relatively flat cornering its biggest dynamic edge over much of its competition. That's especially true with the 550, which comes standard with a Sport package that brings an adaptive damping air suspension and lovely 21-inch wheels, both optional on GL 450 and 350 BlueTecs.
Where the GL diesel makes up for its lack of grunt and polish is at the fuel pump. In Europe, the often optimistic NEDC figures suggest an overall average for the new diesel GL of 8.0 litres/100 km. But considering the 2012 GL BlueTec is rated at 12.4 litres/100 in more realistic U.S. EPA figures, a 20 per cent reduction for the '13 would land it right around a 9.9 litres/100 km overall average. For the V-8s, the comparable overall EPA figures for the 2012 GL 450 and GL 550 land at 15.7 and 16.8 L/100 km respectively, so using the same round 20 per cent reduction figure, should land them near averages of 12.6 and 13.4 litres/100.
These rough estimates, if borne out under scientific testing (and assuming the stop/start system arrives soon), would make the GL V-8s less thirsty than its V-8 rivals, with the BlueTec as good or better than the Audi Q7 diesel or Cadillac Escalade (V-8) hybrid.
But buyers of these thirsty machines will likely be more interested in the GL's notable comfort and safety features, including heated and cooled cup holders up front, an automatic parallel parking system that will help squeeze the GL into the inevitable tight spots, and inflatable rear seatbelts, which act as an instant airbag cushion around the belt to help prevent injuries in the event of a crash.
Aiming to avoid that crash in the first place is an elaborate but invisible electronic safety "shield," consisting of about 20 alphanumeric active safety systems. New ones on the GL include Crosswind Assist, which uses sensors to detect when wind is pushing the GL around in its lane, and compensates for it with slight braking of the two tires on the side of the wind, helping to maintain the GL's rock-solid sense of stability. A new collision warning system is also added that audibly and visually warns you to pay attention now!, at speeds from 30 km/h on up to 250 km/h.
All of which are worthy features, helping to keep the GL at the top of the full-size SUV game. And while value-conscious luxury buyers may still wish to sneak a peek over at the R-Class, or at U.S. market GLs that all start at about 10 grand less than here, there's no doubt that the GL has more than just down-home good looks going for it.
2013 Mercedes-Benz GL 350 BlueTec 4MATIC
Type: Full-size, seven-seat SUV
Base price: $73,700 (GL 450: $75,900; GL 550: $95,900)
Engine: 3.0-litre, turbo-diesel, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 240 hp/455 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven--speed automatic with shift paddles
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): (manufacturer's est.) 8.0 L/100 km (city/hwy combined, NEDC); diesel fuel
Alternatives: Audi Q7 TDI, Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX56, Lexus LX 570, Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes-Benz R-Class