Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class

WANSHIP, Utah – With so much to say about the new Mercedes-Benz GLS, this article will first report the big news. Later you’ll read brief impressions of our two days’ driving during its international launch in the mountains.

Like riding a magic carpet over clouds.

First, Mercedes-Benz wants you to know that the GLS-Class is the S-Class of SUVs: a brand flagship. Next, there’s more in this 2020 version: “more space, more comfort, more luxury.” Normally I wouldn’t quote press materials so openly but they deliver on the promises.

Note: In the evening of Day 2, the Toronto Raptors won Game 6 of the NBA finals. However, this story is only being posted now because of Mercedes-Benz’s press embargo, and not the team’s weeklong celebrations.

How much more space?

Are you among those Canadians who associate space with comfort? So, we’ll start with wheelbase – the distance between the front and rear wheels – which often determines whether tall people in the back seats are tucking their chins between their shins. The new GLS’s wheelbase is 60 mm longer than the previous, for a total of 3,235 mm – note the narrow overhangs, back and front.

Moreover, there’s now 87 mm more legroom in the second row. I spent an hour there during a mountainside off-roading experiment while my drive partner navigated under the tutelage of Katherine, a GLS designer who “develops suspension and active body control.” There was plenty of room and any discomfort I experienced was down to external factors, which we’ll revisit later.

Overall length is increased by 77 mm, totalling 5,207 mm. That’s 42 mm longer than the GLS’ direct competitor, the BMW X7, and 221 mm more than the Audi Q8.

But numbers sound abstract. Here’s some fresh perspective for Canadians: the height from the rim of an NBA basket to the floor is 3,050 mm. So, you could add Kawhi Leonard’s height of 2,010 mm* to that distance and you still don’t have the length of the new GLS.

At its widest, the GLS stretches 1,956 mm, 22 mm wider than before, but is narrower than both the X7 (2,000 mm) and the Q8 (1,995 mm). Lying down, Kawhi extends farther than all three’s widths, but Kyle Lowry doesn’t.

However, at 1,850 mm, Kyle would easily fit in the third row of the GLS, which accommodate heights up to 1,940 mm.

Sorry, just one more: Volume load has increased too but there are so many ways to configure the seats. Suffice to say, cargo ranges from 355 litres, fully crowded with passengers, to 2,400 litres with only the front seats available. Too abstract? See the enclosed photo of how many basketballs that totals.

Then there’s the issue of height

The GLS comes standard with AIRMATIC, Mercedes’ specialty suspension system. Now, reporting that a vehicle comes with a suspension may sound like saying steering is standard, but this feature merits dinner-party banter.

Regardless of load weight, AIRMATIC adjusts the GLS’s ground clearance, automatically or by driver choice, to match the conditions. Depending on drive mode, it’ll adjust to clear bumps on rough terrain. It will also lower for loading and unloading cargo and passengers. With the technologically if not grammatically sound “ON&OFFROAD PACKAGE”, AIRMATIC rises by 30 mm, 60 mm, and 90 mm.

The most striking aspect of the suspension, however, is the new rocking function. This feature exists to extricate you next time you’re stuck in a sand dune. With the touch of a button, you raise and lower the suspension farther than your bounciest lowrider.

Last we checked, there were no sand dunes in Westmount, Rockcliffe Park, Rosedale, or Kitsilano but we do occasionally get deep powered snow. Moreover, our Mercedes-Benz hosts were quick to admit there’s no guarantee the feature will free you from your sand trap – that depends on how deeply stuck you are – but it would temporarily put off having to call CAA. And it looks cool.

More comfort?

We’ve talked a bit about the suspension. It does more. At the moment, the optional E-Active Body Control (e-ABC) is the only suspension that can control damper and spring forces individually for each wheel. It supplements AIRMATIC with a “semi-load bearing hydro-pneumatic system” which takes over automatically when needed.

Road Surface Scan isn’t new but still noteworthy for pothole-rich Canadian cities. It reads the blacktop and prepares the suspension ahead of impacts or undulations.

Then there’s the marvellous-to-experience CURVE technology which tilts the GLS in turns! You know that feeling when you intuitively bend your bicycle or motorcycle in a fast and tight turn? It’s similar in concept, but quite different in execution.

All that engineering’s complex but the effect for passengers is like riding a magic carpet over clouds. Which seems like a convenient place to segue.

And more luxury?

“Ten years ago, Mercedes struggled to define itself as a brand,” declares Gorden Wagener, Daimler AG’s Chief Design Officer on Day 1. He’s tall, elegant, has an awesome name for a German car guy, and exudes success. “But it’s simple, really. Mercedes means luxury,” as demonstrated by having a designer on its board of officers.

There’s so much distraction and pampering on offer (and even as standard equipment) that we’d need a series to review them all. But let’s first commend Wagener for listing the optional electrified 4.0-litre eight-cylinder engine amid luxuries.

MBUX (which Wagener wants you to pronounce em-bee-you-ex, not em-bux) is the utterly comprehensive new infotainment interface. The screen is uniquely shallow but boasts an extended length, stretching over half the saloon. So, your eyes never drop far from the road but automatically continue scanning, what every driver should always be doing. Brilliant!

Also noteworthy is how MBUX provides multiple paths to accomplish any command, accommodating your learning style: buttons, touchscreen, and, speaking of learning, even an AI function. The AI needs some work and may not readily adapt to what BBC vocal experts call “Canadian raising”, but offers exceptional diversion.

“Hey, Mercedes, tell a joke!” commands my new friend, Product Manager Matthias Lücke.

In a deadpan staccato monotone to rival Stephen Wright: “What did Batman say to Robin before they got in the Batmobile?” Then, without pausing for our response: “Robin, get in the Batmobile.”

Ba-dum-TSS! We’ve come a long way from ’80s Chryslers that confusingly insisted, “Your door is a jar.”

Okay, back to luxury. Not to be outdone by BMW’s X7, the AIR-BALANCE package will modify the ambient scent in the vehicle. See the photos. We Raptors fans favoured the Sports and Nightlife “moods”.

Space also factors into luxury. The 2020 GLS is the first to offer seating for six as well as seven. Both configurations are fully electrically adjustable – you press a button to move them – as standard. This year, you can upgrade the three-seat second-row bench to two luxury seats with armrests and passageway between for easier access to the third row.

From there, you can further upgrade them to provide the same lumbar massage, heating and cooling thrills you get up front; A seven-inch Android tablet commands the Rear Comfort Package Plus. Pluck it from the docking station in the centre armrest and you can control any comfort or entertainment function for the back seats. Upgrade to the Rear Entertainment System for 11.6-inch HD screens and acoustically flawless headphones with complete access to any entertainment via the tablet. Or mirror it to your phone.

The drive: spacious, comfortable and luxurious, yes, but powerful.

The GLS 450 4MATIC (aka all-wheel drive) contains a generously hefty inline-six-cylinder engine. It’s electrified with 48-volt tech. Meaning? When you need a kick, there’s an extra 184 lb-ft of torque atop an already thrilling 369, plus an extra 21 hp on the 362 hp it’s capable of.

Between all that and an assortment of drive modes, you’re never bored.

Had a good year and feeling flush? The top-trim GLS 580 4MATIC boasts the world’s first electrified eight-cylinder engine. It delivers that same boost over a roaring 483 hp and 516 lb-ft!

Consider the size of the vehicles and capability of those engines. It’s testament to their efficiency that the city/highway fuel-consumption numbers we were given were just 7.9/7.6 L/100 km.

Our hosts plotted out four possible road tests for Day 2 of this international launch, each with varying conditions. My partner and I selected a 183-km loop with almost zero town driving, but 50 percent winding road and almost no major highways. The drive was gorgeous but informative, the CURVE function proving most revelatory for me.

Speed limits in Utah won’t remind drivers of the Autobahn but there were opportunities to feel the kick in the 450’s engine, although the soundproofing is so effective that you need to actively listen to hear it. The largest head-up display in its category reports how flagrantly you’re blowing past the limits. Thank goodness. The GLS is so smooth and large you may not register how fast you’re going.

Not that we did speed much. Our Day 2 morning excursion was halted mid-road for a quarter-hour, while local ranchers walked scores of casual cattle across. Note the photograph, taken standing up through the category’s largest panoramic sunroof.

On Day 3, we took the GLS off road. Not for the faint of heart.

Do not attempt the following without the Off-Road package which includes underbody protection. The price for the Canadian GLS has yet to be announced but you won’t want to scratch or dent one. Indeed, maybe don’t attempt the following without instruction from the aforementioned Katherine. Absent her, all would have been lost.

Before even starting the course, our GLS had to climb dusty blind switchbacks for nearly a half hour, regularly interrupted by speeding ATV fleets suddenly “apparating” à la Harry Potter. Then we crossed bumpy alpine meadow trails with assorted surprises, including a two-foot deep river, for another 15 minutes before starting.

Note the photo demonstrating the increasing gamification of society: a computer program scores how well you’re off-roading in the surrounding conditions. Tilting, descending, climbing, and avoiding are all factored in on triple-black-diamond pitches and tight deeply channeled turns. Heart, meet throat!

Our score? A humbling 51 percent. Nowhere near the best – the GLS launch also hosted journalists from Mexico, India, Poland, and Ukraine, whose roads are less genteel – but neither were we the worst.

Expect the GLS 450 in Canada this autumn. Prices and arrival of the other variants are to be announced soon-ish.

*Apologies to our launch-event hosts: the author may have direct-messaged MLSE that Mercedes-Benz would give Kawhi a GLS 580 if he stays.