The Mercedes Benz GLS has been around since 2006. It was earlier known as the GL in its first 2 generations. Halfway through the second gen in 2016 is when the name was changed to GLS. It was developed to respond to a growing segment - primarily in North America - for a rival to cars like the Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator. Large, fullsize SUVs with 7 seater capability and so it is the first German SUV with 3 row seating, Just like it came at a time those American SUVs were entering their 3rd generations, the 3rd gen GLS also comes at a time when Mercedes-Benz's German rivals are finally bringing their real GLS rivals to the market for the first time. So this new car had to be a strong one. Mercedes makes most of its SUVs in America and so the drive being in Utah - a state synonymous with SUVs and off-roading - is not altogether surprising. As you will find out - the location gave us plenty - from twisty mountain roads, to smooth highway and yes - some rough terrain too!
Now it's the flagship SUV, it has to be biggest in the family - and it is huge! But the good part is that when you look at the car, you almost ask yourself - "hey, did the GLS get smaller?" Well, not in terms of dimensions - since this car is bigger than the last one in every dimension. But in terms of proportion and styling, the car does look more compact, and that's good because it doesn't look like this massive bulky thing that's coming at you. And so that's a credit to the design team. The wheelbase is generous, and you know straight away it will be a generous cabin. Does it look as big and imposing as the X7 does? Well, we will have to put the cars next to each other to judge that, but yes I can tell you the X7 (in my mind) is going to look more butch.
Now the part that you want to know is - the exact trim on the Mercedes-Benz GLS that is going to come to India. We don't still know that because it's far away, at least a year, but the car I am driving has the AMG trim, so you get nice looking alloys. The wheels go from 19-23 inch - unlike the last car where they topped off at 21 inches. I remain a little underwhelmed by the styling up front. Right from the car's global debut at the New York show, when I first saw it - I feel like the face could have been bolder, more imposing and with a definite new direction in styling, or a signature feature to make people weak in the knees. This does neither.
It is beautifully finished and well styled, but it's more of what you have seen before. Seeing it out here on the road, seeing it driving around, yes my impression has changed somewhat but I still would have expected a little more drama, little more flair up here, especially because this is the flagship. The new GLS does look upmarket, but yes you will be forgiven for thinking it's a GLE if you see one coming up in your rear view mirror. To me that's a bit of a problem.
The rear is much nicer, with a bit of sexiness in those taillights. The tailgate is also well designed and the car looks less heavy from the rear as a result. I have with me the new GLS 400 d 4MATIC. Yes all wheel drive is standard, though some of the other features are not. My test car has the air suspension, as also the E-Active Body Control - something we first saw being introduced in the new GLE. Speaking of that smaller sibling, the GLS shares its platform and some engines too. India will get the 400 d and 450 - though some other markets will have a range topping GLS 580 with a 4-litre V8 twin-turbo. I will get to that bit later.
It is on the inside that things have gone way up high over the last car. Sure the facelift we got when the name changed already made the earlier GL way more luxurious. But now the design and layout is slimmer, more modern and certainly more inviting. The screens on the dash - both the instruments and user interface - dominate the cabin. They are in keeping with the new Mercedes-Benz cabin but are bigger for sure. The graphics, design and new MBUX interface are a massive step up, in line with what we have also seen on the new gen GLE.
Space is better utilised now, and the cabin gives you an airier, roomier feel instantly. The seats could have done with more bolstering, since they are a bit wide - perhaps keeping larger North American occupants in mind, and so the lack of cushion and bolstering does show up when you're sitting in the back, and the car is being driven sportily. But material, fit and finish is impeccable - as can be expected from Mercedes-Benz. A six-seat configuration is now available for the first time on the GLS, so yes now you've individual seats in the second row. Of course, you can get the bench option and go 7-seater as well. But there is a claim from the company that the 3rd row has really been worked on to make it comfortable. They claim you can put someone in there that is 1.94 metres tall (that's 6'4"). I am not that tall, but can agree that headroom is good.
The seats have you sitting a bit high, so they're okay for short drives. Though things are better than before for sure. The glass in the D pillar helps because you don't feel cooped up back there. You've also got your own AC vents, own speaker, seat warmer, USB charger, cup holder... well it is the GLS after all, so it's got to pamper you - even in the third row! Legroom is not the greatest, but the back angle is quite nice.
Each passenger, in all three rows gets a roof-mounted mic so they can be heard by the MBUX system or during phone calls. Nice touch indeed. All the seats can be adjusted electrically, and folding down both rear rows gives you a massive 2400 litre cargo space if need be. The idea is to really continue to dominate the segment when it comes to having a luxury benchmark. On paper the car still holds on to that, especially with the addition of the optional 6-seat layout. But the first impression is that the BMW X7 will likely come across as more plush. But let us save that comparison for when the cars are standing side by side shall we? The GLS will pamper you with things like the voice command guided virtual assistant, ambient lighting, massage function - now even optional for the single rear seats in the 6-seater configuration - and the largest panoramic glass roof in the segment. The car with me does not have automated or manual sunshades for the rear windows - something I expect would be standard on the India spec though. I did drive other variants that had it though.
It is the S class of SUVs from Mercedes Benz. But that's the claim that was made with the previous generation as well. I just spent 2 minutes driving the car and can see it is indeed vastly improved over the last one. It's no longer the big brutish truck-like (very US-centric) vehicle that it used to be. This one is a lot more refined and certainly a lot more luxurious, and I don't just mean that in terms of trim. What it also gets is a whole bunch of technology, stuff that you have seen happening on the GLE, but the most crucial additions are the aforementioned E-Active Body Control, the Road Surface Scan, and Curve. Once again - we saw these functions and features make their debut on the new GLE that broke cover in late 2018. We are still waiting for that car in India incidentally. But it is promised to us before the year closes.
Meanwhile the E-Active Body Control works with the air suspension. It's a hydro-pneumatic system that has individual spring and damping control for each wheel. This allows the suspension to adjust itself to anything surface or undulation. The car's on-board sensors and cameras track what's coming up, and send that information to the system, which adjusts the suspension at each wheel as required. A damper is mounted on the axle at each wheel, and is connected to an engine pump unit powered by a 48-volt electrical system. This helps counteract pitch and body roll. Like on the GLE you also get the 'Rocking function'. This lets the car get out if stuck in sand, slush, snow or mud. So you can rock it and get it out as soon as you get the traction needed.
Along with the Sport, Comfort and Eco drive modes you also get the Offroad and Curve Modes. The Curve mode has to do with staying on the road. After the S-Class, Maybach and GLE, the GLS gets it too. Curve mode works to maximise comfort by scanning the road surface, anticipate any upcoming corners, and adjust the car's roll typically experienced around said corner. This keeps the chassis straighter than expected, but as a driver makes you second-guess things a bit. I can see why it helps the passengers - and I experienced it as one too - but I still prefer not to use it while driving. While Offroad is standard on the newer SUVs, Offroad+ can only be had if buyers opt for the Offroad package when buying their GLS. This gives you extra room to raise the car to navigate tricky or rough terrain, and gives you 600 mm of wading capability. Since the car does promise to be way more capable offroad than its predecessor, I have the chance to put that to the test.
This is also when I have the chance to switch cars and check out the GLS 580 4MATIC. The difference between the two engines is like chalk and cheese. I will explain why later on. First the off-roading. The initial bit of the section was basically a dirt road, with a shallow water crossing thrown in. But things are starting to now get interesting. I have the chance to test the car's incline ascending and descending capabilities - complete with the DSR or downhill speed regulation. The system lets you set a crawl speed and the car does everything - all you need to do is steer. In some bits I switched to Offroad+ mode that raises the car to the maximum, and yet gives you about 20 mm of wheel articulation. I had been very surprised by the lack of any off-road experience when I drove the new GLE in San Antonio, Texas in November last year. So the GLS now allowed me to experience what Mercedes-Benz has been developing for 4X4 enthusiasts. Way more improved. And I can truly vouch for this - having spent a lot of time in the previous generation 4X4 GL - during our epic 50,000 km drive across the planet during the Great Overland Adventure series.
Back on tarmac with the 400 d now, and it was time to truly test the engine's performance as well as the car's dynamic capabilities. Here I did feel a bit let down. Though the in line six cylinder diesel engine has the numbers, it lacks the punch. Quick acceleration while at higher speeds is the particular Achilles heel on it, though the gearbox does shift quickly and the drivetrain is very refined. The cabin remains quiet, and ride quality is excellent. Unfortunately the inline 6 engine on the petrol GLS 450 too falls short of impressing on quick acceleration, and of the two I do prefer the diesel more. The previous gen's V6 engines did feel punchier. The V8 on that GLS 580 though is brilliant. Yes 479 horsepower on a petrol V8 - what's not to like. Well it is what it takes to really move this beast - that's for sure. Quick... responsive and very much more agile as a result - while maintaining the refinement and comfort. The petrol engines also get the ISG or integrated starter generator system. It uses a 48-volt EQ boost that also gives you an additional 250 Nm of torque and 21.5 bhp of power over short bursts. That makes it the world's first electrified V8 engine.
On the whole the new GLS is a good step up from the previous car. It is just as plush, just as big and yet has matured, offers greater levels of refinement and is sleeker too. Could it have been prettier and punchier? Yes - but again for the Mercedes-Benz buyer this car will stand out as a true flagship for the SUV range. The family has now grown to six - the GLA, GLB, GLC, GLE, GLS and the G Wagon. Throw in the GLC and GLE Coupés and you've got 8 of them. Could there be more? May(bach)be there could be a new flagship round the corner. For now the GLS will stand tall and proud, and in the Indian context will certainly excite enough to retain its position in the luxury fullsize SUV segment with a small caveat for the unknown that the first ever BMW X7 will bring. For what its worth that new rival will arrive in India before the GLS does - pretty much like the new X5 has come in well before the new GLE will.