2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS first drive review

2020 Mercedes GLS shows what happens when unstoppable force meets immovable luxury

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 450 first drive

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS first drive

“Mercedes-Benz has done exactly what they needed to do with the GLS: this is a state-of-the-art SUV that will easily exceed its buyers’ expectations.”
  • Mercedes luxury
  • Surprising off-road capability
  • Excellent handling
  • Cavernous interior
  • Impressive six-cylinder engine
  • Intrusive lane keeping assist
  • Small wireless charging pad
  • Complicated dashboard menu system

A new SUV is always a big deal for Mercedes-Benz . SUVs now make up about one-third of Mercedes sales worldwide, and a full 60% of North American sales. To maintain the company’s position at the top of the luxury market, the all-new 2020 GLS has to be worthy to replace the second-generation GLS, and also be competitive with the newest offerings from BMW and Land Rover.

Mercedes says that the new GLS is designed to be “the S-Class of SUVs,” and who would be better equipped to make it so? But S-Class luxury is a singular thing not easily replicated in a big seven-passenger behemoth.

The new GLS will be available in two trims: the GLS 450 with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, and the GLS 580 with a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 engine. Both models also include a 48-volt mild hybrid system designed to give the gas engines an acceleration boost for short periods. All GLS models come with Mercedes’ 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system.

Pricing on the GLS 450 starts at $75,200, while the GLS 580 starts at $97,800. Taxes and fees go on top of those baseline numbers. Option prices haven’t been announced quite yet.

Inside and Out

The exterior design of the new GLS is handsome, conservative, and mostly unremarkable. Mercedes knows their buyers, and outrageous bling isn’t a value for this crowd. If you want to stand out, you’ll have to drop a bit more cash on the iconic G-Wagen.

Compared to the outgoing GLS, the new platform is 3 inches longer with 2.4-inches of additional wheelbase, and a little under an inch wider. One solid visual plus is that Mercedes gave the GLS wheels sized to match the vehicle’s dimensions. You can get up to 23-inch wheels on this rig, but the 450 comes with standard 19-inch and the 580 with 21-inch wheels.

The interior is where Mercedes has to deliver on the S-Class comparison. In our estimation, they mostly make the grade. The GLS is roomy all the way back to the third row. You can fit an adult up to 6-feet, 4-inches in the third row, but you might have to entice them rearward with promises of heated seats and four USB ports back there.

In the second row, there’s an option for an Executive Rear Seat Package. This gives the second row a large center foldable console with an embedded 7.0-inch MBUX control tablet, wireless charging and comfort headrests. You can plus that up some more with heated and ventilated multi-contour seats for a real S-Class experience.

The saving grace for the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS is the optional new MBUX interface.

The interior qualities that make an S-Class are comfort and ride. Mercedes has given the GLS deliciously comfortable seats in all positions, but no SUV will ever match the magic carpet experience of an S-Class sedan. Mercedes engineers had to prepare the GLS for highly unlikely off-road adventures as well as luxury cruising, and they did a heroic job so a little tradeoff is acceptable.

In the front row, the GLS is all about straightforward quality and efficiency. There’s nice wood grain trim and fine leather anywhere you’re likely to touch something. Massage is available for both front-seat passengers, in a variety of styles. The Mercedes cabin fragrance system is available, too if you’re into that sort of thing.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 450 first drive
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

The cargo capacity of the GLS is nothing short of cavernous – with 84.7 cubic feet behind the front seats, up to 48.7 cubes behind the second row, and 17.4 behind the third row seats. Both rows of rear seats fold almost completely flat, so it’s all usable space. The rear rows all fold down at the touch of a button, so your trip to the big box store will be easy.

Latest Tech Features

Mercedes has gifted the GLS with every technical wonderment they know how to make, all packaged in a single ultra-wide information and control screen on the dash. Therein lies the biggest compromise in the GLS. There’s so much going on that the menu system has become as deep and complicated as a Russian novel. For example, there are about half a dozen decisions to make in the massage system directory alone, and up to five zones of climate control.

The center display changes to a camera view of the road ahead as you approach an instruction point.

Yet what technology makes complicated, technology can also simplify again. The saving grace for the GLS is the optional new MBUX interface. You don’t have to navigate layers of menus to change the radio station or get a massage; you just call out “Hey Mercedes” and tell the GLS what you want.

MBUX stands for Mercedes-Benz User eXperience. There are too many features to list, which is why owning a GLS will be a voyage of discovery for at least the first year. Buyers should make a point to get comfortable with the voice commands and gesture controls right away. The gesture controls are fantastic; you’ll feel like Obi-wan Kenobi making things happen with a wave of your hand.

Another notable feature is the MBUX navigation system, which adapts a cool gimmick from the gaming world. When you’re using the navigation, the center display changes to a camera view of the road ahead as you approach an instruction point. The GLS displays floating tags on the screen to identify street names, destination addresses, and floating arrows showing you which way to turn. The only quibble with this system is that you have to look down at the dash long enough to absorb detailed information. The GLS comes with a head-up display, and that’s the obvious place to put those helpful notes.

As you might expect, the GLS also comes with every one of the latest driver assistance features, such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assistance. Adaptive cruise is always welcome in any vehicle, and the Mercedes implementation is smooth and easy (unlike that aforementioned Russian novel). It’s got speed limit assistance that will keep you from getting tickets, and route-based assistance that slows when you’re coming to a sharp curve or roundabout. Bottom line: no one does adaptive cruise control better than Mercedes-Benz.

That being said, we think the lane keeping in the GLS still needs some work. One of the engineers explained that Mercedes didn’t want to grab hold of the steering wheel to help you back to the center of your lane the way other lane keeping systems do. So what the Benz engineers did is set up the system to apply a little brake on one side or the other to pull the GLS back to center. The effect is more jarring than a little nudge on the steering wheel, which you feel in your hands a split second before the vehicle responds. When the brakes engage, it feels more urgent than it should.

On and Off Road

As we mentioned, you have a choice between the 3.0-liter six-cylinder or the 4.0-liter V8. Both engines are turbocharged and fitted with a mild hybrid system.

The real wow factor happened when we took the GLS off-road.

The GLS 450 is rated at 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, with an extra 21 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of push from the hybrid system. The V8 measures up at 483 horsepower and 516 pound-feet, plus the same hybrid boost figures. Both SUVs come with a 9-speed automatic transmission and 4MATIC all-wheel-drive.

On the road, the GLS 580 is as powerful as you expect but the smaller GLS 450 is also surprisingly fast. According to the spec sheet, the 580 will do a 0-60 dash in 5.2 seconds and the 450 in 5.9 seconds. But in practical driving, the 450 feels almost as quick and gutsy as the 580, and a little more rev-happy. The inline six-cylinder engine is well matched to the gears and the vehicle. We suspect the hybrid system helps to equalize perceived power between the two engines.

The real wow factor happened when we took the GLS off-road. Most SUV first drives include a bit of trail driving, just to prove that owners won’t get stranded in the unlikely event someone rents a cabin at the end of a dirt road. We ended up taking the GLS through some pretty hardcore terrain to demonstrate that this SUV really can go just about anywhere.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 450 first drive
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

The GLS comes with the all-wheel drive 4MATIC system that is always on and working. You can still manually drop it into low range gears, which is a feature usually reserved for traditional part-time 4WD systems. The GLS includes adjustable ground clearance up to 8.5 inches, and will ford through water deeper than you really should be driving through.

One fun feature is that when you put the GLS into off-road mode, it will judge your driving. You start with zero and get points for handling challenging road features like articulation, pitch and roll angles, and scrambling over obstacles. You get points deducted for going too fast and other avoidable faux pas. You can play it like a game, but it’s really designed to gently encourage you not to get into trouble and crash. We got 75 points out of 100 possible, so we felt pretty good about it.

Few Rivals

The main competitors for the GLS are the BMW X7 and the Land Rover Range Rover. These vehicles are about the same size and aimed at the same buyers.

The BMW X7 approximates the GLS in looks, except that where the GLS is well-proportioned the X7 just looks strange. It’s the biggest BMW ever built, but something didn’t scale right. The trademark BMW kidney grilles look like a pig’s nose. Pricing is about the same, but there’s no indication that the X7 could tackle off-road challenges like the GLS.

The Range Rover is the true competitor for the GLS. This SUV stands up to the GLS in looks, luxury, performance, and off-road capability. However, the Range Rover is quite a bit more expensive when you match up features. The GLS is likely to entice more than few Range Rover drivers into their own personal Brexit.

Safety Tech and Warranty

Mercedes covers all of their vehicles with a four-year, 50,000-mile general warranty that includes the powertrain. Buyers can opt to extend the warranty at purchase time for up to three additional years.

As you would expect from Mercedes, the GLS comes with every safety feature known to the automotive industry. Some standout safety equipment includes active braking assistance with pedestrian detection, active braking when turning across oncoming lanes, steering assistance for evasive maneuvering, active blind spot assistance, and vehicle-to-everything communications capability. The GLS also includes passenger safety measures if the vehicle is about to be hit from behind or from the side.

How DT would configure this car

By the conclusion of our drive, we had our own dream GLS already spec’d out. We’d take a GLS 450 and definitely add the E-ACTIVE body control package. This gives you an electronic adaptive suspension that scans the road to soften bumps and actually leans into corners. It will also bounce the GLS like a low-rider to get you unstuck from deep sand. We’d also take the optional Burmester sound system.

Our Take

Mercedes-Benz has done exactly what they needed to do with the GLS: This is a state-of-the-art SUV that will easily exceed its buyers’ expectations. Up at the pointy end of the luxury SUV market, the GLS will give buyers more performance and come-what-may capability, as well as world-class luxury, for the same or less money than the competition. We like the less expensive GLS 450, and that’s a refreshing change because there’s no penalty for buying the base model.

Should you get one?

YES. For all the performance and features you get, the GLS is a bargain.

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