Ever since Mercedes launched its full-size SUV, the three-row GL class, our favorite derivative has been the GL350 Bluetec diesel. And why not? It’s torquey, quiet, smooth, and pretty efficient to boot. In other words, everything you’d want in a family-hauler. But if what you want is a seven-seater S-class, this GL550 is the answer. And with an $85,300 base price, shouldn’t it be?
The GL550 is part of a dying breed in that it enters the 2012 model year still packing the 5.5-liter, 382-horsepower V8 that is quickly being replaced by the brand’s new twin-turbo V8, which boasts more power and more torque. That engine is quieter, somehow even smoother, and when it makes it into a revised 2013 GL, it’ll likely raise the truck’s combined 14 mpg by a few ticks as well, but it’s going to be hard to say goodbye to what’s been one of the best V8s on the market for a number of years now; the situation is mirrored by what’s happening with AMG models right now. This GL550 just has such a great exhaust burble, one that’s so fitting of its macho, go-anywhere character. That image is aided by chiseled 21-inch, five-spoke AMG wheels, bulkier fender flares, chrome skid plates, and brushed aluminum running boards, all of which are standard fare on the 550.
Combining all of those things with a high seating position and confident chassis results in a King of the World sort of feel that can’t be matched by any other seven-passenger vehicles except perhaps the Land Rover LR4, but the Merc is more well-appointed and a better driver, too. We can’t vouch for the GL off the road like we can for Land Rovers, but on the pavement (where likely 99.8% of GL owners actually spend all of their time), it drives like a smaller SUV than it is, making it pleasant and reassuring. If we have one complaint, it’s that the steering it too numb and overboosted. And let’s be honest, that’s a problem shared with almost all of its competition.
While we love the GL in most ways and find it thoroughly competitive still, we can’t say we’re going to be disappointed when next year rolls around and it gets an update like the one done to the smaller M-class this year. The GL’s navigation screen is small and outdated, using the same layout as other Benzes but without the useful control dial that eases use. And while the interior is still nice overall, it isn’t as exciting as it could be. The big matte wood veneers of the ML hold promise for great things to come, even if early spy photos have indicated an unfortunate softening of the big Merc’s tough-looking front end.
Really, it’s going to be with mixed feelings that we welcome the GL550’s upcoming replacement. That next model will start with a great foundation and undoubtedly add to it more efficiency, more refinement, and a sharper interior. But we’re just worried that it’ll lose some of its ruggedness in the process and sadly, that’s one of the GL’s best qualities.