Tested: Mercedes-Benz GLS 400d offers supreme comfort, dazzling cabin
JOHANNESBURG - Despite its considerable size, the Mercedes-benz GLS has always been a bit on the unassuming side. It doesn’t have that iconic bush-conquering bravado of its G-Class cousin, nor the blinginess of some rivals, rather it has the kind of design that tends to blend in with all the other high-riding traffic.
But if you’re looking for a seven-seater with an extremely plush ride quality and interior electronics that will dazzle you, the latest-generation GLS could be that dream SUV package you’ve been looking for.
I said the design was unassuming, but in fairness that perception is largely due to its predecessors. Upon closer inspection the latest one has a bit more on-road gravitas, and its large grille certainly adds presence, but overall this design is more elegant than head-turning, and that’s really not a bad thing.
But the real surprises come when you step inside
The cockpit is almost identical to that in the latest GLE, and that means that the digital instrument cluster and central infotainment screens, both measuring 31.2cm, are seamlessly connected behind a single piece of glass. It’s large and in your face, but unlike in the A-Class, the screens aren’t eye-sores that jut out above the dashboard, instead they’re neatly integrated into a curved dashboard panel.
You really have to drive the GLS/GLE at night to experience the digital bombardment at is best, as the infotainment system syncs with the mood lighting to create various driver-selectable themes that play out across the screens and doors, and one of them actually reminded us of an upmarket nightclub with its acoustic themed graphics and pink mood lighting.
This car’s electronics can certainly dazzle you and your occupants, but all the clever tech that you expect is also there, with the MBUX operating system with artificial intelligence that aims to learn the habits of its occupants, and the Active Stop-and-Go Assist system that allows semi-autonomous driving in city traffic.
Mercedes describes the GLS as the S-Class of SUVs, but to get that full effect you’ll have to order the MBUX Rear Seat Entertainment System, which comes with two 29.5cm touchscreens, as well as a rear seat tablet that allows full control of all the entertainment and comfort functions, including the optional ‘comfort’ rear seats with individual climate control and lumbar massage function.
The GLS accommodates seven adults, although the third row seats are a little cramped unless the middle row occupants move their chairs forward. Seven larger people could move around town quite happily in this vehicle, but a multi-hour trip to the coast might not be the best idea.
The rear seats move and fold electronically, but I actually wished they had conventional manual levers as the process was a bit on the slow side. With the seven seats in place, there is still more than enough space for your shopping, with 355 litres available, but it won’t quite do holiday luggage for seven, although in fairness it’s key rivals can’t either.
Hitting the road
We tested the GLS 400d 4Matic for five days and were hugely impressed by this vehicle’s all-round refinement. The newly-designed 2.9-litre straight-six diesel, with 243kW and 700Nm on tap, provides effortless acceleration, while the nine-speed autobox partners perfectly to provide smooth gear changes. The engine sounds great too, largely thanks to its new in-line configuration.
The GLS comes with a permanent all-wheel drive system with a multi-plate clutch that allows fully variable torque distribution between the axles, of between 0 and 100 percent. But if you’re looking to go off-roading you’ll need to specify the transfer case, which includes a reduction gear for steep obstacles. Look, this is not a Land Cruiser or a G-Class, but the off-road package that Mercedes offers will make it more capable off the beaten track than your average road-focused SUV.
But road-focused the GLS certainly is, with its standard Airmatic suspension system with adaptive damping providing an extremely comfortable ride quality. ‘Rides like a cloud’ might be a well-worn cliche, but it certainly applies to the GLS. It’s exceptionally comfortable, even on South Africa’s largely ill-maintained road surfaces. Although the GLS could never be nimble in traffic, owing to its size, on a subjective level the suspension system manages to make it feel less bulbous than it actually is.
At R1.78 million the Mercedes-Benz GLS 400d is an expensive machine, but if you’ve also been considering a BMW X7, the Merc is well worth a look-in given that it’s only marginally more expensive than the X7 3.0d, but offers a somewhat brawnier engine.
A more sensible choice, of course, is the Volvo XC90 which could save you up to half a million depending on which version you go for, but the Swede, as impressive as it is as an all-rounder, doesn’t have all the dazzling cabin tech that you get in the GLS.
The Mercedes is an expensive indulgence, but if you’re prepared to pay for the best, then you’re certainly getting the best, in our opinion.