When you’re in a phase of life that is dominated by the needs of children and animals, large boxes on four wheels suddenly morph from eco-unfriendly behemoths to stuff-hauling godsends. The automotive industry is wise to the fact that the latter shouldn’t necessarily mean the former. Put another way, there’s a gold mine of a market share to be exploited with a gas-sipping SUV.
Cue the judiciously nipped and tucked 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL350 4MATIC BlueTEC, a mouthful of a nameplate whose claim to sorta-green fame is a 3-liter V6 diesel engine that’s good for 26 mpg highway and 19 city. Trust me, for someone still flogging a Toyota Land Cruiser built when the Y2K bug was a genuine threat, 26 mpg highway is a fantasy figure. Especially considering that the big Merc presents itself as a bonafide challenger to other SUVs featuring a third-row seat, models that range from gargantuan (Chevy Suburban) to svelte (BMW X5) to pass-the-crumpets posh (Range Rover).
It was with genuine fear that I greeted the Iridium Silver Metallic GL350 that rolled up, fear that my wife would say “Why are we still driving a 13-year-old relic?” (um, because it runs) and would fall in bank-busting lust with an $84,030 iteration of this $62,400 Tuscaloosa, Ala.-built Mercedes-Benz. After all, the GL was offering a package that we’d become not just accustomed to but dependent on: four doors plus a generous rear hatch opening to reveal a cavernous cargo hold with foldable third-row seating, a high-above-the-ruckus ride and snow-dispatching four-wheel-drive. So, would I soon be pleading with our accountant?
When it comes to first impressions, the GL350 put on the Ritz. Everything about the machine exuded style and quality, from its illuminated running boards to the satisfying metallic clicks of its matte-silver gauges. The light grey special-order leather ($1,620) was drawing-room comfy, while the one touch power-folding second ($400) and third-row seats made me instantly feel like a dock-worker when it came time to man-handling my Land Cruiser’s seating.
And the gizmos kept on coming (at a price). A gauze-lined panoramic moonroof ($1,090), heated steering wheel ($225), in-dash Night View Assist ($1,780), and the mis-named Active Curve Assist ($2,900), which has nothing to do with its tracking Bi-Xenon headlights ($1,290), but instead refers to an ingenious hydraulically controlled rollbar system that helps make normally top-heavy SUVs react to bumps more like low-slung sedans. About the only thing missing was an even more upgraded Designo-branded leather interior ($4,300) and a Bang & Olufsen stereo (a whopping $6,800). We’d have to slum it.
With a quick punch of the Start/Stop button, the GL350’s 240-hp (up 30 hp over the 2012 model), 455 lb.-ft. of torque turbo-unit quietly came to life, Rudolf Diesel’s trademark rattle having been both refined over the decades as well as isolated thanks to impressive interior sound deadening. With the engine running, all that was left to do was activate the massage feature on both front seats, turn on the SiriusXM Chill channel and glide away in our cocoon of sybaritic luxury.
But to my genuine surprise, I soon wanted out of the spa. I’m not anti-pampering. I just like to drive.
If the GL350 has a fatal flaw, it’s that it has succeeded too roundly in its quest to further dissociate the person behind the wheel from the act of navigating a 5,800-lb sledgehammer through the world. All these electronic assists essentially conspire to turn the GL350 into more of a battle cruiser on placid waters than a vehicle with rubber hitting the road. Maybe it was the vague bobbing feeling that not even Sport mode could mitigate, or simply the otherworldly quiet of the S-Class worthy cabin that sometimes begged for the real-world whir from a cracked window. Rolls-Royce or Bentley owners might agree with this tenet: yes, there is a place for a car that shuts out the rest of the world, I’m just not sure it is shaped like a giant toaster and is loaded with a bunch of kids and a dog desperately trying to get his snout out the window.
On the plus side of the ledger, the GL350 takes the minivan out of minivan-chores, bestowing on its owner the satisfied feeling of having their cake (a full family life with its assorted demands) and eating it, too (that is, retaining some automotive dignity). There is no questioning the genius that is the American minivan, but if you need a stuff-hauler that can double as a head-turning date-night cruiser, you’ll want to go with this all-wheel-drive diesel sled from down home in Alabama.
Clearly, Mercedes knows its market segments, and it is not aiming for drivers but To Do-listers with the GL350. Perhaps the snorting, more bone-jarring AMG version of the GL would be more to my liking. Until then, I’ll be lifting my own seats and starting my daily hauler the old-fashioned way, with a key. As for the massage, maybe the dog can walk on my back later.