2013 Mercedes-Benz GL550; power meets comfort, for a price: Motoramic Family Drive
After 18 years as an editor at Road & Track, Patrick Hong’s trying a different tack in reviewing cars — letting his whole family weigh in:
Naming something a "family car" typically means a utilitarian vehicle offering minimal driving excitement. That is until you romp on the gas pedal in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL550. Its 4.6-liter V-8 twin-turbo offers 429 hp, and better yet its 516 lb.-ft. of torque can move the 5,600-lb. machine up to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. Wrapped around Mercedes’ powerful and all-wheel-drive 4Matic powertrain is an exterior body complete with fender flares, chrome-tipped dual-exhausts, plus AMG-style trim details and 21-in. wheels, all to make the Merc SUV more akin to a high-speed bullet train than a box-on-wheels family hauler. On a regular two-day weekend, we find it to be the perfect companion to visit a nearby Kidspace Children’s Museum, even with a couple of relatives along for the ride.
In Southern California, “nearby” means that it’s still about an hour’s drive to our destination. So when our eight- and ten-year boys learned the Merc is equipped with the $1,950 rear entertainment system, they look forward to the trip with even more enthusiasm. Still, being the “when-we-where-young-we-didn’t-need-technology-to-entertain-us” parents, my wife Elise and I warn the kids to put in some good book reading time before they can turn on the DVD player. Settled in the second row seat, our youngest notes that the headrest (in the down position) is a little thick and not comfortable for his height. And regarding the rear seat entertainment, he likes having individual screens for easier viewing. Our oldest, a bit taller, thinks the seats are comfortable, and likes the multi-contour front seats with massage feature (standard in this trim level). He just wished he had the same type of massage feature in the second row.
Coming with us to the Kidspace museum are my sister Lisa and her seven-year old daughter. Now with a total of six passengers, a bit of musical chairs is in order. Elise volunteered to sit in the third row. And she is able to climb aboard easily after watching—along with my sister Lisa—in awe as the second row seat folds away automatically. Elise writes in her notes that in the back, it is roomy and comfortable; “however, what you gain in passenger space you lose in cargo capacity.” She also comments that in our test car, “even though the air conditioning is on full blast, only warm air is coming out of the third row vent at the right rear.”
Taking turns at the wheel, Elise feels the GL550 is built like a tank. And I would agree 100-percent. You feel absolutely safe in the car, thanks to the Merc’s long list of safety features like stability and traction control, adaptive cruise control, and PRE-SAFE where the car will automatically brake for you when it detects an impending collision. The sport ute’s front double wishbone and rear multi-link air suspension allow you to cruise comfortably on the highway with a softer suspension setting, but it can be stiffened up in sport mode to minimize roll when the road starts to curve. While the sportier suspension setup helps the GL550 stay more composed through faster corners, its heft remains noticeable. That weight, meshed with the powerful V-8 engine, contribute to less than stellar fuel efficiency figures, too, delivering an EPA estimate of 13 mpg city, 18 mpg highway.