Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: September 9, 2020
Touted to be the S-Class of SUVs, the three-row, seven-seater GLS has a lot to live up to. It was introduced as the GL-Class back in 2006 to stop loyal customers from flocking to Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators for their large, do-it-all, SUV fix. It worked, and Mercedes has sold more than half a million of these luxury behemoths. The GL has been renamed GLS, is now in its third-generation, and has grown substantially not only in size and proportions, but also in luxury and comfort. With a trick adaptive air suspension, massage seating for four, and oodles of luscious leather and veneered wood, the GLS continues to triumph in the full-size segment.
The GLS is brand new for 2020 and has been revised from the ground up with new LED head- and tail-lights. The new look is much softer on the eyes and while it loses that boxy but distinct demeanor from the outgoing model, it still retains its muscular shoulders and imposing upright stature that allude to the generously-sized interior. You might recognize the bold chrome strip that connects the two tail-lights together, as it’s also a prominent feature on the recently unveiled 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class W 223. Included are a range of 21-inch to 23-inch wheels, a revised dual-louvre radiator grill, and chrome plated front and rear underguards.
More importantly, the wheelbase of the GLS has been stretched 60 mm over the outgoing model, offering more cabin space than ever before. All three rows house electrically adjustable seats and for the first time, the GLS can be had in a six-seater configuration with two captain’s chairs. Rear legroom has been expanded by 87 mm, and it can be equipped with every creature comfort you can think of: headrest pillows, wireless charging pads, a panoramic roof, and a dropdown center armrest that houses a 7-inch Samsung tablet, the latter of which is unavailable if you opt for six seats. With it, passengers can activate the massaging function, adjust the lumbar support, and select one of 64 preferred ambient lighting colours.
The seats are plush and suitable for long journeys but I did not find them as contoured or as supportive as the S-Class Sedan, and while the second row does slide fore and aft, the seats do not recline enough for you to assume a lie-back position. The front driver and passenger seats are still where you want to be with an expansive windshield in front, tall windows on the side, and a bright panoramic roof above. The seating position is not as upright or as high up as a Range Rover’s, and the window sill is not as wide either so you can’t rest your entire arm on it and assume a throne-like position, but it’s still exceptionally comfortable no matter which seat you choose.
When more passengers want to join the party, there’s an electric switch on the seat shoulder that automatically pushes the second row forward, and opens up a wide entry portal into the third row. Being electrically operated does make it convenient but the seat takes its sweet time moving into position, and will test the patience of those used to the quick manual flip of a latch. The six-seater configuration remedies this with a wide center passthrough but it lacks the luxury amenities found with the seven-seater.
Mercedes says anyone under 1.94 metres tall will fit in the third row. I stand six-feet tall (roughly 1.80m) and even with the second row seat in its default position, the third-row accommodations are impressive, enough to quell any complaints of it being a penalty box. Headroom is ample despite its raised stadium position, and there is enough room for my legs to freely wobble about. There are even two USB-C slots, heated seats, armrests, and its own separate temperature control. Both rows also fold flat for a level cargo bay.
The remainder of the interior is taken straight from the GLE, including an expansive dual 12.3-inch screen setup mounted on the dashboard, rectangular air vents, and Cayenne-like grab handles bordering the center console, alluding to its go-anywhere abilities. Elsewhere, leather, metal, and bare wood caress high traffic surfaces, including the airbag cover of the moderately padded steering wheel.
The GLS utilizes the new MBUX infotainment system paired with an Apple-like trackpad instead of the outgoing rotary dial and archaic number buttons. Users can tap, slide, pinch, and scroll, much like the inputs that command your smartphone. And while the rotary dial was the gold standard for interface control, this new trackpad is intuitive enough to use on the fly. Still, the learning curve is steep and the menus are just overflowing with so many functions and features. It’s similar to the Lexus interface that also uses a trackpad but the MBUX unit is much less complicated and the input sensitivity level is more fluid and consistent.
If trackpad input is not up your alley, you can alternatively use the touchscreen, haptic buttons on each side of the steering wheel, or the ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice command feature that acts much like Google Home or Android Alexa. You can verbally instruct the car to do your bidding, whether it’s turning on the massaging seats, or adjusting the cabin temperature. Augmented reality is available on the navigation maps as well, which uses a video image from the front camera and overlays that with helpful navigational information like street names, directional arrows, and correct lanes for turning.
The GLS offers two engine choices, both with a fully variable 4MATIC all-wheel drive system (meaning it can shuffle 100% of torque to either axle), 9-speed automatic, and 3,500 kg towing capacity. There are no diesels or hybrids available. First up is the GLS 450 with a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six engine that delivers the exact same power output as the outgoing 3.0-litre V6 - 362 hp and 369 lb-ft - but it’s been paired with a mild hybrid system that consists of a 48-volt battery and integrated starter-generator. These power the car’s electronics, act as both a starter motor and alternator, allows the engine to shut off entirely while coasting at certain speeds, and dishes out 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of supplementary torque that serves as an intermediary to eliminate turbo lag.
But for those who care about driving and want a more vigorous and complete experience, we would recommend the thirstier but mightier GLS 580 instead with its 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, making 34 more horsepower than the outgoing 4.7-litre V8 unit, to a total of 483 hp and 516 lb-ft. The same 48-volt hybrid system further supplements that with an additional 21 hp and 184 lb-ft. That’s enough for the GLS 580 to scuffle from 0-100 km/h in 5.3 seconds, but that’s still a great deal off of the BMW X7 M50i which runs it in 4.6 seconds. To counteract that, Mercedes will sell you an AMG-powered GLS 63 with 603 hp on tap, but for a significantly steeper price.
Once you drive the GLS 580 with its V8 though, it is difficult to go back and justify anything less. While not as smooth or as fuel-efficient, the low-end thrust is far superior to the inline-six, and the way it builds up speed makes it hard to believe there are two turbochargers nestled between the cylinders. Forward propulsion comes so easily and the tidal wave of torque more effectively masks its substantial weight. The GLS 580 makes a deeper, richer, and fuller soundtrack too. To save some fuel, the V8 also employs cylinder deactivation, shutting down four cylinders under light power loads, but let’s not kid ourselves. This is one thirsty SUV. Over a mix of both city and highway driving, we averaged 13.7 L/100km, which is just about par with the segment.
Under deliberate or quick braking and acceleration, the GLS 580 with all the weight in the world will still squat and pitch but it’s not harsh or taxing enough to be considered a penalty, and is rather expected for SUVs of this size. Riding on 22-inch wheels did not seem to impact the overall ride quality either. Our GLS delicately negotiated pockmarked roads and provided a convincing premium ride. It doesn’t exhibit that typical truck-like response like a Chevrolet Tahoe when undulating either, as there’s no live axle here. The GLS feels more car-like in the way it handles vertical movement, and like the rivaling Range Rover, its dampers never seem to run out of travel.
The GLS comes standard with an adaptive air suspension but the trick E-Active Body Control system is optional, and rather costly at $8,900. It uses electronically-driven hydraulics to control the spring and damper forces at each individual wheel. Mercedes says it’s the only system worldwide that can do this. Each spring can be individually controlled, raised, or lowered depending on the situation. Drivers can even dive into the infotainment screen and control the suspension height at each wheel themselves, or activate Rocking Mode where the dampers rock the GLS back and forth, and up and down, to free itself from deep sand or sticky situations. After evaluating the GLS with and without them, we can easily report that it makes a significant difference in ride quality. Like the smaller GLE that also utilizes this, it melts bumps into butter, negates any shakes aimed at the cabin, and comes daringly close to the magical carpet ride provided by the lower and lighter S-Class.
Now that we’ve tested and reviewed pretty much everything in its class, we can easily summarize our comparison thoughts here. The GLS is one of the cushiest three-row luxury SUVs we’ve been in, even on large 22-inch wheels. It’s a bit lofty and ungainly when pushing too hard, and this is where the X7 M50i and its stiffer dampers and more taut body control comes into play. The BMW is much quicker in a straight line too, favouring those who need to hustle every minute of every hour. There’s more play in the GLS suspension than in the rivaling Range Rover, and dare I say, it absorbs bumps and tackles corners better than the Brit. That said, the Range Rover ride feels a touch more special, mainly due to its high-up driving position and more cramped but regal feeling cabin. Unfortunately, it is only available in four- or five-seater configurations, so it’s off the list for those who require a third row of seats.
Compared to the full-size and rather truck-like American rivals like the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade, I’d say the GLS is on another level with ride quality, interior craftsmanship, and touted reliability as well. Either way, you’re not losing with any of these six-figure examples, but if you favour road comfort and top-shelf technology above all else, get the GLS. Want a touch more athleticism to make you forget you’re driving a two-ton SUV? Get the X7. Those who desire brand prestige above all else and want to stand out on the road should check out the Range Rover instead.
Nevertheless, the GLS 580 remains a well-mannered, exceptionally damped, and a welcome companion for journeys of any length. The V8 offers effortless acceleration and the amount of innovative technology found inside the GLS will satisfy any technophile’s wildest dreams. From an army of ambient lighting to a trick suspension, the GLS is an exceedingly effective family hauler that submerses its occupants in a first-class cabin worthy of the S-Class title.
Model: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580
Paint Type: Obsidian Black
Base Price: $117,300
Price as Tested: $133,500
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,207 / 1,956 / 1,823
Engine: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8
Horsepower: 483 hp + 21 hp EQ Boost @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 516 lb-ft + 184 lb-ft EQ Boost @ 2,000 - 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 13.7