Trying to fish through a field of options is tough when you're trying to buy a new vehicle. But it's even tougher when you have to review one within the span of a week. I might spend all my time trying to figure out where half the baubles are by the time it's ready to go back home.
That's why I was pleasantly surprised when a 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS450 arrived on my doorstep with very few options -- what some call a 'stripper.' Sure, its $68,700 base price inflated to $78,550 (including $925 for destination and delivery), but considering most Mercedes-Benz press cars arrive with a CES show's worth of gizmos, this nearly base GLS450 allowed me to spend most of my time evaluating how it drove and how it survived daily use in and around the metro Detroit area.
What I learned is that the GLS450 packs an impressively smooth ride with decent fuel economy. Its day-to-day demeanor is leagues ahead of its body-on-frame competition, but its age lets it down a bit in the face of newer, fresher unibody rivals.
What I'm trying to say is, this is one stripper you'll want to take home to the family.
Other new Mercedes-Benz SUVs play host to a smorgasbord of curves, as if the engineering team lost all the rulers and replaced them with compasses. The GLS is unabashedly old school in comparison, keeping what rulers remain quite busy.
There's no getting around the fact that many full-size, three-row crossovers and SUVs look like bricks on wheels. The GLS450 is a large slab with wheels underneath, and this impression isn't helped by its design, which is still based on the original 2007 model (then dubbed GL).
Yet, there is some character here. The front end is mostly new, bringing it closer in line with other new Mercedes-Benz products. The rear end has some changes, too, like new taillights. The sides feature some impressive sculpting. The whole package is cohesive, despite being a smattering of both new and old design. It works. It's one of the best-looking vehicles in its segment, if only because it doesn't resemble those bricks that make up dorm room walls.
If the outside strikes you as a little old, boy howdy, you're in for a treat once you step inside the GLS450. Whether it's the centrally located volume knob on the center stack or the keypad immediately to its right, the GLS450's interior takes you right back to the pinnacle of Mercedes-Benz's design -- from the last generation.
Mercedes-Benz has added some new bits to keep it relevant. The COMAND infotainment controller is the new touchpad, the steering wheel is newer and there are two USB ports in the (admittedly small) center console. But the best parts of Mercedes-Benz's new interior design will not make an appearance. There is no double-widescreen display, à la E-Class, and the ambient lighting comes in three colors, as opposed to approximately one billion.
That said, the trim is still pretty, the seats remain very supportive and there's plenty of room for adults inside. That's what really matters. The second row has a massive amount of space, according to this 6-foot-zero lanky Gumby type.
The third row is tight, putting my knees to the seatback, but headroom is ample. Its third-row legroom measures 35.0 inches, which is ahead of the Cadillac Escalade and Infiniti QX80, but it lags behind the Lincoln Navigator. It would help if the second row could slide forward, but it can't. It just tilts.
Speaking of tilting, folding down the third row for extra cargo space is a breeze, thanks to power switches in the trunk. You can fit a week's worth of groceries for two in the back without dropping the third row. Moving the second row is a larger hassle -- the 60-percent portion of the 60/40 split is rather heavy.
I'll just dispense with the tired boat references -- the GLS450 is supremely soft. Detroit's horrible roads became much easier to deal with, although there is a trade-off, because with all those gradual motions comes a fair bit of body roll, and it might be too soft on the highway with its 275/55/19 Continental all-season tires. But it's comfortable.
The GLS450 packs a 362-horsepower, 369-pound-foot V6 engine. It's the volume engine, and while it doesn't pack the outright thrust of the 449-hp V8 in the GLS550, it's still plenty capable along with managing to save you more than $10,000 in the process. The new nine-speed automatic transmission keeps the revs low for fuel economy's sake, but the shifts arrive quickly if you put the hammer down.
You'll want to leave it in Comfort mode for the whole period of ownership. It starts from a stop in second gear, which requires a stronger pedal push, but it's a gradual departure free from drama. Sport mode is horrible and pointless, as it attempts to inject some unwanted performance characteristics, like an all-too-touchy throttle and transmission shift points that hold all nine gears for unnecessarily long periods.
Much of that softness comes from the air suspension, which is standard. You can raise it for slightly more treacherous terrain, but I recommend against that unless absolutely necessary. It takes more than a minute to raise the vehicle a couple extra inches, and at least in the case of my tester, the suspension creaks and groans the whole way up. I thought it was broken the first time I lifted it. A Range Rover, this is not.
If you want to get a little dirty, though, there's an optional Off-Road Package that adds a two-speed transfer case, skid plates and extra ride height.
Visibility from all angles was ample. Blind spots were minimal, and the driver gets a great view of the road ahead. That said, for something so big and fancy, I was turned off by the amount of road and wind noise that permeated the cabin.
Over the course of a couple hundred miles in the GLS450, my highway fuel economy danced between 18 miles per gallon and its EPA-estimated 22-mpg highway rating. It's rated at 17 in the city, but I saw closer to 15, although I prefer to keep up with traffic instead of steadfastly adhering to posted limits. Stop/start helps keep fuel consumption in check, and it's very hard to tell when the engine turns off and starts up again.
This is an old SUV, so it's not surprising that the GLS450 comes with some -- but not all -- modern tech appointments. Apple CarPlay is a welcome addition, but it comes tacked along with the navigation option, which is part of a $3,830(!) Premium Package that also adds such random doodaddery as keyless entry and start, blind spot monitoring, a power passenger seat and illuminated door sills. Does a pseudo-random number generator put these packages together?
While the COMAND navigation system is, again, from the older generation, it still packs plenty of optional frippery. You can use it to check the weather, read news headlines, view local fuel prices and even look up the location of traffic cameras in your area. Pairing a phone via Bluetooth took under a minute using both the phone and the infotainment system itself.
There's also an internet browser, which took whole minutes to render Roadshow's front page, and the touchpad is so bad at navigating said page that it took me additional minutes to figure out how to scroll down. Just use your phone.
There exists a second screen, nestled between the gauges. You get some basic information thrust upon you, like fuel economy, distance to empty and a digital speedometer. It's super simple to manipulate using the buttons on the steering wheel.
Other letdowns include a lack of USB ports in the second and third rows. The second row gets a 115-volt outlet and a 12-volt accessory outlet, but that's it. The parking sensors are displayed on little plastic nubs that sit atop the dashboard and just in front of the rear glass, which is also a vestige of previous-generation Mercs.
An optional surround-view system gives you a top-down glance at the world around the GLS450, and it's worth every bit of the $1,290 Parking Assist Package. This is one option I would not skip over, especially if I were regularly driving in urban locations. Just because the GLS has good visibility on the highway doesn't mean you know exactly where the rear bumper's corner ends.
In my opinion, the best GLS450 is one with few options. The GLS450 is the range's volume model, and given the sheer number of folks leasing these things, it's probably better to opt for fewer toys and save a bit of coin for when the next GLS-Class update comes 'round.
We'll start with the base GLS450, which retails for $68,700. I'd absolutely recommend the Parking Assist Package for $1,290, because Surround View is a godsend. I would also throw in $250 for the heated steering wheel. If you have kids who love complaining, add in second-row heated seats for $620. I would also opt for the $350 Magic Vision Control, which moves the wiper fluid nozzles to inside the wiper arm, and it really does work like magic, especially in the winter.
That brings the total to $72,135, including $925 for destination, which is $6,415 less expensive than the "stripper" press car I drove.
If safety is of great concern to you, you can toss another $2,250 shrimp on the barbie and add the Driver Assistance Package. This gives you adaptive cruise control with full-stop capability, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, blind-spot assist and lane-keep assist.
Nearly every one of the GLS450's competitors is a truck-based, body-on-frame leviathan. SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator and Infiniti QX80 wear their ladder-frame hearts on their sleeves, especially in the handling department. The GLS450 out-handles them, um, handily. Why subject yourself to inferior on-road manners?
Well, there might be one reason to do so -- capability. The GLS450 can tow up to 7,500 pounds, but its body-on-frame competitors have it beat, albeit not by much. The Escalade can tow up to 8,300 pounds, and the QX80 tops that with 8,500, but the Navigator trumps both with up to 9,000 pounds of towing capacity.
And then there's the Audi Q7. This new-for-2017 wildcard is a tech-laden tour de force. But it focuses less on sheer comfort in order to give a few points to handling, which makes it less desirable if all you're looking for is something that will shuttle your family about in comfort. The GLS450 lacks the Audi's tech, and the Merc isn't as fuel efficient, but the Q7 is also less capable of genuine off-roading is in the cards thanks to its more wagon-like approach. The Audi's third row is also off-limits for fully-grown adults, so Audi buyers give up some space, too.
The BMW X5 could be a competitor, too, as could the Volvo XC90. But both of these vehicles have optional third-row seats. When the third row becomes an option, it usually means cargo space is greatly reduced (or nearly eliminated) when the seats are up. It also means the seats are rather cramped, which is definitely the case with both of these models.
While money isn't as important to buyers at this price tier, it's still a factor. In that regard, the Navigator has the advantage, and by more than $5,000, at least in terms of base pricing. Hell, even the Audi is cheaper. The QX80 is on par with the Merc, but somehow, it's the one SUV that manages to feel even older than the GLS. The Escalade starts at $73,395.
When it comes down to it, the GLS450 is a posh sort of pragmatist. Without too many options, it will deliver comfort and space in spades, and it shouldn't break the bank. If sporty handling isn't your thing, and you prefer the on-road sensibility of a unibody chassis, the GLS450 is a smart choice.