Mercedes-Benz likes to call the GLS-Class "the S-Class of SUVs." That's a pretty lofty boast. While technically true -- as far as nomenclature is concerned, anyway -- I consider the S-Class sedan the gold standard for luxury sedans, while the previous generation GLS never felt like the benchmark in its class. So when the 2020 GLS-Class debuted claiming the same S-Class razzmatazz, I was initially skeptical.
But the new GLS feels more like a flagship than ever before. It features promising and innovative powertrain options, it looks pretty darn good for a big ol' box and benefits from a wave of new cabin and safety technology that I've enjoyed in other modern Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Maybe this time "the S-Class of SUVs" is more than just marketing.
The GLS was already the largest SUV in Benz's stable, but there was apparently still room to grow. The SUV is a bit larger all around for 2020, stretching out to about 205 inches in overall length. The GLS benefits from a wheelbase that has grown by 2.4 inches. That means backseat passengers have 3 additional inches of legroom. Benz claims that you can now fit up to a 6-foot, 4-inch tall passenger on the third row -- depending, of course, on how you divvy up the space with the sliding second row bench.
Across all three rows, the passengers will appreciate additional shoulder and headroom for this generation GLS, the latter of which is enhanced by a massive (optional) panoramic moonroof, with a dedicated little sunroof opening for the third row.
Up front, the GLS features a simplified and toned-down take on Mercedes-Benz interior design. Hallmarks such as the four circular vents in the center stack have been reshaped to more compact rectangles, and there's less glossy piano black trim. There's an efficiency to the design that I like, almost as if Benz has infused the cabin with a bit of Audi DNA. However, parts of the design -- like the cold aluminum trim and the big fake plastic vent to the right of the infotainment display -- don't have that "S-Class" weight and warmth that I've come to expect.
What the GLS' cabin lacks in opulence, it more than makes up for with tech, rocking the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (or MBUX) system in its dashboard. This dual-screen system dedicates one of its 12.3-inch displays to a massive digital instrument cluster and a second display to traditional infotainment functions. An available (and fairly large) customizable head-up display puts vehicle speed, current speed limit, navigation or audio source information closer to the driver's field of view, bringing the number of screens in the GLS to three.
I've tested a smaller version of the MBUX system in the Mercedes-Benz A-Class where it impressed me with a much more intuitive interface and much smarter menu organization than the S-Class' older COMAND system. In the GLS, MBUX continues to showcase smart features like augmented reality navigation, "Hey Mercedes" natural language voice command and a version of Benz' Energizing Comfort cabin control system.
The coming of MBUX to the dashboard is also the end of the COMAND control wheel, which has disappeared from the console. Now, drivers interact with the infotainment with a variety of touch surfaces -- a haptic touch pad on the center console, the touchscreen at the center of the dashboard and the two touch-sensitive thumb pads on the steering wheel. I'll miss the tactile nature of twisting the knob, but I appreciate the simplification of what used to be a very redundant user interface.
Pick your powertrain
The third-generation GLS is available in two flavors: The power hungry will be drawn to the GLS580 with its 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 engine making 483 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. Most drivers will be content with the more reasonable GLS450, with its single-turbo, 3.0-liter inline-six, making 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet. I say "more reasonable" but that's still more power than BMW's X7 xDrive40i's turbocharged I6 engine, and we're only just getting started...
Whichever engine you choose, the GLS' performance is further augmented by Mercedes-Benz's EQ Boost 48-volt mild-hybrid system. In addition to recapturing wasted braking energy, smoothing out the anti-idling system's stops and starts and powering some of the more energy-hungry auxiliary system, EQ Boost is able to add an additional 21 horsepower and an electrifying 184 pound-feet of torque with the tap of the driver's toe for a burst of acceleration.
That whole hybrid kit and caboodle is mated to standard 4Matic all-wheel drive via an also standard nine-speed automatic transmission. With the EQ Boost system ironing out the dips between shifts, the GLS is remarkably smooth and quiet. However, the added hybrid grunt means that even the six-cylinder model feels V8 potent when it comes time to pass.
Ahead of the Curve
The 48-volt system powers one of my favorite additions to the GLS' bag of tricks, the optional E-Active Body Control system. This upgraded version of Benz's Airmatic suspension is able to more rapidly adjust the behavior of each wheel, allowing it to react to changes in the road or the driver's behavior instantly and more naturally than a conventional air suspension. This speedy reaction allows for some interesting proactive behaviors.
When equipped with E-Active Body Control, the GLS' sensors are able to actively scan the road ahead for upcoming bumps and dips in the SUV's path which the air suspension can compensate for, flowing smoothly over and through the imperfections. This made for incredibly smooth cruising through the mountains during my first drive -- my often carsick co-pilot was pleased and I can't wait to see how the system deals with undulating interstate expansion joints.
The GLS' coolest party trick, however, is the E-Active Body Control "Curve" feature which leans the SUV into bends sort of like a 5,700 pound, seven-seat motorcycle. The technique helps to cancel out body roll for more comfortable and more dynamic cornering. The Curve mode is also able to compensate for squat and dive when accelerating or decelerating, helping to keep the SUV's chassis feeling stable during aggressive maneuvers.
There are three levels of Curve to choose from via the MBUX infotainment system, and the option to disable the system via the drive mode selector. But even at the highest level, the Curve effect is a subtle one. I didn't notice the lean as I tucked the GLS into a corner, but I did feel a marked difference in how stable the SUV felt and how I felt less tossed to-and-fro, in the driver's seat. My often carsick co-pilot also looked noticeably less green around the gills over the twisty mountainous roads.
Driver aid tech
Rounding out the GLS experience is the full might of Mercedes-Benz's advanced driver aid suite. The full-sized SUV can be had with adaptive cruise control that can maintain a set following distance behind a leading vehicle even in stop-and-go traffic, advanced lane-keeping steering assist that actively centers the SUV in its lane, and a lane change assist feature that can even steer into an adjacent and empty lane. Aiding safety are automatic brake assist for front and rear collision mitigation, evasive steering assist -- which helps drivers to swerve around possible pedestrian or cyclist collisions -- and, when an impact is inevitable, the automaker's Pre-Safe systems which prep the vehicle and its passengers for impact.
The GLS is also capable of car-to-X communication, which means the SUV is able to transmit and receive information about driving conditions and warning messages from other vehicles and infrastructure. That doesn't mean all that much for most drivers today, but it is a bit of future proofing as more roads, infrastructure, traffic lights and vehicles become connected.
The S-Class of SUVs
When it arrives at dealerships later this year, the new GLS-Class will compete most directly with the new BMW X7 and Roadshow's former Car of the Year, Volvo's XC90. Those looking for something a little more "domestic" should consider the Cadillac Escalade, though it's fair to remember the GLS is assembled at Benz's Tuscaloosa, Alabama plant.
Cross-shopping will favor the Mercedes with its superior power, performance and technology, but a price increase for the 2020 model year -- thanks to that EQ Boost system and more standard equipment than ever before -- means that the new GLS will also be one of the most expensive rides in its class. Expect the 2020 GLS450 to start at $75,200 before options and a $995 destination and delivery charge. Drivers who need to get from 0 to 60 mph slightly faster will be able to step up to a V8-powered GLS580, which starts at $97,800.
I'm not the biggest fan of the GLS' interior design, but I think it'll just have to grow on me. However, every other aspect of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class lives up to being called the "S-Class of SUVs." It's stylish and luxurious, comfortable yet surprisingly agile and loaded up with a thoughtful approach to technology that takes it beyond just being easy to live with -- it's a pleasurable experience.
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