Over a decade ago, I embarked on a sojourn from Johannesburg to the Drakensberg in a Mercedes-Benz GL 500 at its then media launch, which left me suitably enamoured. Here was a 5m plus, hewn from granite like proportions, luxury SUV that could seat 7 passengers in relative comfort and with all the luxury trappings of a premium product. At the time, there was nothing else playing in this space except, perhaps, the Toyota Land Cruiser 200. Since then, a bevy of these luxuriant land yachts have found their way onto the Mzansi market, including the Lexus LX, Nissan Patrol and its now defunct Infiniti QX80 sibling, to most recently, and perhaps the Merc GLS' closest rival, the BMW X7.
All are fantastic proponents of their respective brands, but kudos must go to the Stuttgart marque for bringing a teutonic flavour to this lofty SUV mix quite early on. Since the second generation and as part of the company’s then newfound naming convention, the model was duly christened the GLS - meaning it was distinctly part of the G SUV range, but pitched as the S-Class of SUVs as it were. Many lambasted the move, but I got the rationale and it has stuck right up to this latest, third generation variant.
Still as large and in charge as its forebears, the latest GLS cuts a more modern design figure and even with such large proportions and metal expanses, it looks good from every angle, and that is no mean feat. The front-end, it must be said, has an air of X-Class about it, which is not a bad thing entirely as the rest of the GLS’ proportions are bespoke for most part. On test here is the current flagship model, the GLS 580 - in the absence of the snarling GLS 63 and the opulent GLS Maybach, of course, that are both standing in the wings.
The GLS’ cabin is sumptuous at worst with all touch points swathed in the best materials possible, including soft nappa leather chairs and that now class-leading MBUX infotainment system. There’s room for 7 individuals with the rear most seats now able to accommodate adults, but perhaps for very short bursts at a time.
All seats are electrically operated with the front chairs offering a great scope of adjustment and bristling with all sorts of comfort items such as heating and cooling. Our test car was optioned with the 3D surround Burmester sound system with no less than 26 speakers to keep occupants’ audiophile cravings thoroughly satiated.
The ambient lighting together with the 12.3-inch apiece for the instrument cluster and infotainment system, renders the GLS’ cabin with an ambiance and layout that simply trounces the BMW X7 in my books
This means it packs a 4.0-litre V8, twin-turbo engine that is coupled to a mild-hybrid system in the form of an integrated starter motor that is located in the gearbox, and a 48-volt architecture. The power output of the combustion engine alone is 360 kW and 700 Nm, while the starter motor adds 16 kW and 250 Nm on initial pull away to counter turbo lag. Traction goes to all four wheels via the company’s 4Matic all-wheel drive system, while transmission duties come courtesy of a 9-speed automatic gearbox.
It is a capable thing, impressive on both tarred terra firma and off the beaten track. For the first time, I reckon that the engineers have finally managed to make the GLS feel and drive decidedly like an S-Class where it matters most, because, let’s be honest, the SUV inherently has its own design parameters that cannot be entirely dialed out of the equation.
Out on the road is where the GLS' talents truly come to the fore. It wafts and breathes with the road in a manner that would appease an S-Class buying market, making it a consummate land yacht to “sail” over tarmac in. However, don’t let the supple suspension fool you, the GLS is equally capable of scaling rocky, off-road trails. Thanks to its fat seam of engine torque and the liftable air suspension that gives you much needed ground clearance to clear any would be obstacles with relative ease.
That V8 lump up front is something of a gem, dishing out a creamy wave of torque that simply requires a smidge throttle input to get this mothership going down the road with gusto. What about overtaking those pesky long haul trucks? That is an absolute doddle, the GLS 580 dispenses with those and then some - it’s a versatile engine with ample power and exemplary refinement befitting its lofty premium status.
Yes, the 400d variant we drove last year is mightily impressive, but even that pales next to the 580 with its decadent V8 power plant. But surely you’re burning more fuel in that V8? Indeed, but not at the rate you might think with the 580 having returned around 14-litres/100 km over our test tenure, which included varying driving conditions and the odd flexing of the metaphorical muscles under the bonnet to startle a few hot hatchbacks at the traffic light showdown.
Optioned on our test car, among others, are the 22-inch AMG wheels that will set you back R35 391 and the Airmatic air suspension (R26 956), which went a long way in giving the GLS its superb ride quality. The Night Package, which sees the black piano trim on the window trimmings instead of the standard chrome finish, costs R14 608. That resplendent red metallic paint, dubbed Hyacinth, is R18 608, while the Lane Tracking Package is a R14 260 option. All these are great options, but I reckon most should be standard equipment at this price level.
These aside, the GLS 580 is pretty much fully kitted to the hilt with luxury accoutrements befitting a vehicle with a sticker price of R2 025 000.
As the next tier in the GLS portfolio, the 580 puts a significant delta between itself and the 400d to warrant the additional R183 000 capital outlay. The forthcoming AMG GLS 63 will add another layer of performance, but will also likely cost closer to the R3m mark, making this GLS 580 likely the sweetest spot in the range. At this price level, you’d expect nothing but the best from your premium SUV, and the GLS 580 delivers handsomely on that promise.