Mountain Wheels: Boisterous Mercedes-Benz GLS 550 is a car for our times (review)
2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS 550 4Matic
MSRP: $93,850; As tested, $110,565
Powertrain: 449-HP 4.7-liter twin-turbo V-8 engine; nine-speed automatic transmission
EPA figures: 16 combined (14 city, 18 highway)
After a long weekend drive in the dreadfully powerful but not quite massive enough Mercedes GLS SUV, I began to wonder what might happen if automakers were all required by federal law to build all of their vehicles on United States soil, and also forced to make them compatible with America First-sized families and passengers.
Mercedes is actually way ahead of the curve on this, having seen the political writing on the wall and the tax credits available to foreign carmakers who set up shop in the South — with nearly all of their U.S. market vehicles assembled at American plants. The GLS I drove, assembled in Vance, Alabama, featured just 26 percent German-sourced parts — those being the engine and the transmission, mind you.
But, by golly, it just doesn’t feel big enough, and maybe they’ll do something about that to give it the proportions of a Sprinter van.
This is no small vehicle by Mercedes-Benz standards. The GL SUV debuted several years back as the perceived replacement to the iconic and ridiculous G-Wagen military SUV, still my favorite SUV of the bunch; people kept buying the G-Wagen, however (Hollywood liberals, mostly), and now they’ve split the expanded G class up into several segments.
The GLS 550 I drove, replete with 449 horses of twin-turbo V-8 power — capable of gallantly rocketing up steep shots like the Golden to Genesee incline like a vehicle a third its weight and size — is also not the biggest bruiser of its own family.
That award goes to the AMG GLS 63 with its full 5.5-liter V-8 and some 577 horsepower, which makes it a relatively large vehicle that might be able to go just a little too fast for its own good.
I know this to be true as the 550 was right there on the edge of reason during many of my spirited cornering attempts. True, it was appreciatively outfitted with honest to goodness snow tires, no cheap feat for 21-inch wheels, but the thin line between poised and ponderous began to present itself when weight and gravity and environmental factors were all added to the equation.
GLS compensates on a couple of fronts, including a wide range of driving modes — sporty being maybe more of a summer thing, versus the more 4Matic-AWD-focused winter settings.
And part of the outrageous price tag on mine can also be credited to a load of AMG sport parts and appearance details, which gave the 550 a lot of the AMG 63’s high-ticket swagger. Those included a steering wheel straight out of the company’s race-car-inspired roadsters, machine gun barrel-styled running boards and, most importantly, race seats.
Here’s where the worlds collide, most tangibly. Bolstered on their edges with the stiffest and tallest wedges I’ve seen this side of actual race seats (the Recaros in the epic Ford Focus RS, for instance), it made getting in and out of the GLS 550 an actual pain in the butt. I gradually resorted to getting up on the running board, pushing my posterior in backwards, and then spinning into position, like I was mounting the world’s largest Lotus race car. By about the seventh time I did so, the thrill began to wear off.
So there is that. You certainly won’t get tired of the power, ever. Even with all of its mass and sheet metal, it’s a car that’s all too comfortable at 90 MPH, pretty much all of the time, and that could present some issues. The turbos also deliver that power at altitude, in bucket loads, so vigilance is key. You’d just simply need a police escort with the AMG 63.
Does this all make it a seven-passenger sports car with room for skis, dog carriers, beer kegs, peat moss and small appliances? Yes, in a way. Once planted into those seats, even the larger-than-normal foldaway ones in the third row, it is a very different experience than your standard full-size SUV.
Care to annihilate the family’s eardrums, with more than the exhaust? The $5,400 Bang & Olufsen audio system will have you on a one-way trip to the audiologist.
It’s also the attention to detail that differentiates this from big-league players like the Cadillac Escalade and Lincolns of this tonnage: Alcantara suede headliners. A beautiful blacked-out detail package, providing two-tone wheels and blackened mirrors. There’s even a multi-colored interior lighting system, allowing disco hues (not to mention the bright lighting in the cupholders, which switch to blue when you turn on the cooling feature).
Will people get out of your way? Absolutely. Made in America? Yes, indeed.
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