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Click to view picture gallery“The all-new GL-Class
  luxury SUV immediately
  establishes Mercedes
  as a top player in this
  sector of the market.
  However, joining the
  GL club will set you
  back a minimum of
  £51,675. Exactly what
  do you get for your

WITH ONE HUNDRED YEARS of automotive production behind them, Mercedes-Benz is
now looking to conquer new frontiers by entering the elite class of large and luxurious 4x4s.

The new GL-Class with permanent four-wheel drive, which goes on sale in the UK in mid-September, is built in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the USA. Built alongside the Mercedes M-Class and R-Class model ranges, it shares much of the same body-shell architecture, components and family looks.

Its muscular bodyshell is 5,088mm in length and it is a full seven-seater SUV. The seating accommodation is positioned in three rows, giving seven adults an individual seat each. When not in use, the rear row of seats can be electrically and individually folded into the floor at the touch of a switch. Luggage space ranges from 200 litres with all seven seats in use, up to an enormous 2,300 litres with only the front seats occupied.

Not surprisingly, the GL's core market will be the USA — where large 4x4 SUVs remain in high demand. In the UK, Mercedes-Benz can only say they expect to sell numbers in their high hundreds rather than in thousands.

For brand appeal the GL-Class will sell against the Range Rover, the new Audi Q7 and the BMW X5; and for size against the Toyota Land-cruiser Amazon. Prices range from 51,675 to 65,720.

Speaking at the GL's recent media launch, Mercedes-Benz UK product group manager Catherine Baker said: "We believe the GL-Class will become the benchmark vehicle for quality off-roaders, and having seven-seats as standard will make it particularly attractive. We expect the majority of sales to be conquest customers rather than current owners of our M-Class models.

"The GL-Class is a new chapter in our 4x4 history which started with the G-Wagen," Ms Baker added, "and it twins serious off-road abilities with on-road driving refinement. We are offering UK customers one high standard level of equipment with an additional range of extra cost options so customers can equip their vehicles to suit their specific needs."

Customers for the new GL-Class are likely, in the main, to be retail buyers using company money or contract hire facilities rather
than company car or fleet users. GL buyers will have the choice of three engine options, all with the 7G-Tronic 7-speed automatic gearboxes. All models have a two-stage transfer box, centre and rear differential locks, descent control and hill start assist.

Engine choices include the 388bhp 5.5-litre V8 petrol engine, which recently made its first appearance in the new S-Class range. In addition, Mercedes is introducing for the first time its all-new, third-generation common-rail diesel technology with the GL 420 CDI model. This 4.0-litre V8 diesel produces 306bhp and a compelling 517lb ft of torque. This engine will also become available in the M-Class in October. Also available is the GL 320 CDI powered by a 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine with a power output of 224bhp and 377lb ft of torque.

Mercedes expects diesel engines to be the choice of 80 per cent of new GL-Class customers. Initially, the new V8 diesel engine will be the main seller because it is brand new, although in the longer term the V6 diesel is expected to prove, marginally, to be the most popular.

In addition to AirMatic air suspension with variable ground clearance selection, the new GL-Class has numerous electronic driving aids such as 4ETS traction control and ESP electronic stability programme.

The range also has Pre-Safe occupant protection — a first in this market sector. This system senses when braking has reached a critical level or when a skid is imminent. The system tensions the front seat-belts, closes the side windows and sunroof (if fitted) and moves the front passenger seat into the optimum impact position in relation to the airbags. Pre-Safe continues to work after an accident, cutting off the fuel supply and activating the hazard warning lights. Other safety systems such as Neck-Pro and adaptive brake lights are also fitted as standard.

Big, bold and in-your-face and probably politically-incorrect in this day and age (but what isn't?). However — as far as we can understand — this is still a free country, so customers do have freedom of choice and the right to exercise it.

However, the GL-Class is a big and imposing vehicle and it will be noticed on the school run and in the executive car park, so if you are
a low-profile person choose something else.

Unlike the Audi Q7, the new Mercedes GL definitely does look the part of an expensive prestige 4x4. Both are built principally for the American market, but for me the Q7 is too big and a shade too brash for UK tastes. Neither is it brilliant off-road, is limited to carrying five and is not as well built as other Audis.

The GL on the other hand is well built, unashamedly luxurious, has seven seats, looks good and drives really well both on- and off-road.

That said, I do have two issues with the GL-Class and both involve safety. The GL is first and foremost a vehicle built for left-hand drive markets and in most areas the transfer from left- to right-hand
drive works. My first issue is the positioning of the buttons to operate the rear electric seats. These are positioned at the rear right-hand corner of the vehicle's interior so you have to stand in the road next
to the traffic to operate them. If I was in the USA or in left-hand drive Europe I would be standing safely on the pavement.

The other issue also involves the rear third row of seats. Access for rear row passengers can only be made through the offside rear passenger door, so again UK passengers will be exposed, forced to stand in the road rather than on the pavement while getting in or out of the vehicle. I really think right-hand drive customers prepared to buy a vehicle in this price range deserve better.

Off-road, the GL's only limitation is the air suspension. While it can be raised to various heights to clear obstacles, in its fully-extended max-imum ride-height mode it's not so good at absorbing off-road potholes, bumps and jarring. On-road it delivers a much more comfortable ride — and noticeably less queasy than the air suspension used by Range Rover. However, off road the Range Rover hangs on to its crown for off-road ride comfort and suspension travel.

Other than the odd fishing trip or a day at the races, I cannot see he majority of GL owners pushing their new vehicles to extremes off road. However, for the record, the engines and transmissions are very good indeed in the muck and mire. Surprisingly so. Another plus point is GL's agility. It may be big but it was very precise to handle, with reassuring grip amongst the trees and hazards we put our test cars through.

On road, as long as the suspension was not in the 'Comfort' setting — when the driver feels detached from what information the steering and wheels might be feeding back — handling was good.

The big 5.5-litre petrol engine is fast, very responsive, smooth and quiet and apart from 19.2mpg it was fine — well up to petrol Range Rover performance.

The star performer was of course the new V8 4.0-litre twin turbo-charged diesel engine. With its 306bhp ample for 143mph and 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds (particularly impressive for a 2.5 tonne vehicle) what better unit could you wish for? Even the fuel consumption of 23.9 miles per gallon was not too bad. The huge amount of torque — 517lb ft from 2,200rpm — will make light work of towing loads up to 3.5 tonnes. Owners towing horse trailers or heavy boats with the GL won't experience any problems. The smooth power delivery and sheer amount of torque makes off-road driving really easy, and coupled to all the sophisticated electronic driving aids, makes the Mercedes GL a formid-able luxury 4x4.

Combining luxurious on-road driving with off-road performance is never easy and few, if any, vehicles achieve total harmony. The GL scores pretty well in most of these areas with its size, roominess, refinement, seven seats (with electronic rear seat operation), performance, permanent four-wheel drive and brilliant new V8 diesel engine. The only criticisms are the non-compliant air suspension at full ride-height off-road — conditions probably only ever encountered by a handful of GL owners. And, more inconvenient, the left-hand drive bias accessing and operating the rear row of seats — which is something that's not really satisfactory on right-hand drive vehicles. — David Miles

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Mercedes-Benz GL 420 CDI
| 63,075
Maximum speed: 143mph | 0-62mph: 7.6 seconds
Overall test MPG: 23.9mpg | Power: 306bhp
| Torque: 517lb ft

-------------------------------------------------------------- Mercedes-Benz GL