COAL: 2011 Mercedes-Benz GL450 4Matic – Straight Outta Tuscaloosa!

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And…I’m back with more of what our dear late contributor Kevin Martin named my “extended test drives”!  It’s been almost two years (February 6, 2014) since we traded in our 2012 VW Touareg TDI (presciently dodged that resale bullet) on a Certified Pre-Owned Mercedes built by the fine workers at the factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S.A.

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While we liked the VW and at the time still had the Honda Odyssey, we knew that the Honda’s days with us were numbered and while we had thought our three kids could peacefully co-exist on the rear bench of the VW that was sadly proven wrong.  So we decided to do like many others and look at the world of 3-row SUV’s with all of the benefits (and some definite drawbacks) that they entailed.

Potential candidates included the then fairly new Pathfinder (great access to the third row, good pricing, many scary reports regarding the transmission durability after only one year on the market); Toyota Sequoia (way too big for my wife to comfortably drive, very pricy); used Suburban (again too big and fit and finish was a big step down once used to a Touareg); Audi Q7 (never been a fan of the styling, getting old, pretty much a longer Touareg for even more money) as well as several others but those mentioned were the ones most considered.

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Then our eyes turned to the GL.  Basically a lengthened ML platform with bigger engines, these had always appealed but not at the prices they commanded new.  However with Mercedes’ (and other luxury makers) strategy of “lease it the first time, then sell it for 50-60% of the original price after three or so years with a warranty” these were coming down into the realm of possibility.

In addition our community had just received our own dealership within ten miles of our house, previously the nearest dealer was almost an hour south which put a definite damper on Mercedes ownership in our area.

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The GL (platform code X164) was initially offered for 2007 and received some minor upgrades/changes for 2010.  Three engines were offered, a 6-cylinder diesel (GL350CDI), a 4.6 liter V8 (GL450) and a 5.5 liter V8 (GL550).  As I mentioned it is based on the ML chassis, some sources say it is wider as well as longer.

When jumping from an ML into a GL and back again, however, the interior cabin appears to me to be the exact same width with the same basic dashboard (albeit with an attractive stitching pattern that the ML does not get).  The GL450’s V8 puts out 335hp and 339 lb-ft of torque and uses Mercedes’ ubiquitous 7-speed automatic transmission.  Full-time AWD is standard across the range.  This, we thought, could work.

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So, off to the new local dealership we went and were met with what can only be called a poor sales experience for a brand-new dealer that had a giant lot full of inventory, room for a dozen new cars inside, a bunch of well dressed staff, and our Touareg as the ONLY car in the parking lot for shoppers in the middle of a weekday.

We drove a nice example of a 2011 GL450 that fit what we wanted, sat down to talk numbers and were offered a deal that corresponded to exactly the price marked on the window with a low-ball trade-in offer on the VW.  I suggested that together we make some adjustments to the figures which was met with an incredulous look and the statement that they could not possibly do so.  I politely confirmed that they were serious and then we left.

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After that we drove down to the other dealer that it turned out owns the new local dealer, found several GL’s on their lot, selected one, drove it, and were pleased to find that the management at this dealership was willing to haggle significantly.  They also gave me what I was hoping for on the trade-in as well as two free services to be used at the dealer of my choice.

The two free services were due to the salesperson that originally thought that SUV’s were part of the special promotion that MBUSA was running at the time which turned out to be wrong (it was only for sedans) but they offered to honor it anyway, and plied me with plenty of free coffee and food as I waited for the papers to be drawn up.

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Mind you, it was still far from a perfect experience.  Many dealers in Colorado seem to think that they can just take a car in trade, run it through their quickie car wash and put it on their front line and people will just buy it.  This includes high-end dealerships that decide to not correct obvious flaws until they are pointed out to them.

In our case, before I actually accepted delivery, the car received a new windshield (was scratched from a bad wiper), new wiper blades all around, a new battery as well as a new auxiliary battery as they screwed up the job the first time, a cracked piece of wood console trim, as well as the power port cover in the rear seating area that was cracked.  And then they wonder why cars sometimes sit for months without selling.

All of the repairs were put back on Mercedes as “warranty” so it’s not like the dealer was out any money.  On the plus side they were able to print me the entire service and warranty history of the car which all looked good and they had fitted new tires.  As an additional bonus I was informed that since they owned my local store I was welcome to go there any time I wished and avail myself of their free concierge car wash services.

So for the last two years we have been going there, greeting the salesperson that was not willing to sell us a car and have them clean it while we drink free coffee, eat complimentary muffins, and use the free WiFi in the frankly very nice lounge.  Life is good.

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Sure, one would say, they make it all up when the car breaks down.  Presumably yes, that’s the idea, however when we purchased it it still had almost a year of the initial warranty left and at the time Mercedes was offering for their CPO vehicles an additional year of warranty up to a total of 100,000 vehicle miles.  That all expired based on time just before Christmas so at this point we are “running naked”.

Our original thought was that we would use the warranty period to see how the car held up, if it didn’t it would not be staying.  Well, we’ve driven it right around 25,000 miles so far (the total is about to hit 60k) and the only things that we really had occasion to use the warranty for were a rear door lock that went haywire and would try to lock and unlock about a dozen times in rapid succession whenever the unlock switch was hit as well as the driver’s door mounted release for the rear power hatch stopped working.  Both issues were handled without a problem, in fact the local dealer in both cases delivered a replacement ride and took ours and then came back out again to switch back.

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The first time we got a GLK which I kind of sniffed about a bit to the service manager but in the end was happy with (it’s a fun little SUV, way better than I imagined!) but then the second time they sent us a brand new GL450 which was extremely nice (too nice, I was worried about damaging it).  The first time we ended up keeping the GLK for a whole week as the service personnel actually lost the key to our car and had to order a new one.

The repair invoice seems to indicate the replacement key was handled as a warranty claim which I found a bit ballsy on their part.  The local dealer also handled the two free services which are scheduled 10,000 miles apart.  Reliability surveys tend to show that the GL is far from a good choice but there are a surprising number of owners that do their own service and repairs that post on the internet and many of the things that supposedly go wrong are not that complex to fix if one knows where to look.

At the end of the day, Mercedes’ tend to be built solid and the mechanical parts at least are not usually all that bleeding edge in my experience, i.e. usually fixable by someone with tools, common sense and instructions.  Not that there aren’t also some idiotic things such as the air filter that requires at least half an hour and several tools with non-standard attachments to access the first time…

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I myself replaced the front brakes (pads and rotors) when they got within the wear limits and the warning message illuminated. That was quite straightforward but needed the loan of my neighbor’s impact wrench as the hardware is large and was very tight.

The Germans usually do brakes well, the calipers are huge, the discs are massive and the pads put out tons of dust…  We’ve never experienced any fade or shudder while driving through the mountains as opposed to the Honda minivan which was good for maybe one medium length downhill pass, and then the brakes would let you know they were not happy.

The OEM parts (rotors, pads, sensors, paste) cost me under $275, the local independent wanted around $600 with non-OEM parts and the dealer wanted almost $1000 using Mercedes parts, obviously.  I work for free.

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The one thing that has been a constant has been failing light bulbs.  At this point the dealer did one headlight bulb under warranty during the first service, I did the other one myself two days after we got it back, then one rear license plate bulb, and recently both front parking lights within days of each other.

The front end contains a total of ten(!) different bulbs, and when one fails there is a large display whenever you turn the car on so it is a constant annoying reminder until corrected.  The CPO warranty does NOT cover light bulbs, btw.

The replacement windshield cracked last year as well due to a rock but I was able to source a replacement including installation for less than $375 which I found acceptable, it includes a one-year warranty on the glass so if it cracks again within the year we are only on the hook for a $75 installation fee.

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So what does ours have on it?  Standard items include the three rows of seats with the rearmost ones folding electrically via a button, sunroof, extra sunroof over the third row, dual zone climate control, MB-Tex upholstery that I love, burl walnut wood trim, heated front seats, and electric pretty much everything.

Options include metallic paint (Palladium Metallic), a heated steering wheel (one of the best things ever invented, ranks just ahead of sliced bread and just behind pre-peeled hard boiled eggs), class IV trailer hitch with 7500lb towing capacity, rear seat entertainment (2 screens, DVD player, remote, headphones), parking sensors front and rear, backup camera, memory package (seats, steering wheel, mirrors), navigation system, power liftgate, running boards and 20″ alloy wheels instead of the stock 19’s.

As an aside a full list of specifications, measurements, and other data for the GL450 can be found at this Mercedes link.

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Of those options we could for sure do without the rear entertainment system, all the kids have their own tablets and have never tried it.  The running boards are nice for the kids but difficult to step over for me when it’s dirty outside and a bit slippery for large adult feet.  The 20″ alloys look nice, but are unbelievably heavy as I first noted when I did the brakes and can’t help the ride.

The suspension is an air system and while the compressor and the units can fail they are not difficult or overly expensive to replace and can be sourced via the aftermarket, it is much less complex than the system Mercedes used on the E-Class for example.  The repair history shows that one of the front ones was replaced by the previous owner before we got it.  This winter I found a used set of 18″ alloys off a 2008 GL450 and added a set of Blizzaks for the winter (as seen in all pictures except 1, 3, and 4 which have the summer wheels/tires).

The ride is definitely better but the wheel and tire combination is not much lighter.  I also got a set of OEM TPMS’s via ebay which literally was plug and play so I don’t have a warning message illuminated all winter long.  The tire shop put everything together earlier this year and then when winter came I swapped the wheels and the sensors reset themselves to the car without any intervention.  The difference in winter traction is astounding relative to the Bridgestone Dueler All Seasons that we use for the rest of the year.  This thing is now simply a tank in the snow.

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We’ve driven it all over;  several times to California, and then at the end of this summer we took it on an impromptu road trip to Nashville.  Lately I’ve had occasion to go to Wyoming a lot both for business as well as pleasure and was there just last weekend during a low of -24 degrees Fahrenheit.  The high that we’ve seen with it is around 115 degrees Fahrenheit passing through Arizona.

No matter what it just always starts and keeps chugging along. On a long freeway drive such as the trip to Nashville it is very serene to drive, plenty of power, quiet, comfortable for the whole family and imbued with an absolute sense of solidity that I’ve rarely experienced previously.

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The new ones will be renamed GLS next year (ML is now GLE, GLK is now GLC), in order to convey that Mercedes considers it their S-class of SUV’s which is certainly apt in my opinion.  In town it seems a bit ponderous when pulling away from a light, much in the traditional old-school Mercedes way but when you step on it, this big girl really lifts her skirts and starts to move.

Gas mileage is a bit of a mixed bag, our average since we’ve owned it is just over 15mpg, around town I usually get 14-15, on the highway 17-20.  My wife gets about 2mpg less consistently, probably since I tend to make a game out of the mileage.  To add to that pain it requires premium unleaded but at least the prices are low and predicted to stay that way for a while.

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How’s the third row?  Actually not bad.  I can fit back there but realistically it’s better for kids and smaller adults.  But better than a lot of others, the fairly vertical sides help a lot.  The actual mechanism to get back there, well, it could be better and that is being charitable with my choice of words.  First of all, the driver side second row 60% only folds the seatback down, so no luck on that side.

The passenger side 40% split entry entails (from outside the car) pulling a lever to fold the seatback.  Then pull the lever again to flip the whole folded seat forward but only if you remembered to push the headrest down first.  Then, once it is pushed to about vertical and almost touching the front seat, an electric motor takes over and pulls it snug against the front seat while actually moving the front seat up and forward.

Then you can climb in and manually lock the seat back down and raise the headrest back up for the second row as otherwise it digs into that occupant’s back but the front passenger seat stays all the way up and forward unless the occupant moves it back manually via the electric buttons at the side of the front seat.  To get back out from inside the third row you have to pull a strap at foot level twice to fold the second row seat.

I made SURE that the kids could do it before buying the car and they could.  The still can, but they don’t love doing it.  The Suburban for example was much better in this regard with an optional electronic button to do it all automatically.  The Pathfinder’s manual way is also much easier.  The new generation of GL is better as well but not hugely so.  Maybe next time they’ll get it right.  In reality my two littler ones just jump over the seat backs.  So much for “the best or nothing”.

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This was originally mainly my wife’s car for day to day work, I used the Subaru and then the Chrysler and drove this on family outings and trips.  We recently sold the Chrysler as well and I was due to get the replacement for it but then as we were driving it home my wife decided she really liked it and handed this down to me.  I could think of worse hand-me-downs and so far am not regretting letting her take the new one at all.  But that’s a story for next week.