It’s been a crazy week, temperatures reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit a couple of days ago with forest fires raging nearby and ash raining down on the town to below freezing today with snow dropping most of the night. Three mornings ago I found myself at hypersonic speed on a deserted straightaway near the Wyoming border that wasn’t so deserted after all if you count the State Trooper parked on the side of the road. This morning I was tiptoeing around the lake road loath to make a big mistake at freezing temperatures while driving a cruise missile of an SUV shod with 23″ (yes, 23″) Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires (and no, the 4S does not stand for 4 Seasons, it’s a very high performance summer tire). And all I wanted to do was drive the car and be able to report back.
The State Trooper was either taking a snooze or just couldn’t get a lock on his radar gun before I hauled it way down and the lake road didn’t score on me either so altogether I’ll call this week a big personal success from that viewpoint.
I’ve been a fan of the original big Mercedes three-row SUV since its debut as the GL line back in 2007 and we owned a 2011 model for about four years ourselves. I was less smitten with its direct successor but now there is a third generation and I’m a fan again. I loved the chiseled styling of the original, then the second one got sort of melty-looking, but this one, while endowed with plenty of soft curves, seems to come together as a whole.
Of course in AMG trim it pumps the bodywork up quite a bit to good effect without looking like it just has tons of added-on pieces. Mercedes rejiggered the naming conventions of its SUV lineup a few years ago to fall more in line with its sedans, so the GLA starts out as a crossover A-Class, the GLC is more or less analogous to the C-class, the GLE (formerly ML), is the E-class, and the GLS (formerly just GL) is the S-class sibling.
Finished here in Selenite Grey Metallic (just as the Inuit and other far northern cultures supposedly have dozens of words for snow, so does Mercedes apparently have hundreds of names for charcoal gray), but also with the Night Package that removes most brightwork in favor of glossy black items. It gives off that serious Germanic vibe of “Don’t mess with me and stay out of the left lane, Bitte”.
There’s still some shiny stuff, but really limited to a sliver around the rims, the running boards, a touch on the taillights and door handles, and the Mercedes star of course stays bright (but thankfully without the illumination!) The grille has chromed vertical ribs and the badging too is set off from the darker paintwork. Pretty much how you’d expect then.
The AMG division of Mercedes is of course no stranger to us here, having performed their magic first from outside the works, and for some years now a fully-owned part of the mother ship. The top Mercedes models are usually labeled with the AMG badge and while there are now lesser, more “affordable” versions that are sometimes trim packages, and sometimes have more powerful engines as well, this one is again one of the “real” ones, i.e. the ones with the handbuilt engines, each crafted by one individual from bare block to vanity cover on top and adorned with a plaque signed by that individual.
As with the last real AMG that we tested, the sublime GLC63, this GLS63 also features a 4.0 liter V8 Bi-Turbo engine design but in this case it puts down 603 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque (the GLC63, while still stonking fast, makes do with quite a bit less power, relatively speaking), which is what it also does in the S-class version with this same engine.
603hp is enough for publications with the budget for a stopwatch and someone to operate it to verify that it will get from 0-60 in 3.6 seconds, making this the fastest production 3-row SUV in existence as far as I can tell. While I could not independently verify that number I also have no reason whatsoever to doubt it; plant your foot and all four tires dig in to the pavement and it slingshots forward, no matter if you are at rest, at 30mph, 60, 75, or…well, yeah.
This is also AMG’s first V8 application of its EQ Boost system, which is a 48-Volt mild hybrid system that places an electric motor-generator between the engine and transmission. It is mainly used for powering the engine’s electric accessories but can provide up to 21 horsepower and 184lb-ft of torque to help the big guy get moving while the turbos spool up and also relieve some of the load in order to improve fuel economy. There is a separate gauge in the cluster that shows power vs charging which swings back and forth depending on your right foot.
The transmission is the AMG SpeedShift 9-speed with manual shift paddles mounted on the wheel, however the programming pretty much works as you would manually, generally removing any need for manual intervention except in the most aggressive driving. Depending on the drive program selected it holds gears, downshifts as needed when slowing, and is generally responsive while also being smooth as butter, especially when just in a normal mode rather than one of the multiple Sport modes.
When really going for it, having the greater manual control from the paddles is more rewarding but requires much more mental engagement, with this kind of power one needs to be pretty aware of what may be going on around the next few bends to take full advantage.
Those drive modes are accessed via either a steering wheel mounted dial (lower right of wheel) or a toggle on the center console next to the trackpad and range from Comfort (great for everyday normal driving), to Sport and then Sport Plus. There’s also an Individual mode for mixing and matching different settings, but by moving the dial or toggle the other way there is also a Trail as well as a Sand mode.
The suspension is air at all four corners and can either hunker the SUV down seemingly almost to its bump stops or several inches above the norm depending on the setting, or one can raise or lower it via another dedicated toggle separate from the drive mode selector. The modes also change the stiffness of the suspension, the tune of the engine, the note of the exhaust, and the shift logic, although most of these can also be altered independently at any time via a sequence of buttons and toggles. But basically the AMG can change from somewhat mild-mannered beach-goer to full on racer with a simple twist of the dial as well as mixing and matching various traits as desired.
The suspension even in lowered mode (Sport, Sport Plus) is amazingly supple. At its most aggressive it corners extremely flat, but over bumps or railroad crossings it’s astonishingly smooth. Cornering is quick, precise but without a ton of feel, even though the tires (huge at 285/40-23 in front and a massive 325/35-23 in the rear) seem to grip without any sign of weakness, except of course in extremely cold conditions where a set of winter tires would be an extremely wise investment. I expect on a track or a wide open environment feel would improve as one gets closer to the actual limits, in even aggressive street driving it is vastly more capable than would generally be prudent to explore to its fullest for extended periods of “evaluation”.
Braking matches everything else, i.e. overpoweringly solid. Huge disks front and rear are more than enough for anything likely to be asked of them here, and as with any excellent brake they tend to generate a lot of dust to prove they are sacrificing themself for the driver. Better to get the dark wheel option then as with this one.
Of course many vehicles these days have all manner of safety features to avoid getting bit out on the road but the Active Lane Keep Assist in this generation of Mercedes is worthy of more discussion. I’ve driven plenty of vehicles that, if you appear to be going over a solid or dotted line, will either beep at you, vibrate something, help steer (i.e. nudge) the vehicle back on track, or any combination of the three.
This is the first one that if approaching a dotted/dashed line will do the same (vibrate/steer) BUT if you breach a solid line such as a double yellow or a white on the edge of the road, will steer as well as apply the brake until it is pointing in the correct direction again. It doesn’t slam on the brakes exactly, but you are well aware of what just happened (or was perhaps about to happen), and it was very impressive; I purposely tested it various times and there were no false alarms. It sort of reminds me of driving one side of a car into an inch or two of standing water on a road; there’s a definite retardation of forward progress coupled with a pull toward that side, except here it pulls away from the danger.
The party continues inside with a top-notch luxury environment. Starting with the Black and “Tartufo Brown” AMG Nappa leather (it’s a little more mushroom colored in reality than these pictures convey in the same way that the black leather and trim comes across as a bit grayer here) one sinks into the seats and adjusts them as Karl and Gottlieb intended via the doorpanel mounted switches (and that’s for front as well as rear seats, same controls). All manner of adjustment including a roll-out thigh bolster are included here. But it gets even better.
Using the “Comfort” menu on the touchscreen (also accessed via a touchpad-like device in the center console), you can go to the massage settings and select from a choice of different massages. There wasn’t one labeled “Fröhliches Ende” but they were all excellent with some focusing on the back and shoulders (but in different ways) and others including every part of the body in contact with the seat. Of course heat and ventilation from the seats is also possible and a new button calling for “Rapid” heat is included for the driver (the above picture is from a rear door) as well that somehow makes the heating happen faster.
But there’s a new party-trick too. Just as I have gotten well used to heated seats and steering wheels, now the door panel, armrests and center console are heated as well! Just like with the others, it has to be experienced to recognize how lovely this is, and I suppose within two decades this will also eventually appear on every mid-market vehicle like the heated stuff is, as is the historical case with many other items originally offered on Mercedes’ S-class.
In case the rolling massage parlor isn’t enough, there is also a fitness trainer on-board. Apparently she (mine was a she, not sure if that can be changed to a he), takes into account the driving style, the road, the driver attentiveness and instructs various exercises that can be performed while driving (roll left shoulder forward and back and then around and again and a little firmer and now the other shoulder, and now arch the back slightly while keeping the shoulder blades in place and so on, etc.)
While this occurs, the cabin lighting changes to one of the 64 hues on offer (that can be user-selected as well), the screen has artsy patterns playing (all to relax and refresh the driver) and there is even an aroma program that involves a bottle of scent in the glovebox to infuse the atmosphere.
Heady stuff, and easy to mock, but very interesting if for example you are the business executive that needs to get from Stuttgart to Brussels or Chicago to Cincinnati and you need to get there by lunch and it’s already 8am, i.e. Hammer Down! I tried it on the way to Laramie after passing the State Trooper as I needed to relax a bit and I suppose it worked, it was certainly interesting and more productive than the way I usually just try to stretch a bit while driving while turning the music up.
This being a test car and already near the top of the line, of course there was more than just this. In this car the second row was not deprived of anything either. They too had heated and cooled seats along with heated and cooled cupholders, as well as a wireless charging pad in their own console and on top of everything else they had their own tablet computer that could be either used in place or taken out of its mount and handheld wirelessly. From that they could also choose a massage program for their seats (!), as well as control the panorama sunroof, music, navigation, and various other tasks or items depending on the level of control afforded by the driver.
The second row was just as comfortable as the first, with lots of space available to stretch out and identical seat controls on the door panels as the front. However the third row was not nearly as good. In my old GL I could still sit in the third row while being a bit cramped. However in this one I was much less comfortable, really it needs to be reserved for small kids only. When the second row was moved up towards the first so that I still had a couple of inches of knee space, then in the third row my knees were jammed into the second row seatbacks. Head and shoulder room were more or less acceptable though. For the comparative record I am 6’1″ with a 32″ inseam.
Worse though was the access, while the second row seat would electrically move itself out of the way, it did so via electric control buttons that caused everything to move at a glacially slow pace (obviously for safety), however it was also not particularly intuitive as far as the seat moving and then going back to its original position that it would frustrate anyone that didn’t spend a lot of time with the manual to be sure they were doing it right (which, let’s face it, is pretty much everyone).
Even worse would be the situation for those IN the third row that likely don’t even have access to the manual and just want to get in (or more likely, out) or if people were rushing to get inside for example in instances of inclement weather or cold such as on a ski holiday. I believe if there are little kids they will just literally jump over the backrest which in the end achieves the same result and much faster.
At least there are redundant controls in several places such as the seats themselves, the side walls, as well as in the cargo area. These third row headrests are still manually deployable though which involves reaching and fumbling in dark crevices, again there are other, better, solutions now available wherein the whole headrest just auto-folds away when the seat folds similar to how an old W124 rear headrest snapped away at the press of a button.
Still, this (the seats folding) is a topic that wasn’t great in my first generation GL with sort of a hybrid manual/power setup, not much better in the second and now here the technology still gets in the way of itself. If it were all manual such as in three row competitors costing a fraction of this one’s price, it would be so much better. But hard to justify I suppose in a vehicle where the tech is half the reason for being.
The sound system was the Burmester High End Surround Sound System which consists of 1610W and 26 speakers. Of course there are speakers where you’d expect them but there are also speakers that apparently can move inside their enclosures to direct the sound depending on the occupants. There are also speakers mounted in the ceiling and above the side pillars.
There are different presets that control the sound and not only can they be selected but also be individually assigned per seat, i.e. different people can experience the sound differently. And all of the visible speakers are faced with gorgeous metalwork, in some cases surrounded by the dash trim, in this case not a carbon fiber or similar look, but an actual metal fabric weave encased in a glassy lacquer.
I’m no expert but the system certainly did the job for me, I’m pretty sure that I could hear notes in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” that I haven’t noticed before and I have listened to it countless times since I first heard it back in ’78 when I was nine… Although I’m sure whatever the standard system audio is would be quite good as well. However at this level “quite good” for most buyers simply isn’t anymore, thus much more refined offerings are available.
So check out the front again, that huge double 12.3″ display screen that functions as instrument panel on the left and infotainment on the right is excellent and really just the size you’d want for everything to be logically placed where it makes sense as part of Mercedes MBUX System (Mercedes-Benz User eXperience).
Reconfigurable as far as how the driver information displays, the left part is controlled by various doo-dads on the steering wheel, and the right/center portion is controlled by voice, touch, or trackpad device. Menus can be swiped left and right, selected, drilled down, whatever. There is so much that can be controlled here but the basic items are done easily and quickly, and very soon become second nature. Images are crisp and clear and the voice command controller is far more capable than in the past, able to understand almost to the point of having a conversation rather than sticking to a pre-formatted list of specific commands enunciated a specific way.
The Navigation System is similarly user friendly, the augmented video screen is excellent to use as when coming up on a direction point the screen changes to video with overlays showing exactly what should be done and where. This is the future of navigation, while directions and mapped representations are great, the real-world visual helps tremendously in many situations, leaving little to interpretation.
Not that one who can afford such a machine would have any trouble affording the gasoline to power it, it was surprisingly economical compared to the capability. While this appeared to be a pre-production machine with a sticker that didn’t detail the EPA ratings, I averaged 17.0 mpg over 320 miles of driving it which included a fast 70 mile run to Laramie on Highway 287, an even faster 90 mile return via I-80 and I-25, and then the balance of 160 miles purely local which consisted of about 60 up in the hills on a few very hot days, perhaps 50 or so towards the end on a very cold day and another 50 or so comprised of normal city errands.
I’d guess for purely city usage 13 might be in the ballpark and a moderate freeway pace would likely return about 20mpg. Premium fuel is required and there is a start/stop function that comes into play depending on the drive mode, i.e. yes in Comfort, no in Sport Plus etc although with the hybrid system the stops and starts are nigh imperceptible.
So now it’s time to sit down as the price will probably shock you although if Mercedes wasn’t relentlessly trying to enter every possible niche including the more “entry-level” ones, it wouldn’t as the prices would be uniformly high; after all, a long history setting the standard for engineering and leading the industry in performance doesn’t come cheap.
The base price for the Mercedes-AMG GLS63 is an eye-watering $132,100, so your average Chelsea Tractor this is certainly not. I’d wager that the vast majority sold are either sold for cash or leased to businesses, most buyers probably aren’t too concerned about monthlies…
But still (or especially at this level?), nobody pays that much and just leaves it at that. There are options to be chosen but here they aren’t just options, but rather “Optional Equipment and Value Added Packages” which sounds better. Let’s take a peek.
Surprisingly the metallic paint is not an extra charge item, but the Metal Weave trim costs $440 and looks worth ten times that. The AMG Performance Steering Wheel finished in “Dinamica” (a suede-like microfiber) is $600 and not just flat on the bottom but also the sides. (Flatten out the top too and you’d have the “Allegro Package”, perhaps for 2022…) The Carbon Fiber Engine Cover runs $1,500, the 23″AMG Forged Wheels in Matte Black are $4,950, and the Augmented Video is $350.
The Burmester Audio System as detailed above is $4,550, and Magic Vision Control is $350 (this is basically wipers with dozens of little holes in the assembly for the cleaning fluid to spray out of as opposed to a big splash of fluid before the wiping starts that might prevent you from seeing anything momentarily).
The Warmth and Comfort Package (Rapid Heating, Heated Door Center Panels, Heated Front and Rear Armrests, Heated Center Console) is $1,100, and the Executive Rear Seat Package Plus costs $3,700 and consists of Luxury Center Armrest that contains a 7″MBUX Tablet, Storage Compartment, 2 USBs, Rear Wireless Charging, Extended Center Console, Luxury Headrests (with those bendable winglet pads like in a good airplane seat), Heated and Ventilated Rear Seats, Heated and Cooled Rear Cupholders, Multicontour Rear Seats with Massage.
The Energizing Package Plus is defined as the Air Balance package with Energizing Fragrance (I believe there are different versions) for $550, and the Night Package at $750 gets you gloss black trim on the A-pillars, Trim on Rear Apron, Tailpipes, Front Splitter, Window Frames, and Roof Rails.
Then there is also the Acoustic Comfort Package which for $1,100 adds Increased Cabin Insulation, Windshield with Infrared Reflecting Film, Side Windows with Acoustic and Infrared Reflecting Film and I can confirm that it was remarkably quiet even at very elevated speeds. With the windows up it’s perhaps even a bit too quiet, making it more difficult to hear the heady rumble of the engine/exhaust when in Sport or Sport Plus mode. Sacrifices…
Oddly, after looking at the options list and using/experiencing the listed items, I came away thinking that the really expensive items were perhaps too expensive for the improvement they offered but conversely and more interestingly that the less expensive items (let’s say anything under or around the $1,250 mark) were priced much lower than I would have figured or would consider paying relative to the benefit they offered (while keeping in mind that the base price is already well into the six figures, of course).
Destination and Delivery from Tuscaloosa, Alabama where assembly takes place (the engine is shipped there from Germany for installation), is a further and comparatively reasonable $995, all adding up to a new Curbside Classic New Car Review record of $153,035.
Not cheap. But not meant to be nor having any reason to be, really. This vehicle and its sedan stablemate S-class are pretty much the state of the art in terms of internal combustion vehicle technology and will likely be what many/most other makers will use to see what they might offer in their vehicles going forward; as such much of the basic technology will filter down to the overall market eventually. That being said, it’s a remarkable piece of technology but also an amazingly capable and satisfying vehicle to drive, and just as likely to own for those both lucky and/or successful enough to do so.
“Herzlichen Dank” to Mercedes-AMG for offering us this vehicle to drive this week along with a tank of fuel.