It is time for my annual installment of the Halter family summer vacation rental car review. We always get a big SUV to haul around our family of four, with four large bags an a multitude of backpacks and miscellaneous carryons to tote around. After being presented with the keys for yet another Nissan Armada (really, how do I keep getting these things), I happily paid the $33/day upgrade to a 2019 Mercedes Benz GLS 450 when offered.
As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, big SUVs aren’t really my thing, so I entered into this upgrade not really knowing what to expect. For starters, I had no idea that Mercedes Benz made a full-size SUV, and has for well over a decade (like I said, not my thing). After all, BMW is just now offering their first full-size SUV, the X7. So even though I was paying for an “upgrade,” I was expecting something slightly smaller than the Armada I was passing up. As it turns out, the vehicle I was envisioning was actually the GLE-class, MB’s slightly smaller three-row SUV with which the GLS shares a common platform. In actuality, the GLS and the Armada share the exact same 121.1” wheelbase and are within a few inches in all the other major dimensions.
I attribute part of my confusion to the fact that Mercedes has been fiddling with their vehicle nomenclature over the past several years. Until recently, the GLS was just the GL, while the GLE was formerly (and probably better known) as the M-Class. What is now the GLC used to be called the GLK.
I’ve rented enough vehicles over the years to know that rental fleets are typically comprised of vehicles that are one or more of the following:
- Base models with few to no options.
- Vehicle equipped with unusual or unpopular option combinations.
- Vehicles at the end of their production run.
With an all-new model scheduled to come out in 2020, my rental GLS meets one of those characteristics already. As we shall see, it meets at least one more.
While the 2019 GLS 450 starts out at $70,150, my rental was equipped with the $3,830 Premium Package, which includes a bunch of stuff that really should be standard in this class, like a power passenger seat, blind spot monitoring system, keyless locking and unlocking, lane departure warning, and a navigation system with Apple Car Play. So technically my GLS wasn’t a true “base” model, but I’m guessing very few are actually sold without the Premium Package.
The only other option my rental had was the $3,700 “Active Curve” package that includes a suspension that can adjust between “Comfort” and “Sport” settings. Like most such systems I’ve experienced over the years, the difference between the various settings is too slight to really justify the added price and complexity, and in any case why someone would want a “Sport” setting in a 5,300 lb. SUV is quite beyond me.
What was more notable was all the options this vehicle didn’t have, most of which you can get on a Ford Escape Titanium at a fraction of the price: Parking sensors ($1,290, which really should be standard on a vehicle this size), LED headlights ($1,390, yes you can still spend $75,000 on a vehicle and get halogen lights), Panoramic sunroof ($1090, a single non-panoramic roof is standard), premium audio ($850 for Harmon/Kardon, $5,800 for Bang & Olufsen), adaptive cruise control (part of $2,250 Driver Assistance Package), heated steering wheel ($250), ventilated front seats ($570), and tri-zone climate control ($1,450). Even leather is optional ($1,690, although MB-Tex keeps getting better).
My black example also came in one of the just two no-cost color choices (the other being white). So I would say my GLS qualifies as almost a base model, and certainly oddly equipped.
Like I mentioned earlier, I knew nothing about the GLS, so I assumed that being a full-sized SUV that it must have a V8 engine (especially with the 450 right in the name). The engine sounds could certainly pass for a V8 – I give Mercedes engineers a lot of credit for tuning the intake and exhaust sounds for just the right amount of low-end rumble. And while the GLS moved well enough, it didn’t seem to have the effortless power delivery I recalled from last year’s Armada, and I soon began to suspect something was up. Sure enough, after some quick investigation, it seems that two cylinders had indeed gone missing. The engine turned out to be a 3.0L twin-turbo V6. If you want a V8, you will need to step up to the $95,000 GLS 550.
Still, the 3.0T (packing 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque) will likely be sufficient for most buyers. I know I could certainly live with it. The nine-speed transmission collaborated well with the engine: It was completely transparent in operation, going about its business with minimal fuss. Unlike similar nine-speed units from other manufacturers, it was never in the wrong gear, and smooth shifts were the order of the day. The only party foul committed by the transmission was from Mercedes goofy column shift lever, where you move it up for Reverse, and push on the end for Park. On several occasions I had the vehicle start to roll away from me as I was getting out, only to find out that by flipping the lever up I had put it in Reverse instead of Park. Mercedes needs to steal a page from Ford and have the vehicle automatically go into Park as soon as you turn the engine off.
The 3.0T/9-speed powertrain paid dividends in one other way. My observed fuel economy for the week was 17.8 MPG, astonishingly good for a vehicle this size, and one that was frequently fully loaded and stuck in LA’s notorious traffic. This was also far better than the 10-12 MPG I logged in the Armada last summer. Part of the credit is also likely due to the engine start-stop system, which kills the engine when the car is not moving. It is not the smoothest start-stop system I have experienced, but it is easily defeated should you desire (although it defaults to “on” every time you start your car).
My other nits are small: The ignition key is the same as the one from my 2006 SLK, and is designed to be inserted into a slot, even though push-button start is standard (actually this key fob is older than that, and dates to the DaimlerChrysler era). This also means there is no remote start (not even as an option), as there is no available button on the ancient fob.
The lack of running boards ($800 extra) made entry and exit difficult, as well as guaranteeing that you will get your pant legs dirty in the process. The default wheels are a bit homely looking, and despite being 19” in diameter, look a little small. Lastly, the outside rear view mirrors are too small for a vehicle this large.
All in all, this was a competent, comfortable, and undemanding family hauler, which is just what I wanted for this trip. But this also means that the GLS has nothing particularly unique or exceptional to justify its existence. Unless you have to have the three-pointed star on the grille, I would be hard pressed recommending the GLS 450 to anyone in the market for a full-sized SUV. While the $70K base price doesn’t seem all that outrageous for a large luxury SUV, by the time you add all the really-should-be-standard options, you’re looking closer to $85K for an otherwise unremarkable large SUV. A Yukon, Expedition, or even my friend the Armada can be equipped just as well (if not better than) the GLS, is just as innocuous, and far less money.