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2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS First Drive: The S-Class of SUVs

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Coalville, UT - The third-generation Mercedes Benz GLS was first unveiled at the New York Auto Show this past April, but it was only now that we got to wrap our impatient hands around its steering wheel. We discovered an update for the model that is à propos in the light of the recent arrival of the BMW X7. Like any self-respecting upgraded model these days, the new GLS is bigger, wider and better equipped than its predecessor.

A bit of new, a bit of old
Designers employed at prestige brands always have a delicate job when a new generation of a model is due. They must respect a wide range of restrictions to ensure the brand's DNA is respected, all while adding enough new blood to make it a different vehicle.

The GLS is a perfect example of that approach. On the one hand, the stature and character traits of the model remain intact, and on the other we note a softer overall line that mimics what Mercedes-Benz did with the last GLE. The format has also grown, as mentioned, with a total length of 5.21 m and a width of 1.95 m.

The grille offers a new style with thicker horizontal slats fronted by the Mercedes-Benz logo in the centre. The headlights are thinner to add an element of sporty styling and the flowing shapes help to camouflage the off-standard format of the model. The large rear lights have been replaced by thinner units that extend even higher in the tailgate. The profile is cleaner and smoother, and the overall silhouette is more aerodynamic. Not coincidentally, the cx (coefficient of drag) has gone from 0.35 on the older generation to 0.32 on the new - a respectable figure considering the size of this SUV.

Photo: B.Charette

Luxury in every corner
A product of the old school at Mercedes-Benz, the last generation was a bit out of step with the rest of the family. The 2020 GLS brings the model back into sync with its changes. What doesn’t change is the quality of execution. There’s still a lot of leather and wood in different combinations throughout the cabin.

The biggest transformation has to do with the presentation. Like the S-Class and E-Class, the GLS is now flanked by two 12.3-inch screens side by side in the centre console. There’s a new steering wheel with touch buttons that can handle horizontal and vertical swiping, just like an electronic tablet. The SUV also features a 64-colour ambient lighting system and improved seats that are electrically adjustable and therefore more comfortable for longer trips.

The longer wheelbase offers more rear space where passengers also benefit from a sliding seat to be able to stretch their legs further.

A word about the MBUX system that started its career in A-Class vehicles and now extends into all new models from the manufacturer. Simply say, Hey Mercedes! and you can ask for all kinds of information. Though to be honest, there’s still work to be done before it’s anywhere near fine-tuned. Speech recognition is not perfect and the optional internal assistant that recognizes the movements of your hand is also in learning mode. Mercedes people explained that MBUX also has artificial intelligence, and that it learns your driving habits and behavior. For example, if on your daily commute you’re always tuned to the same radio station, MBUX will suggest this station. Big Brother’s creeping ever closer.

The GLS can be delivered with a 7-inch Android tablet with its own docking station in the second-row center armrest. It provides access to radio, media, telephone, web browser and climate-control system. Rear passengers also have access to a wireless charging compartment in the centre console and USB ports. On the options list, you can order rear seats with a lumbar massage function.

Gas power and light hybrid
For the first time in its history, Mercedes-Benz has paired its engines with a 48-volt electric system and an integrated starter generator. This combination, already found over at Audi, is a form of light-hybrid system. The entry-level engine is a 3.0L 6-cylinder turbo in the 450 model, which delivers 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. The light hybrid component, called EQ-Boost, adds 21 horses and 184 lb-ft of torque. This powertrain has the double advantage of eliminating turbo lag while saving fuel.

The same principle applies to the 580 model. Its 4L V8 engine from the S-Class produces 483 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to the EQ Boost system, those numbers increase to 504 hp and 700 lb-ft of torque.

Photo: B.Charette

For those who have the audacity to go off-road with a vehicle costing in the six figures, know that the GLS 580 is available with a transfer case to improve off-road driving characteristics. In addition to a controlled multi-disc clutch with on-demand torque, it is also equipped with a gearbox for off-road driving. This transfer case improves maneuverability and agility by significantly reducing the turning radius and influencing the degree of yaw to induce oversteer or understeer.

The GLS offers optional AirMatic air suspension system with Adaptive Damping System Plus. This configuration uses complex sensors and algorithms to adapt the damping characteristics by analyzing the road ahead the road and adjust according to the driving situation. The suspensions have been optimized for driving comfort.

Serene drive
According to Mercedes-Benz Canada, the majority of buyers here will opt for a 6-cylinder version with the regular suspension – and that’s what we drove first. The 362 horses may initially seem a little chintzy to drag around a vehicle that easily exceeds two tons. But with the contribution of EQ Boost, it did its job very effectively even in the mountainous environment of Utah.

Photo: B.Charette

The driving position is excellent and all the electronics on board help make the vehicle more maneuverable and lighter. The turning radius is particularly short for a vehicle with 21-inch (or optional 23-inch) wheels (at a replacement cost of $ 780 per tire, by the way).

Naturally, the ultimate GLS driving experience is found behind the wheel of the 580 and its V8, which offers a seductive roar of a sound. Our test model also had air suspension with the E-Active Body Control. This system is capable of individually controlling the force of the springs and damping on each wheel, thus considerably reducing roll, pitch and lift movements.

Hydro-pneumatic systems generate dynamic forces that capture feedback from the air suspension to create an impressive level of comfort. It analyzes the road, can raise or lower the suspension of each wheel in off-road situation using graphics on the screen, helps to better take a curve and can even move the suspension from bottom to top by rocking the vehicle to get out of sand, mud or snow.

Photo: B.Charette

The last GLS had a certain following thanks to its diesel version, which is no longer available in North America, only in Europe. However, the reliability of the model was not very good.

The new GLS will arrive this fall at dealerships. Prices have not been announced yet, but Mercedes-Benz is talking about a $5,000 increase. That translates into a price point just under $90,000 for an entry-level version. Oh, and if you feel that 483 horses is simply not enough, there are AMG versions on the way – but not before next year.

We like

Very comfortable
High tech interior
Off-road skills

We like less

Technologies that will entail expensive maintenance
A timid visual evolution
Tons of options


Consult our listing of pre-owned Mercedes vehicles available in your region of Canada

Photo: B.Charette