Test Driving The Mercedes-Benz GLS: New Flagship SUV Stays The Course

We are zigzagging through a cone course up the steep side of Timmelsjoch, a high mountain pass through Innsbruck, Austria, to see how well Mercedes’ latest addition to its lineup, the 2017 GLS sport utility vehicle, handles the ice. During our early peek at the GLS – it reaches dealerships in March – my test drive partner and I creep up the sharp incline and hear our guide’s voice call over the walkie-talkie stashed in the center console: “With these hairpin turns, you might be surprised by what can happen.”

Though my heart is racing and my breathing is shallow due to the 8,500-foot altitude, I am indeed quickly surprised. I expected to skid off the mountain, careening down either side of the narrow Alpine path that separates Austria from Italy. Instead, we change drive mode to “slippery,” which tunes the GLS’ throttle response and traction control to create enough traction to casually scale the mountain.

That’s exactly how Mercedes wants customers to feel when they drive the brand’s new flagship SUV – based upon its S-class sedan – and it looks as though they have succeeded. That street cred is more important than ever to the German automaker, whose sales fell 12% in November, the biggest stumble it’s seen since 2009, as it embarks upon an aggressive campaign to update its lineup.

 

Mercedes faces an uphill battle against other luxury crossovers with the coveted third-row that seats seven passengers – or enough room for a family and its ski equipment, or half a middle school soccer team. Sales of the outgoing GL, which will be replaced by the GLS, lagged among competitors, rising 7% for the first eleven months of the year, to 24,858 units. That compares with a 19% sales jump for industry leader BMW X5, which sold nearly twice as many units as the GL through November. Meanwhile, Audi’s Q7 and Cadillac’s Escalade kept pace with the Mercedes GL’s growth, while Range Rover and the Infiniti QX80 reported double-digit sales gains.

The German luxury automaker hopes to bring new life to its full-size SUV with a redesigned front, rear and instrument panel, as well as details such as chrome roof rails and LED tail lamps. The crossover comes in four engine sizes, including a diesel option for its smallest engine and a top-trim level AMG GLS 63 with 585 horsepower.

The new nomenclature, meant to help clarify distinctions among the brand’s different body sizes, could be an initial sales barrier, according to Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell. “The GLS doesn't have the instant recognition as the BMW X5 or Range Rover,” she says. “This will dissipate over time but does not help when attempting to woo new buyers.”

Mercedes hasn’t announced the price for the GLS, but the outgoing model came with a base price of about $64,000. The automaker began taking orders this month, with deliveries expected in March.