There’s something extraordinary about Park City’s landscape during late spring. The vivid tones of green combined with the snowcapped mountains and the deep blue skies provide a pleasant and peaceful atmosphere. This part of North Utah is known for its upscale skiing resorts in the winter and its outdoor activities in summer—and it’s the perfect place to launch the new GLS, Mercedes says. It wasn’t about the twisty roads or the off-road trails found on the hills east of Salt Lake City; it was the fact that the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS—the biggest SUV in the automaker’s lineup—was designed for Americans who would spend their weekends and holidays in an environment like Park City.
Whether our drive took us through Wolf Creek Peak 9,949 feet above sea level or the off-road section’s ruts and steep hill climbs, the GLS delivered. To get that capability and versatility, Mercedes spent a big part of the development process in Big Dune, about two hours northwest of Las Vegas. Mercedes chose this location not because GLS owners would be driving through sand dunes, but because owners like to know their SUV could. With the introduction of E-Active Body Control (EABC) in the smaller GLE—an optional suspension system that uses a combination of air springs and electrohydraulic dampers—Mercedes’ engineers had the more challenging task of making sure the fancy suspension setup could triumph in a three-row family crossover. As we reported on the development ride we experienced in Big Dune , the GLS can quickly free itself from being stuck in the sand thanks to Free Driving mode, which raises and lowers the suspension until the tires gain traction. Also known as bouncing mode, Free Driving mode is only available in models equipped with EABC.
It’s fun to engage this bouncing mode at a stoplight with the Burmester surround sound audio system and pretend you’re in a lowrider; more to the point, it’s also a capable suspension system that can get you out of trouble. EABC can modify the height of each corner of the vehicle, which is quite useful for driving over unleveled surfaces. During our off-road drive in Park City, I saw a roll angle of 21 degrees on the screen, but it didn’t faze the GLS. The trail had ruts, steep uphills and downhills, and river crossings almost 2 feet deep. Located in an area popular for ATVs and other recreational vehicles, the trail was more challenging than what 95 percent of drivers would do in a GLS. With Off-Road Plus mode engaged, we traversed most of the trail in low range and with the air suspension raised to the highest level, giving the GLS better capability and more ground clearance. The GLS’ handling off-road was simple and didn’t require much effort from the driver. When I stepped out to take some pictures of the landscape, the GLS’ side steps only got my pants dirty; they didn’t really make for easier ingress and egress.
The GLS can be had in two different configurations: the 450 and 580 models. The GLS 450 is powered by a 3.0-liter inline-six turbo engine that produces 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. The GLS 580 carries the 4.0-liter V-8 twin-turbo engine that delivers 483 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are mated to a 48-volt electric motor known as the EQ Boost that can add up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque to the engine during short periods of time, acting as an integrated starter generator. The only transmission available for either engine is a nine-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels through the standard 4Matic AWD system.
Both powertrains showed enough punch whether we drove them at the base of the mountain or at the summit. I spent most of my time driving the GLS 450 with the standard air suspension (no EABC), given that it will probably be the most popular configuration. The 3.0-liter engine has enough power from the start, and it showed little turbo lag on Utah’s scenic highways. The transmission’s shifts were so smooth that I barely noticed them, but step on the throttle, and it will quickly downshift to provide more power. The standard air suspension does a great job keeping vibrations inside the cabin to a minimal; even when we drove over broken pavement, we didn’t notice many movements. The steering has also been mapped to feel soft. We’d prefer it to be a bit stiffer, as the softness makes it hard to get a sense of what’s happening on the road.
The GLS 580, on the other hand, feels sportier and more powerful. Its 4.0-liter V-8 engine feels dynamic and energetic. Just like in the 3.0-liter, the nine-speed transmission is quick and smooth. Although it goes for the highest gear possible most of the time, it will downshift quickly when you need it to. On the highway, the EABC-equipped GLS felt like it was driving over the smoothest pavement possible, as the suspension tackles all the imperfections that would make any kind of disruption in the cabin. Despite rolling on new 23-inch wheels, the 580 felt tranquil and peaceful with EABC.
That serene temperament can also be attributed to the great insulation Mercedes put in the GLS. The cabin is very quiet, with minimal noise from the tires or the wind. The engineering team says this is the S-Class of SUVs, and with all its attributes, there’s no denying that. Once you make yourself comfortable—whether you sit in the front or the second row—you can relax even more with a seat massage. The leather on the seats is soft, and the seat cushion has good bolstering. Design wise, the interior is a nice place to sit. A large 12.3-inch touchscreen dominates the center dash, and bright trim accents the air vents and HVAC controls. The second row is spacious, and new captain’s chairs are an option—a first for the GLS. This option not only makes the second row less crowded, it also eases access to the third row. Should you opt for the second-row bench seat, access to the third row can be a bit difficult for those who are 6 feet tall (like myself). When we sat in the third row with someone else sitting in the second row, I had enough legroom for short drives, but the third row does feel cramped. To access the third row, you have to hold a button located on the second-row seatback, which tilts the bench seat and slides it forward to provide more room.
Mercedes also made sure its passengers are connected and entertained. The GLS comes with nine standard USB ports, which means there are more USB ports than the number of passengers the vehicle can hold. All of them are Type C, and there’s one wireless charger. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as are the 12.3-inch MBUX touchscreen and the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. All models are prewired to install a rear-seat entertainment system, and the optional Executive Rear Seat package ups the game with a 7.0-inch tablet to control the MBUX system from the back seat. Should passengers need to set their own temperatures, the GLS can be had with a five-zone climate control system. In an effort to make everything effortless, the new carwash function makes sure the windows are closed and the GLS is ready for a wash at the touch of a button. As a family vehicle, safety plays a big role in the GLS, as well. It’s equipped with the latest generation of advanced driver assistance systems, including active steering assist and distance assist. These use data from the nav system to automatically reduce speed as you approach a bend, roundabout, or tollbooth.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 450 starts at $76,195, and the GLS 580 has a price tag of $98,795; both can quickly go over $100,000 depending on options. But despite its high price, the GLS is built in America for Americans. With more space, better technology, and great performance, the GLS doesn’t disappoint. By building it in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Mercedes is further reinforcing its commitment in America, where it hopes to shine.
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