The high mark for sales of big sport utility vehicles came years ago, but don't tell that to Mercedes-Benz customers.
Through the first four months of 2013, they have boosted sales of the Mercedes full-size GL-Class SUV 27.5 percent above last year's level, to nearly 11,000.
And low supplies are the only hindrance to the roomy, seven-passenger GL setting a new U.S. sales record this year.
The current GL record is 26,396 in 2007.
GL buyers today get the new-for-2013 second-generation GL, which is a bit larger than its predecessor, mildly restyled on the outside, and has additional safety and convenience features.
There are new, more powerful engines for the 2013 model year, too, including a 550-horsepower, 5.5-liter, biturbo, gasoline V-8 with a whopping 560 foot-pounds of torque starting at 2,000 rpm. This powerplant is in the AMG version of GL, which is estimated to go from standstill to 60 miles per hour in less than 5 seconds. This is sports car territory, and AMG is Mercedes' performance unit.
Still, a strong GL contender in the lineup is the base GL350 with a much more fuel thrifty, 240-horsepower, diesel V-6 and an impressive at 455 foot-pounds starting at 1,600 rpm.
Plus, the 2013 GL350 carries the lowest starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of any GL: $63,305.
Standard equipment is substantial and includes four-wheel drive, seven-speed automatic transmission with shift-it-yourself, race car-like paddle shifters at the steering wheel, air suspension, 19-inch wheels, nine air bags, rearview camera, light-emitting diode daytime running lamps and taillights, power-folding third-row seats and wood interior trim.
Some standard safety equipment is unique to Mercedes. For example, every GL includes an Attention Assist system that can monitor a driver's steering and attentiveness and provide an alert if it senses, at speeds at or above 50 mph, that the driver is drowsy.
But leather-trimmed seats on the base GL are an extra $1,620. The standard seat cover is Mercedes' Tex material that mimics the look of leather.
Competitors to the GL include other large, luxury SUVs with three rows of seats, such as the 2013 Cadillac Escalade ESV. With a starting retail price of $67,340, the Escalade ESV has 403-horsepower, gasoline V-8, six-speed automatic transmission, leather-trimmed seats and rear-wheel drive. With all-wheel drive, the 2013 Escalade ESV starts at $69,890.
Another competitor, the 2013 Infiniti QX56, has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $62,345 with rear-wheel drive, 400-horsepower, gasoline V-8, seven-speed automatic transmission and leather-trimmed seats. With four-wheel drive, the QX56 starts at $64,445.
Neither the Cadillac nor Infiniti come with a diesel engine.
The test GL was the diesel model, but passengers didn't notice. The reason? The 3-liter, turbocharged, direct-injection, Bluetec diesel in the GL350 is amazingly quiet, with nary any diesel "racket" that old-time diesels are known for. Instead, the GL350 sounds pretty much like a normal gasoline-engine vehicle, down to the confident, powerful engine sounds during acceleration.
There was no diesel smell around the GL350, either. The only smell came at the filling station pump.
And forget about diesel glow plugs and sensitive, special care. The GL350 is durably built with modern diesel technology and doesn't need to be babied.
Bluetec, by the way, includes special emissions filtering to contain diesel particulates.
In the tester, there was just a hint of turbo lag now and then, but it was not worrisome or distracting.
Zero to 60 mph in the diesel GL is estimated at an acceptable 8.3 seconds — not bad for a 2-ton vehicle propelled by a V-6 — and the transmission shifted smoothly.
The best part of the GL is fuel mileage, which the U.S. government rates at 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway. This puts the potential travel range on a single, 26.4-gallon tank at a noteworthy 523 miles, according to the feds. Given today's average cost for diesel, filling that large a fuel tank can add up to more than $105.
But the test GL350, driven 70 percent of the time in city traffic and the rest on highways, averaged just 18 mpg, for a driving range of 475 miles.
Still, that's better than any other GL. As an example, the GL63 AMG with 550-horse gasoline V-8 is rated at just 13/17 mpg for a potential travel range of 333 miles on a single tank of premium gasoline.
Everyone in the GL350 rides high above the pavement, and the driver has good views out above traffic.
The tester had optional running boards, which were slippery one damp morning. Side metal pillars around the windshield are thick and can obscure pedestrians crossing the street as the vehicle makes turns. So, drivers need to crane their necks to see around these window pillars.
Thankfully, the standard rearview camera helps tremendously to aid drivers when they back up the nearly 17-foot-long SUV.
With an eminently adaptable air suspension system, the GL350 rode comfortably. It was neither bouncy nor harsh.
Brakes worked strongly to stop this hefty vehicle, and despite having large, 19-inch wheels and tires, the test GL350 did not convey any heaviness or unsprung weight at the four wheels.
Third-row seats that fold down flat, and easily, were a much appreciated feature, along with commendable 38.5 inches of legroom in the second row and 35 inches in the third row.
With the optional panorama roof overhead, headroom in the test GL350 seemed even more spacious than the 41 inches that were in the specs sheet.
Optional multi-contour seats coddled front-seat riders, and the seats' massage function got lots of use.
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