We just spent a week with the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL550, the top of the line version of the vehicle that was named Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year for 2013.
We spent most of that time in New York City, where we tested out the technology that makes parallel parking a breeze and how the luxury ride fares on rough roads.
But the GL550 is not a city car, so we felt obliged to take it out on the open road, where it belongs. In real life, it probably spends most of its time in the suburbs, but we opted to take it down Interstate 95 for a road trip to Washington, D.C., instead.
It was great.
The GL550 starts at $86,900; the model we drove cost a whopping $108,830. That’s a lot of money, but Mercedes-Benz delivers a great experience for the price tag.
I’ve done the NY-DC drive many times, in a variety of cars, and this was the most comfortable I’ve ever been.
I spent the first 45 minutes of the ride waiting in rush hour Manhattan traffic to get into the Holland Tunnel, and didn’t mind. I just turned on the massage seat and synced up my iPod.
When I finally got going, I got to enjoy the excellent acceleration — both from a standstill and at highway speeds — provided by the 4.6-liter V8 biturbo engine. The V8 produces 429 horsepower and 516 pound feet of torque, though there is a slight lag between hitting the pedal and the engine’s response.
Whether at 30 mph or 80 mph, it feels like you’re quietly floating down the road.
Understandably, the mileage is not great. The GL550 is rated at 13 mpg in the city, 18 mpg on the highway. Those numbers are accurate: Over our 623 miles of driving, the large majority of it on the highway, we averaged 17.5 mpg.
A big tank helps out on long trips, especially for Mercedes-Benz customers who don’t have to worry about the cost of filling it. I left DC with half a tank of gas, and the low fuel light didn’t come on until I hit New York. Even then, the car estimated it could go another 75 miles before the tank was bone dry.
The GL550 has all the bells and whistles luxury buyers expect in 2013: The seats are heated and cooled. I enjoyed the massage function, but my friend Griffin, who came along for the ride, said it was “more like an awkward back-jabbing than a massage.”
The SUV comes with an array of cameras and sensors that work together to provide an overhead view that gives you a 360-degree look at what’s going on around the car, a huge help for parking.
When you get too close to another car, cyclist, or pedestrian, an alarm beeps. This is useful on the highway, but in Manhattan, where obstacles are a constant presence, it gets really annoying.
Music plays through a Bang & Olufsen sound system, a level of quality that may be lost on passengers playing satellite radio with decent reception, or their iPhones through a Bluetooth connection. The system even includes Acoustic Lens Technology, with “lenses” that are designed to improve the car’s acoustics (see photo above).
There are two screens for passengers in the second row, but none for whoever’s riding in the way back. For families with more than two kids (who are the ones likely to be buying three-row cars) this seems likely to cause fights, over either what to watch or who gets to sit where.
We only tested out the front row, but Autoblog’s review of the GL550 notes, “third-row occupants had plenty of room for their grownup legs and arms.”
A Few Problems
Not everything in the GL550 is great, however. The navigation and entertainment system is not at all intuitive, and is difficult to use.
Even after a week of regular driving, I still got confused as to how to change the radio station. One problem is that there are simply too many buttons.
Just like in every other car ever, I was disappointed by the voice recognition system. It is slow and demanding (the house number 1331 must be said as “1-3-3-1,” not “13-31”). It did not come anywhere close to understanding “Corcoran Street.”
While not deal breakers, these are serious downsides. A simple, intuitive system allows the driver to focus on the road even when he wants to change the music or go to a new address. What this SUV offers is not only frustrating, it requires a lot of attention to use — a direct cause of distracted driving.
At nearly $110,000, a well-equipped GL550 is not a bargain.
But for luxury buyers who want an impressive badge, a powerful engine under the hood, and an incredibly comfortable ride that will keep their kids entertained, it’s an excellent choice.