Test Drive: Mercedes-Benz’s Spacious New 2020 GLS

Family-friendly looks are deceptive considering this SUV's highly adventurous capabilities

When imagining a summer of freedom, a road trip to a faraway beach or remote mountain getaway is likely on the list. And, if you want to bring along a passel of friends and family, the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS would be a clever idea. The GLS is the carmaker’s new full-size, three-row model—an update on the previous GL. It weighs some 5,500 pounds and fits up to seven people. Suffice it to say: it’s big.

After spending two days driving hundreds of miles through the mountains outside Salt Lake City, the GLS becomes something of a revelation. While  trail runs and bike rides in the high elevations leave us feeling exhilarated, so did driving the car. The GLS slipstreams over a snow-dotted 9,000-foot pass and over off-road trails, moving with an elan that seems impossible for its size. Credit for that goes (in part) to the engineering wizardry called E-Active Body Control. Using data from a forward-facing camera, the suspension prepares for upcoming bumps in the road. It will also lean the SUV into curves, negating the need for passengers to steady themselves on interior handles.

The system works equally as well on dirt and rocks, allowing for each wheel to articulate independently. Further, we find crossing streams and negotiating down vertiginous declines super-easy. If your taste for freedom runs toward the edges of civilization, the GLS will actually get you there—despite its family-friendly appearance.

Between the 3.0-liter V6 and 4.0-liter V8 bi-turbo engines, the smaller engine is the best pick, as it’s lighter (offering the vehicle more balance), delivers its power more predictably than the weightier V-8, and still packs plenty of punch. Additionally, the starting price of the GLS450 model offers a significant saving: it starts at $76,000 versus $99,000. (The optional E-Active Body Control is likely to cost some $8,000, so why not take the savings where possible.)

As mentioned, drivers and passengers in this SUV don’t want for space. With two co-drivers each at over six feet tall, there’s still no tussling of elbows as we bounce around the off-road trails. The second row includes captain seats that can be outfitted with an “Executive” package, allowing for seats featuring infinite adjustment options.

Conversely, the very rear isn’t quite as expansive as we hoped, but it is well-suited for children or smaller adults. There’s even an available intercom for backseat occupants to converse with those up front easily.

Unlike some of the other luxury manufacturers, Mercedes-Benz is more often successful at integrating luxury with technology. The GLS gets the latest MBUX infotainment system, including our favorite feature: augmented reality navigation. As you near a turn, the system switches from a map view to a live-camera view, with arrows and streets names superimposed over the top. More than a neat trick, it can be incredibly helpful.

The MBUX also includes a voice-operated command system that strives to be as good as Amazon’s Alexa, but proves that the car-based systems still have a long way to go. When we accidentally trigger the system on the steering wheel for the fifth time, it asks how she can help, we jokingly ask: “What’s the secret to a happy life?” After a long pause, the voice replies, “OK, I’m turning on the overhead lights.” Perhaps though, while adventuring over rocky hills in the Utah sunshine, the question is redundant.

Images courtesy of Mercedes Benz