Despite increased public interest in smaller cars to save gas and forestall global warming, many folks still want a great big SUV. Lexus, Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Porsche, and others have been providing these transportation modules. Mercedes has been selling its midsized M Class, but it's not the same.
Last year, Mercedes debuted the GL450-- a king-size SUV that delivered all the goods, in great comfort, style, and sophistication. Motor Trend gave it its Sport Utility of the Year award.
Now you can buy a GL550, just like my handsome Iridium Silver test car. The 5,434-pound beauty carries a 5.5-liter V8 under its sculpted hood that puts out 382 horsepower-47 more than the 4.6-liter V8 in the GL450. With an additional 52 lb.-ft. of torque, you move along like something launched from Mission Control.
The GL550 flaunts many upgrades over the already impressive GL450 besides the engine. The grille, for example, is bolder and contains a Mercedes logo the size of a salad plate in its center. My tester flaunted the optional chrome roof rack with crossbars and glistening chrome running boards with little rubber inserts for traction. The enormous alloy wheels added more bling. The feeling of "I get to drive THAT?" came over me.
Mercedes-Benzes used to be sedate. Now, sweeps and curves are the thing, so the GL takes on the aggressive family styling cues. The character lines extend up from the multi-sided headlamp units to the rear, where chunky taillamps give an edgy interpretation to a longstanding Mercedes design trend
That goes for inside, too, where exquisitely stitched leather and satin and chrome accents encourage a sense of well being. The leather-covered seats are supremely comfortable in a firm, German way, although the GL550 is assembled in Alabama. The controls move smartly.
One design quirk-the control for the seven-speed (really) automatic transmission is a small lever on the right side of the steering column. The windshield wiper/washer stalk sits on the left side. At very low speed one day, I went to clean the windshield and accidentally placed the car in reverse. It started to slow down and I hoped I hadn't broken anything (it was fine). But-it's easy to mistake the levers. At higher speeds, the car issues a warning and stays in the gear you previously selected.
The GL550 costs $77,750-and that's before you add any options, which are plentiful even with this extremely well equipped vehicle. That's a $21,475 boost over the quite worthy GL450. But the serene and powerful experience of this car is like few others.
The thing is, after a couple of days it seems normal to be motoring along in this magnificent ride. It felt the same way when I moved from my tiny condo to a three-bedroom house. You spread out physically and mentally to fit. Cruising down the road, you are lord of all you see.
There is a little bit of a learning curve for the COMAND electronic controls. How do you reset the trip computer? How do you navigate to stations in the standard Sirius satellite radio? I eventually figured it all out, but the complexity can be a little intimidating.
This car is a fine hauler. The third row seats fold into the floor electrically from the side or rear of the car. With the second and third row flat, the capacious, richly carpeted cargo area swallows up more than 83 cubic feet of your stuff.
My tester's suspension could be set for normal, sport, or comfort with the push of a button. With it set in sport, the car handled like a smaller vehicle, with quick reflexes. You did hear more road noise, but not much. The normal setting was good for all around cruising. The comfort setting felt plush to me-best suited for freeway driving, perhaps, or if you miss your 10-year-old Buick.
I tried driving over speed bumps and in the sport setting, the car recovered quickly. However, in the comfort setting, the initial impact was gentler, but the car bounced up and down a few times before settling down.
The 2008 fuel economy ratings are 13 City, 17 Highway. I averaged 14.1 mpg. That meant multiple visits to the gas station for premium fuel. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide has not published ratings for the GL550 yet, but the same engine in the S550 received an Air Pollution Score of 7-quite good. The Greenhouse Gas score was a 3.
With its permanent four-wheel-drive system, high technology throughout for performance and safety, supreme comfort, powerful visual impact, and hearty power, the GL550 left a big impression on me. I can't afford to buy it or feed it, but if you've got a big family and can, it belongs on your shopping list.