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MOTORNET: Heavy Hitters

Heavy Hitters

SCOOP MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson
Images by Neil Mackenzie -

I can’t be sure exactly what the cyclist was saying, but his sentiment was clear. It had a lot to do with his shaking fist and angry expression. It seems that while driving to work one typically late spring morning (overcast, cold) I had strayed into a cycle lane and was impeding said disgruntled cyclist. Strange really, as I wasn’t doing anything differently from any other day – same route, same turning lane, same everything. But I had forgotten one thing.

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The new Mercedes Benz GL SUV is big, seriously big. If you think you know big SUVs, you haven’t seen the new GL. The Range Rover by comparison is a mere gangly adolescent. From its 19” wheels, to its massive front grille, the GL is huge – huge enough to be sitting halfway into a cycle lane without the driver realising.

There is luckily, method to Mercedes’ Benz apparent madness. Unlike the recently released and noticeably smaller ML range, the new GL has room for seven, and plenty of luggage space to boot. There is certainly no denying though that the interior of the GL is a commodious space, combining MPV practicality with all the advantages of 4WD. It’s comfortable too. Unlike many competitors, the rear row of seats can actually accommodate adults.

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GL500 Interior – Above, the dash, below, the boot…

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The downside is that all that space has somewhat compromised what the designers could do with the exterior. Where the ML is curvy, the GL is, well… chunky, particularly around the D-pillar which is quite upright. Having said that, the GL couldn’t be anything other than a Mercedes (no bad thing) and there’s no denying it has a certain majesty and presence.

Solid looks and seven-seats are fortunately not the only distinctions the GL has from the ML. The GL is geared to be a serious off-roader, packing plenty of kit like a low-range gearbox, hill descent control, and sophisticated air-suspension. It’s that same air suspension in fact which helps ensure the GL can go around corners without suffering excess boy-roll, and can deliver ride more at home in a luxury limousine.

Despite its bulk, the GL – thanks in large part to unseen electronic aids – manages to do a good job of navigating corners. There’s no denying the size of the vehicle but nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised at the cornering speeds that were readily achievable. The steering is typically Mercedes-Benz – in other words, not exactly sporting – but it does the job.

GL500 Engine
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What does the job even better is the 5.5 litre V8 nestled snugly under the bonnet. It makes short work of the GL’s two and a half tonne bulk, rocketing it from 0-100 km/h in just 6.76 seconds. This SUV could eat plenty of sports sedans for breakfast, and there is little chance of finding yourself stranded in a passing lane trying vainly to overtake a caravan as is often the fate of lesser SUVs. Mind you, if the eye-watering performance conjures eye-watering scenes of a different type at the petrol pump for you, Mercedes-Benz also offer a less expensive diesel alternative sporting a 3-litre HDi V6. Mercedes-Benz claims fuel usage of 13.9 litres and 9.5 litres per 100km respectively for the petrol and diesel variants.

Both come with extensive standard equipment, including the ability to lower the third row of seats electronically, while the GL500 takes luxury honours through the inclusion of sunroof, bi-xenon headlights, separate air-con for the rear of the vehicle and top-notch stereo. The price? A cool $139,900 for the diesel and $179,900 for the GL500, and a significant increase over the equivalent ML, but then no one said kids were cheap, did they?

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Fortunately, if you’re sold on Mercedes-Benz and plenty of seats is a must have, there is another alternative. It’s called the Mercedes R-Class, and although it’s tagged by the PR department as a Sports Tourer, most people will know it is an MPV, or People Mover. If the term ‘MPV’ conjures images of slab-sided barges, don’t be too hasty as the R is actually quite striking, at least from certain angles. I tend to avoid MPVs like the plague, and when I do drive them, I rarely get a lot of interest. Not so for the R-Class. It was a genuine head-turner, and whenever I parked it on the street, the number of people who stopped to get a second look was, well, surprising.

The Mercedes R-Class
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I first clapped eyes on the R-Class at Frankfurt airport in Germany early in 2006. At the time I thought it unlikely that it would make it to New Zealand shores, but Mercedes-Benz seems determined to increase their market share, and it makes sense if they identify a market to plug it. Like the GL, the R is a large car. It has a wide front end with slightly bulbous headlights – it’s not unlike a B-Class on steroids in fact. Profile wise, it is let down by a very thick D pillar, but otherwise tapers to quite a nice rounded finish. It certainly fits well with the current Mercedes-Benz design theme.

R-Class V-6 Engine
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The test vehicle, an R350, comes equipped with a 3.5 litre V6 which develops a handy 200kW’s of power. Like the GL, the R-Class is no light weight sports sedan weighing a not insignificant 2155kg, but the V6 is quite a gem of an engine and powers the R to 100km/h in a pretty impressive 8.3 seconds – and not many MPVs can make that claim.

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R-Class Interior – Above, the dash, below, the boot…

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Unlike the GL, the R only seats six, but it certainly does it in style sporting an interior that is truly a welcoming place to be. There’s considerable standard equipment including leather interior with executive chairs, full electrics, climate air-conditioning, and more, while technologically it has hugely advanced electronic aids to ensure you always stay on the road. On the downside, the minor controls are a little fiddly and not especially intuitive.

And while it has typically Mercedes steering – uninformative in other words – the R is a pretty good drive considering. This is particularly helped by the inclusion of 4MATIC constant all-wheel-drive which again helps on the safety front but also ensures the R tracks, steers and holds the road competently. It remains flat and controlled during fast cornering and steering traits are largely neutral. Like its GL brethren, the R feels like a large car but has an uncanny ability of shrinking around the driver after a few miles under the belt.

The seven speed gearbox is also technologically impressive and the ride is quite sumptuous, the suspension doing an excellent job of smoothing out the bumps and potholes all too familiar on our B-grade roads. It’s available as an automatic only with both the 350 and diesel variant retailing for $102,900 while the V8 R500 is $148,900.

The R-Class is a hard car to dislike despite any pre-conceived prejudices about MPVs, and while it may not be to all tastes, it makes a suitably robust argument for Mercedes’ credentials in the people and large-load carrier department.

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