2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
Two turns after setting off across a dirt road over what looked like a flat expanse of scrubby desert brought us to the edge of a vast canyon. Though we didn’t need its full capabilities, the hill descent control feature of the On & Off Road package made easy work out of the steep sandy trail down to the river below. We were enjoying the grand vistas of New Mexico from the armchair comfort of the Mercedes-Benz GL450. The location showcased the GL-Class in a variety of driving situations; before the pavement ended were long stretches of arrow-straight highway, curving mountain roads, and the tight streets of Santa Fe.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class full-size sport utility returns completely redesigned for its second generation. It offers seating for seven, generous cargo capacity with the seats folded down, and an impressive 7,500 lb. towing rating. GL-Class buyers are Mercedes-Benz’s youngest, according to Todd Greico, product manager for SUVs for Mercedes-Benz USA, with the majority married with children. Greico says only about ten percent of buyers will opt for the aforementioned On & Off Road package, but all GL-Class feature the security of Mercedes-Benz’s 4matic all-wheel drive system, for occasional adventure driving and all-weather performance.
While seeing a slight increase in size, the GL has actually shed some weight, thanks to the use of lighter materials. Available at launch in three flavors—GL350 BlueTEC, GL450 and GL550—each engine creates a vehicle of different character; the wide array of available equipment allows you to furnish your GL to taste. Two versions of Mercedes-Benz’s 4.6-liter gasoline V-8 engine anchor the GL lineup. Both feature twin turbochargers as well as gasoline direct injection, a more precise method of fuel metering. Top of the line, at least until the high performance GL63 AMG becomes available in the first quarter of 2013, is the GL550, tuned to 429 horsepower. Distinguished by a sportier exterior treatment, the GL550 also carries a longer list of standard features. The GL450’s powerplant produces 362 horsepower.
Mercedes-Benz’s expertise in building diesel engines is displayed in the GL350 BlueTEC. Forget any negative perceptions you might have of diesel, this state-of-the-art 3.0-liter V-6 produces more torque than the GL450’s engine, and has an edge in fuel mileage. It meets emissions requirements in all 50 states, and it’s so quiet, the first one I walked up to was running and I didn’t realize it. While the acceleration of the gasoline engines is fun, the way a vehicle like this will mostly be used makes the diesel an excellent choice.
All three GL-Class versions showed excellent road manners. A quiet and refined ride was not surprising, but what really stood out was how level the vehicle stayed while cornering. Turns out I was driving a GL equipped with the Active Curve System in the mountainous section of the drive. This supplemental suspension arrangement intervenes to counteract body roll in turns.
Indeed, many qualities of the GL-Class are geared to make this larger vehicle easier to live with. Instead of the engine driving a hydraulic pump, electromechanical power steering saves fuel by using power only on demand. Its light touch took some getting used to at speed, but you can park it using a fingertip. Cameras showing an overhead view make it a snap to line it up in a space, and available Active Parking Assist will even select a spot and park for you while you control the gas and brake.
Interior finishes rival fine furniture. GL350 and GL450 have eucalyptus wood trim while the GL550 gets burl walnut standard. Other choices are available by special order. Seats have more adjustability than any I can think of; the lumbar support seems to offer an extra dimension; and yes, a massaging feature with four settings. The desert Southwest venue made me think what a great family road trip vehicle the GL is. Plenty of room for your loved ones and their gear, plus safety and capability on or off the beaten path. Meanwhile it makes you feel right at home. Standard audio is provided by harman/kardon, with options from Bang & Olufsen, a noted installer of ultra high-end home systems. And if the kids get tired of the scenery, there’s always the rear seat DVD player.
2013 Audi Allroad
During a rather short model run from 2001 to 2005, the Audi Allroad managed to firmly establish itself as a cult vehicle. It started with a unique blending of Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive, and the Avant body style—what we used to call a station wagon. When a more aggressive off road twist was added, the result became more than the sum of its parts.
The Allroad has returned for 2013, based on the A4 Avant. In fact, it is replacing the A4 Avant. Distinctive exterior features include stainless steel skid plates front and rear for underbody protection, complemented by stainless side sill trim. Tires are slightly taller, on 18-inch wheels with 19-inch optional. Extended over the widened track, matte plastic wheel flares are also available painted to match the body color. The chrome grille is an Allroad exclusive, like the dual exhaust tips capping off the rear.
Power comes from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection it shares with the A4 sedan. Producing 211 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, it’s coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Drivetrain modifications for the Allroad include a shorter final drive gear ratio, and the stability control has an off road mode to allow for some extra wheel spin on loose surfaces.
The test drive kept me on paved roads, through the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. Quattro is advantageous on dry pavement as it is in low-traction conditions. The off road tweaks and higher ground clearance did not adversely affect the handling on curvy concrete, and the turbocharged four never gasped for air at the high altitudes. Audi officials said sales have been climbing since 2009 after a period of stagnation. The new Allroad should help continue that trend.