CALISTOGA, Calif. -- Mercedes-Benz proudly calls the 2007 GL a full-sized SUV.
"We are aiming at the mainstream full-sized SUV buyers, those people who still relate to full-sized SUVs, still need full-sized SUVs and still desire full-sized SUVs," says Ron Mueller, manager of sport utility and touring, for Mercedes-Benz USA LLC.
The top priority for these buyers is owning a big SUV that seats seven and can haul a big trailer.
"They want to have large toys such as a 30-foot boat or a three-horse trailer," said Mueller, who was interviewed at a Mercedes event here in California's Napa Valley.
The result is Mercedes' Cadillac Escalade fighter. The seven-passenger 2007 GL is a V-8-powered SUV with a 7,500-pound towing capacity, capability that neither the Mercedes M-class mid-sized SUV nor the recently introduced R-class crossover can match.
The basics: The GL is Mercedes-Benz's first full-sized SUV. Sales begin in May. Prices have not been released. The GL is assembled in the automaker's Vance, Ala., plant on an assembly line shared with the M class. The GL shares the M-class model's front doors and some architectural portions of that platform.
The plant is the sole assembly site for the GL. Export and right-hand-drive models go into production this year.
"When we first started looking at the market" several years ago, "we saw that 36 percent of our M-B sedan owners had a full-sized SUV in their stable," he said. The Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator were the popular choices.
Mercedes-Benz was losing 20 to 25 percent of the owners who purchased the first-generation M class.
"The ML was too small," said Mueller. "The first-generation buyers moved up into the full-sized segment. So because they were moving on into that segment, there was another reason for us to consider this thing."
At clinics several years ago, owners of full-sized SUVs placed seven-passenger seating and towing capability at the top of their priority lists.
For the GL, a deep foot well was created to enhance comfort in the third seat row and a power folding, split third-row seat was made standard. The third row has "an airy feeling so you wouldn't get claustrophobic," said Mueller. A stationary glass roof panel is above the seat.
Power rear quarter windows are included with the optional sunroof package.
One engine is offered for North America, a 335-hp 4.6-liter V-8 producing 339 pounds-feet of torque. The engine is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes promises 0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds. Early next year, a 221-hp, 3.0-liter diesel V-6 will be available with 376 pounds-feet of torque.
Standard equipment includes Mercedes' 4matic all-wheel-drive system, which can make a slippery boat ramp manageable. The system senses wheel slip electronically and brakes the slipping tire or tires, transferring torque to the tires with the most grip.
An optional off-road package includes a two-speed transfer case with locking center and rear differentials. Mercedes expects just 2 percent of GL buyers to take that option.
Notable features: During vehicle clinics several years ago, owners of full-sized SUVs said "they also wanted something that drove a lot better, handled a lot better, something that gave them a little bit more level of luxury," said Mueller.
The GL comes standard with a height-adjustable air suspension; four ride modes can be selected, ranging from "sport" to "comfort." The system automatically lowers the vehicle 0.5 inches below its standard ride height at speeds above 77 mph for improved stability.
At the flip of a switch, the driver can raise the GL's ground clearance up to 3 inches to negotiate deep snow or deeply rutted roads. The system gives the GL a ground clearance range of 7.9 to 10.9 inches. The system automatically returns the vehicle to normal ride height at speeds above 25 mph.
Vehicles equipped with the optional off-road package gain 1.5 inches of ground clearance, for a range of 4.5 inches.
Also standard are active head restraints for the front-seat passengers and eight airbags, including one each of the side doors.
One notable option is leather seats, a reaction to potential buyers who are members of such groups as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a spokesman said. Imitation leather upholstery comes standard.
Other options include a power liftgate, a rearview camera in the liftgate, heated second-row seats and a rear-seat entertainment system.
What Mercedes-Benz says: "From an exterior standpoint, from an interior standpoint, we tried to put everything we could into giving the GL a full-sized SUV persona," says Mueller.
"Not only dimensions, but styling elements -- very strong front end, very strong chin, very masculine design features, very squared-off rear end, very nice side profile that gives a sense of size, a sense of height, a sense of girth to the vehicle so that everything about this vehicle, in any direction you look at it, is about a full-sized SUV."
Compromises and shortcomings: The SUV was engineered for sale in 135 countries. Full-figured buyers may have an issue with the GL's width. Europe's narrow streets had an impact. The result is that the GL is 3.4 inches narrower than a 2007 Cadillac Escalade. Also, the GL comes in only one length -- there are no Chevrolet Suburban- or Escalade ESV-sized vehicles.
Nuts and bolts: Once full production is reached next year, the Alabama plant will have a capacity to produce 160,000 M, R and GL vehicles, with the M class being the volume vehicle. Key competitors include luxury SUVs with a price starting in the low- to mid-$50,000 range, such as the Escalade and Lincoln Navigator.
The skinny: A quiet, exceptional-handling SUV that should satisfy families requiring seven-passenger seating plus the horsepower to haul that classic Chris-Craft to the next regatta.
You may e-mail Rick Kranz at [email protected]