When the 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLS debuted, enthusiasm in our Slack channel was flatter than a popped soufflé. Oh great, another giant luxury SUV with a grille that some realtor will eventually peel Jason’s Changli off of like a Looney Tunes joke. However, to brand the GLS as a chariot of ne’er-do-wells is a bit shortsighted. The updated Mercedes-Benz GLS is worth giving at least half a shit about because it attempts to address a long-standing issue while still remaining the sensible choice in a very un-sensible segment.
Looking around at the landscape of full-size luxury SUVs that can tow decent weight, it’s hard to find a Goldilocks zone. The new Cadillac Escalade is brilliant but cartoonishly enormous, with a forward blind spot that can completely obscure an MGB. The Lincoln Navigator would be the best full-size SUV in the world if the calendar read 2017, the BMW X7 has been facelifted from controversial to extremely ugly, the new Range Rover is absurdly expensive in V8 trim, and the new Lexus LX has the space efficiency of a fourth-gen Camaro. If you want a big new luxury SUV to tow with but have some semblance of taste, there isn’t much on the market aside from the GLS. However, the Mercedes-Benz GLS comes with its own baggage.
Back in the 2000s, Mercedes-Benz SUVs used a jumbled mix of names: G-Class, GL, ML, and GLK. That all changed when the naming convention was standardized for everything but the big dog G-Class. From 2016 onward, most Mercedes SUVs used the GL prefix, followed by the equivalent car class, and then some numbers. The GLK 350 became the GLC 300 because it was the crossover equivalent of a C-Class. The ML 550 became the GLE 550 because it was the SUV equivalent of an E-Class. Oh, and of course the GL 550 became the GLS 550 because Mercedes thought it was the SUV equivalent of an S-Class. There’s just one problem with that last one – it wasn’t.
To be fair, it wasn’t a problem at first. The 2017 GLS was a facelifted GL and there was no expectation for Mercedes to massively change a model mid-cycle. However, the third-generation GLS had a high bar to reach, and it decided to turn it into a limbo contest. The current GLS is built in the same factory on the same platform using the same dashboard, the same front seats, and the same powertrain as its smaller GLE sibling. If you never sit in the back, you won’t be able to tell a difference in terms of how premium it feels, which is disappointing considering how the S-Class has been a luxury benchmark for decades. It’s a shame because the current GLS is otherwise a perfectly good luxury SUV. The longer wheelbase helps mitigate the GLE’s jitteriness over bumps, the interior looks more interesting than what you get in a BMW X7, and the engine range is excellent. It just needs to be a bit more special to live up to the S in its name.
Thankfully, Mercedes-Benz seems to be turning the corner. Let’s start with looks. The updated GLS is a whole lot more imposing, with a four-horizontal-bar grille reminiscent of the first-generation GL Grand Edition. Not only is it as imposing as a cliff face, it helps distinguish the GLS from its smaller GLE sibling.
While the 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLS doesn’t get a whole new dashboard, it gets some revised MBUX infotainment skins and bunch of upcontenting. Standard is a new high-gloss wood, while the big Merc SUV gets two new upholstery choices – a new beige and a new brown. In addition, the lovely flowing lines metal-inlaid wood from the Mercedes-Maybach GLS 600 gets downloaded to the standard models, as does a satin metal finish to the interior air vents. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s just the stuff you get on the base model.
Step up to the Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 and you get loads more standard equipment. The formerly-optional panoramic sunroof, wireless smartphone integration, Burmester sound system, adjustable valved exhaust, 360-degree camera system, heated and cooled cup holders, and blind-spot monitoring system are now standard, which makes you wonder why on earth most of those things weren’t standard before.
As expected, the Mercedes-Maybach steps it game up considerably given that some of its special trim bits can now be had on a GLS 450. For the sake of flexing, this big boy gets delectably tasteless monogrammed bumper inserts, along with what Mercedes calls “an animated projection of the Mercedes-Maybach pattern” in the ambient lighting. AliExpress vendors, eat your hearts out. However, the updated upholstery is excellent as it finally features quilting like you’d find on a Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, offering a sense of unity across Mercedes-Maybach models.
The updated Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class seems to be taking steps in the right direction. With a distinctive facelift, added standard content, and more upmarket interior appointments, it’s slowly becoming the S-Class of SUVs that it always should’ve been. A promising destination, but now I want to talk about where the GLS came from. That’s right, it’s time for us to reconsider the original GL.
If you thought the BMW X7 was derided when it came out, you should’ve seen what people thought of the original GL. When it came out, it was considered massive, ostentatious, and just flat-out ridiculous. Now it’s the same size as a Mazda CX-90. Funny how context changes with time. Like any aged luxury car, the GL has a few problems to avoid. Models from 2007 are dicey due to early issues with the M273 V8 engine, and the V6 diesel is best fired into a volcano. Seriously, do not buy a diesel GL. However, once you steer clear of those red flags, you get one of the best reasonably-priced tow rigs on the market today. Let me explain.
In the topsy-turvy used car market of 2023, well-equipped 13-year-old Chevrolet Tahoes are worth stupid money. I’m talking five figures for SUVs with fragile interiors, high mileage, and a reputation for chewing their own valvetrains to bits. However, you can pick up a Mercedes-Benz GL with similar mileage for a lot less money, and less mileage for similar money, mostly because of the “German cars scary” trope. It sounds like a bundle of problems waiting to happen but what you actually get is an astonishingly comfortable three-row SUV with a reliable V8 and a rated towing capacity of 7,500 pounds. Sounds brilliant, right?
Not only does the air suspension do a great job of leveling loads, it also means that the GL wafts down the highway in absolute serenity while the seven-speed automatic gearbox deftly shuffles gears. Ride quality is an order of magnitude better than you’d get in an Escalade, and the bags themselves aren’t horrible to replace. No matter which V8 you choose, expect a zero-to-60 time under seven seconds and fuel economy that matches what you’d get from a full-size American SUV.
As this is a Mercedes, expect a large quantity of toys for your enjoyment. I’m talking about features like a Harman/Kardon sound system, a heated windshield washer system, xenon headlamps, a heated steering wheel, pop-out vent windows for the third row, ultrasonic parking sensors, and an available backup camera. Stuff that really makes a quality-of-life impact. Although the first-generation GL wasn’t borne from Mercedes’ best era, cabin plastics feel that cut above more mainstream competition, with plenty of tightly-textured hardwearing vinyl on the center console and door cards. Fair warning to those in hot climates, certain plastics like the bezel around the light switch can get sticky over time, but the shedding soft-touch finish is easy to remove.
Downsides? Well, premium gasoline isn’t cheap, parts are generally more expensive than for a full-size American SUV, and Japanese full-size SUVs don’t nickel-and-dime like American and European ones, but that’s about it. Stay away from first-year models and the diesel, and you’ll have an incredibly comfortable tow rig that feels like the Ritz-Carlton next to the austere plastics of American full-sizers. While the new Mercedes-Benz GLS is on the right path, the original GL has a new life entirely. One that caters to car-hauling enthusiasts bored by Tahoes and Expeditions and seeking alternative tow rigs.
(Photo credits: Mercedes-Benz)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.