- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

With the introduction of its first full-size SUV, the 2007 GL450, Mercedes-Benz is finished with light trucks for now. It has been a short trip. The company moved into the SUV market with the 1998 ML320, which became the first of many competitors to follow.

With typical German practicality, that first M-Class was an honest truck, with body-on-frame construction and solid off-road capabilities.

In some variations, it was not even particularly luxurious. Though American and other manufacturers weighed in with their own luxury trucks, the Japanese competitors went in a different direction.

Lexus, with its RX midsize SUV, focused more on luxury than capability and practicality.

It clicked with buyers, and soon Mercedes-Benz became an also-ran. So in 2005 it introduced a second-generation ML with a unit body, just like the Lexus, as well as a host of luxury amenities. In a real sense, it feminized the ML.

The company followed quickly with the R-Class, a six-passenger vehicle that was designated as a truck, with all-wheel drive standard, but which was neither an SUV nor a station wagon. Now, with the introduction of the GL450, the company has completed its light-truck portfolio.

Originally, the GL450 was intended as a replacement for the Gelaendewagen, or G-Class, a converted German military vehicle that is more than a quarter-century old. But Mercedes-Benz still has military contracts to fulfill, and G-Wagon owners are a fanatical and testy lot, so the G will continue.

Competitors for the GL are legion, and include almost anything with a price tag of $50,000 and up. Among them: Some models of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon Denali, Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, Land Rover LR3, Lexus LX450, Acura MDX and the new Chrysler Aspen.

At 16 feet 8 inches and nearly 5,300 pounds, the GL450 is a big honker. But it doesn’t attract much attention because the styling is similar to that of the M and R vehicles. Yet despite its size, the GL450 feels like a smaller vehicle — not much different than the current M-Class, which is 11 inches shorter.

The ML450’s extra length makes room for two motorized seats in the third row, which fold separately at the touch of a button to make a flat load floor. (The Mercedes-Benz people say it goes from zero to flat in 4.9 seconds).

With the third-row seats up, there’s just 14 cubic feet of cargo space.

But with the seats folded (you have to manually push the headrests down first), the cargo area expands to 44 cubic feet, and with the second row folded as well, there’s 83 cubic feet of space.

Access to the third row is available only through the right-rear door, where the small second-row seat flips forward. The third-row seats can accommodate a couple of 6-footers, but they can’t shift around much.

To ease any claustrophobia, there’s a fixed glass roof panel back there to let the outside light in.

Of the seven possible passengers, four fare well. The front seats and outboard second-row seats are deep and comfortable. But the center position in the second row is a tight perch, and the third row is better left to children.

The standard upholstery is a high-quality vinyl that is difficult to distinguish from leather. Mercedes-Benz officials say they offer it to mollify animal-rights activists and others who don’t want leather but want a rugged, soil-proof interior.

The GL450 starts at $55,675, which gets you a decently equipped car.

Standard items include all-wheel drive, an adjustable air suspension system, heated outside mirrors, motorized and heated front seats, automatic climate control, a garage-door opener, and the aforementioned power seats in the third row.

But there’s also a long list of options that, in the end, can boost the sticker price well north of $70,000.

Only one engine was available at introduction. It’s a new four-valve, 4.6-liter V-6 that delivers a solid 335 horsepower via the Mercedes-Benz seven-speed transmission, which is one of the slickest automatics available anywhere. Shifts are nearly imperceptible, and the transmission always seems to select the right gear for the current circumstance.

The things you notice most about the GL450 are the soft ride and the tomblike silence inside. There’s virtually no wind or road noise, and the engine, which emits marvelous old-fashioned V-8 noises, sounds as if it’s off somewhere in another room.

Even with the soft ride, the handling is capable, without producing anxiety. The turning circle, though nearly 40 feet, feels tighter.

The GL450 is intended as an all-weather family hauler, so it does not have full off-road capabilities, as did the original ML320.

However, it can tow up to 7,500 pounds and, for the expected 2 percent of buyers who will want to take it into the boondocks, an off-road package is available for $2,200. It includes locking center and rear differentials for tough going.

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