"Put it in low range," says the guy at the starting line of the off-road racecourse. "It doesn't have low range," I reply, gesturing vaguely toward the console of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL350 Bluetec.
In other GLs, that's the spot where you might find the controls for the On/Off Road package, which includes a low-range gear set for off-highway adventures and steep boat ramps. Low range isn't available in the diesel-powered GL350. That is probably because when you've got 455 pound-feet of torque at just 1,600 engine rpm, there aren't many boat ramps that will stop you.
And besides, no sane GL350 driver is likely to attempt the 1.7-mile off-road course at Uwharrie Stables in Troy, N.C. A cross between a motocross track and a bad dirt road, the circuit is challenging enough that one driver in a Jeep Cherokee has to quit halfway through when his four-wheel-drive system fails. Another guy totals his truck when he goes airborne and crashes end-over-end.
It might seem ill advised, then, to take a $99,480 Benz and its quilted leather interior into this melee. Yet the GL350, with its air suspension adjusted for maximum ground clearance, has no trouble picking its way around the course and conquering the final hill, which is steep enough that the view through the windshield is momentarily filled solely with blue sky. As I park, a guy on an all-terrain vehicle rides up and informs me that spectators were loudly wondering why there was "a minivan" on the off-road track. Beer cans may have been thrown in disgust.
In the real world, the seven-passenger GL will indeed serve as an ultraluxurious minivan, but it's nice to know that your minimum investment of $63,305 buys a machine that won't crack in half the first time a tire leaves the pavement.
The GL350, powered by an awesome 3-liter diesel V-6, is the first rung in the redesigned GL lineup. I submit that you need not climb any higher. Above the GL350 lie the GL450 (362 horsepower), the GL550 (429 horsepower) and the GL63 AMG (550 horsepower), all of which are powered by twin-turbocharged gasoline V-8s. In the company of those brutes, the GL350's mere 240 horsepower might sound inadequate, but the Mercedes diesel punches above its weight.
Last summer I drove a 25-foot Winnebago fitted with a less powerful version of this motor; with a boat in tow it easily hauled 14,000 pounds' worth of family vacation down the highway. Installed in the 5,467-pound GL350, the V-6 delivers relentlessly strong acceleration and managed better than 26 mpg en route to my off-road adventures.
The official federal fuel economy estimate is 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. For comparison, the GL550's overall combined rating is 15 mpg.
Despite its rank as the entry-level GL, you're welcome to stuff the GL350 with nearly all of the options available on the fancier models. It's worth noting that you could buy a whole other Mercedes, a C250 Sport Sedan ($36,255), for less than the cost of the options on the GL350 that I tested. Of that $36,535 in tasty extras, I could probably live without the auburn-brown Designo interior ($4,300), the diamond white paint ($1,515), the Bang & Olufsen sound system ($6,800) and the rear-seat entertainment system ($1,950).
I could even suffer, like some medieval oxcart driver, without the massage seats ($1,100). But there is one option you absolutely want, and no, it's not the faux-leather lower dashboard (although, for $300, why not?).
The Active Curve System costs $2,900 extra, and it magically mitigates the thorniest challenge of an SUV's suspension tuning: head toss. That's the unpleasant lateral whiplash you feel when your vehicle's body rights itself after a corner or bump. The phenomenon tends to be worse in SUVs than in cars because of the higher seating position — the sailor up in the crow's nest is going to feel the heaves of the swells more than the seaman swabbing the deck.
The Active Curve System replaces mechanical antiroll bars with a hydraulic system that quells body roll without requiring a punishingly stiff suspension. The spookily smooth ride recalls that of the McLaren 12C, which also relies on hydraulics instead of steel antiroll bars. All the system needs is a better name so that customers don't confuse it with Active Curve Illumination, which is a separate option involving the headlights. I propose CornerSlayer 5000.
As fine as the GL is to drive, its many electronic assistants preview a world in which driving is a passive endeavor interrupted only occasionally by some malfunction in the matrix that requires human intervention.
Active Blind Spot Assist can apply the brakes to nudge you away from an adjacent car you're about to punt off your rear quarter-panel. Active Lane Keeping Assist relies on the same technique to keep you from drifting into the next lane.
Active Parking Assist does just what it sounds like, taking over steering chores when you're parallel-parking. Distronic Plus cruise control will hit the brakes if its sensors decide you're about to rear-end the car in front of you, and Collision Prevention Assist uses a dedicated radar sensor to warn of immovable objects and prepare the brakes for a panic stop.
Finally, between speeds of 50 and 112 mph, Attention Assist monitors your steering movements and sets off a warning if it suspects you're getting drowsy. Evidently, 113 mph is the threshold where Mercedes presumes — hopes? — that you're fully sentient.
There is good news for those troglodytes who still enjoy taking the tiller of their own automobile, in that most of the GL's robo-driving assistants are optional. So if you can park for yourself, for instance, you'll help to avoid the biggest peril of GL shopping, which is that overindulgence in the options list will cause you to faint like a Victorian spinster when you see the final sticker price.
At, say, $80,000, the GL is a lot of German 4-by-4 for the money. At a six-figure price, though, I might seriously start pondering whether I could live with the Klingon-battleship styling of an Infiniti QX56, which is also big and plush but costs less than $80,000 with all the trimmings.
However, neither QX56 nor the new Range Rover offers a diesel. The GL350 is a unique beast, offering vanlike spaciousness and fuel economy along with an interior worthy of the S-Class and a helping of legitimate old-school SUV abilities. The GL may not have set a record time around the Uwharrie off-road course, but I guarantee that none of the other drivers crossed the finish line while getting a massage from their seats.