2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class Driving Impressions

The GLS is one of the most composed full-size SUVs on the planet. On the road, it doesn’t feel 17 feet long, for sure. It feels almost like a C-Class sedan. Its standard Airmatic air suspension delivers a soft ride, better than the Escalade or any SUV with a live rear axle, and especially in Comfort, the default mode.

In the parking lot, you’ll know for sure it’s 17 feet long. However its light steering makes it easy to maneuver, and its 40.7-foot turning circle is tight for its size. In the Austrian Alps, where we drove the new GLS, we could toss it around the climbing hairpin turns. There is some body roll, but there’s an optional Active Curve system that electronically stiffens the front and rear anti-roll bars. We drove a model with this system, and found we preferred the GLS without it, because it felt more natural.

We also prefer the standard 19-inch wheels and tires, rather than the big wheels with low-profile tires that add bounce. The variable-ratio steering on standard wheels and tires doesn’t deliver a lot of feedback, but its resistance is about right.

The three all-wheel-drive 4MATIC models use the new 9-speed automatic transmission, but the powerful AMG GLS63 needs the beefier and older 7-speed automatic. There’s some turbo lag in all of the engines, and the 9-speed uses that lag time to kick down two or three gears when you floor it, for example on a freeway onramp. The tall ninth gear keeps the rpm below 2000 at freeway speeds.

The Dynamic Select dial enables five drive modes. There’s Comfort, Sport, Slippery (we like the name of that one), Off-Road, and Individual, to mix the functions to personal preferences. We think this last one is overkill, a bit complex for owners, and too precise because road surfaces change so quickly.

The available Off-Road Engineering package adds a sixth mode, Off-Road+, with a locking center differential and additional reduction gear to enable a crawl over rocky ground. It also lifts the GLS to one foot of ground clearance.

Comfort is the default mode, and it’s a good one, for family trips and good fuel economy. But we loved Sport mode in the Alps; it gives a bunch more power, stiffens up the suspension, and makes the steering heavier and tighter.

We used Slippery mode as well, facing some icy roads and snowy Tyrolean mountain trails. Our GLS was confident and sure-footed, running down hills at 25 to 35 mph in rutted snow, as the anti-lock brakes stopped the big SUV quickly. Thanks to its sophisticated electronics controlling the vehicle’s power and traction delivery, the GLS will be safer in American winters than just about any vehicle we can think of.

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