Get out of my way

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2007, 12:00am

Enjoying the fruits of financial success has practical benefits. There are plenty of more sensible, cheaper SUV wagons, but none says 'I've made it' - while carrying an extended family in comfort - like a Mercedes-Benz GL500 does.

The HK$1.3 million-plus GL500 seems good value if you measure its price by the kilo or metre. It's a big, heavy SUV. In fact, it's about Hummer H2 size (longer, but not quite as tall or wide as the H2). If threading through narrow car parks already makes you nervous, then the 1.92-metre-wide GL-class will take your anxiety up a notch. In essence, the GL500 is better plying the highway across the border than on cross-harbour commutes.

The pay-off of the external girth is an inner sanctum of considerable size. There's no question that the front and second-row occupants have generous seating space. Even the third row - despite requiring a bit of a crawl to get in via the folding second-row seat - will accommodate adults for short hops. Even better, when all seven seats are occupied, there's enough room left behind the third row seats to fit a reasonable amount of luggage.

The one-third split second row is on the traffic side of the GL500, though, reducing practicality of the design and betraying its US-market left-hand drive bias. The GL-class is built in Mercedes-Benz's US factory. But unlike early examples of the M-class built at the same location, the GL shows no unwanted structural or finish issues. It's all class, right down to its leather stitched dashboard.

Standard equipment is generous, such as a burled walnut and leather interior, power front seats, power-steering adjustment and mirror adjust (with memory for driver position), climate control with separate controls for the rear, 20-inch alloy wheels, an electric tailgate, Bi-xenon headlights, a glass sunroof and the full safety net of ABS brakes, stability and traction control and front and side airbags.

There are many features to keep the driver busy - yet, thankfully, Mercedes-Benz hasn't made the process of driving the GL500 overly complex. The stalk gear selector is an acquired taste, but once you're familiar with it, it's easy to use. Its placement on the column frees up space on the centre console, which has ample storage.

The GL500 is powered by a 5.5-litre V8 - the same injected, four-valves-per-cylinder, all-alloy unit that powers other Mercedes-Benz models, such as the S-class. It's a gem of an engine, providing lucid response from low rpm and allowing an effortless, strong surge of acceleration right to redline, sounding only the way a well- tuned V8 can while doing it. A 6.6-second sprint to 100km/h is quite an achievement, considering this is a 2.4-tonne SUV.

The seven-speed automatic transmission is buttery smooth and its seven ratios and quick response means that the GL500 is in the right gear at the right time. Although the sheer power of the engine and the transmission's smooth translation to the wheels is hard to criticise, the combination does on occasions feel a little highly strung, with sharp gearshifts and a little hunting on light throttle in slow traffic. But these are minor criticisms of a well-rounded mechanical package.

The GL has standard low-range gearing, so if you do find yourself on a muddy track on the mainland, you have a good chance of extracting yourself from a sticky situation. The combination of deep reduction gearing, traction control, diff locks and ample ground clearance (via the height-adjustable air suspension) affords the GL excellent off-road ability. The underbody and suspension are built tough, too, so if you have to thump your way along a rough track, the GL is one of few luxury SUVs built to handle it.

When enjoying all that the melodious V8 has to offer, or even when just idling in traffic, the GL500 will slurp fuel quickly - at no better than 19 litres per 100km. Yet this isn't an excessive amount for such a large SUV, and if you're gentle with it on the freeway, consumption will slip under 11 litres per 100km.

The really enjoyable thing about the GL500 is the way it rides and handles. No, it's not by any measure sporting in the way it moves on the road, but it certainly has abundant grip for a large SUV, and when pushed, it can bustle along at a great rate of knots. Its ride over indifferent surfaces is just superb - the combination of a heavy but stiff body, a well-sorted independent air suspension and a long wheelbase means a stable and comfortable ride.

Despite its girth, the GL500 manages to shrink-wrap around you, such is its agile feel. You may find smaller and more practical SUVs, but few are as quick on their feet or make the kind of statement a GL500 does.