First Drive: 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class

Photos by Brendan McAleer and courtesy Mercedes-Benz

Millennia ago, mammoths would have walked these lands, surefooted and warm in their woolly coats. Times have changed, but the behemoths are still here – just that they now carry the Mercedes three-pointed star up front and the leather's on the inside.

Here's the new GLS, a facelifted and updated version of Mercedes' GL-class SUV, now given three-letter acronym status to match the rest of the range. If you hadn't heard, Mercedes-Benz considered 2015 to be the year of the SUV, and they've been rolling out wave after wave of the things. The GLS is the last and mightiest beast, and having debuted in Los Angeles, somewhere chillier was needed to show off its bona fides.

Thus, the Austrian Alps and a series of switchbacks to make a slalom skier salivate. Our GLS 400s are all fitted with proper snow tires, which helps, but the road is a mix of spotty tarmac, slippery icy patches, and drifting snow. Given the considerable mass of this hefty seven-seat Teuton, these are not ideal conditions for climbing or stopping.

Happily, the GL hasn't just been de-bumpered into the GLS, but has received some mechanical updates as well. There's a new nine-speed automatic transmission for everything save the AMG models (they get the quicker-shifting and burlier seven-speed auto instead) and a selectable terrain system. Twisting a knob in the centre console to the snowflake-symbol of Slippery mode, the GLS finds itself capable of rampaging up the slopes as if it was wearing snowshoes. There's some wheelspin, some slight shifting around, but confidence levels are high. This is a big cart-horse of a machine, but she climbs and turns as if much smaller.

Large Marge has never been a shrinking violet, and this newly refreshed version is more of the same high-volume horseflesh. Measuring 5.19 metres in length and just about 2 m wide, the GLS is no capering mountain goat. On the narrow winding roads of Austria, it should feel like trying to thread the SS Bismarck along a rural canal.

Family Resemblance: Mercedes-Benz Heavy Hitters Get New Look

And yet it doesn't. Starting out at the Bergisel ski jump near Innsbruck, I drove a diesel-equipped GLS 350d several hundred kilometres to the tiny Alpine ski village of Hochgurgl (sounds like a brand of mouthwash), and at no point did I wish for something smaller. The GLS devoured several slippery switchback sections in the dark, and snacked on a slow-moving Audi A3 as an aperitif to making the last climb up the mountain sections.

The moniker “GLS” is intended to align Merc's largest SUV with the S-Class sedan, and there are a few more family resemblances. A new, even bluffer front end houses the multi-faceted headlights seen throughout the rest of the Merc range, and an overall polish of the silhouette makes the GLS look like a really big ML.

If you'd like, you can also get the AMG-line visual enhancement package, which has much the same effect as M-package and S-Line trims from BMW and Audi. The front and rear bumpers feature even larger air intakes (mostly faux), and body-coloured bumpers and wheel-flares. You also get an upgrade to 22-inch wheels.

Optional bling aside, there's something honest about the GLS that's maybe missing from the competition. This is a really big brute of a car, and Mercedes does little to hide it. Styling is a concern, yes, but look at the GLS in profile, and it's still basically a huge, wheeled box. That's a very good thing, as its fans are most eminently practical minded.

To that end, the voluminous interior of the GLS will continue to please those who liked the old GL model. Updates include some very nice trim options for the upholstery, and the migration of the COMAND control functions to the touchscreen and dial arrangement in the centre console, and a brightly-lit central infotainment screen.

Is it the S-Class of SUVs? No. At least, not yet it isn't. The S-Class features a better-integrated approach to its infotainment and navigation features, and you have to think the GLS will follow suit in a couple of years. This is a refresh and facelift, not a redesign. And the onboard screen still looks a bit like an iPad superglued in place.

For all that, once you master all the stalks surrounding the steering wheel and fiddle with the infotainment system until you understand the shortcuts, the GLS is quite a likeable rig. Like the E-Class and S-Class, it does come with the optional full suite of driver assists, including lane-keeping and dynamic cruise control. With these set, we headed out of Innsbruck and tackled the traffic-heavy highway out of town.

One of the great benefits of mass – one of the only benefits of mass, really – is an unflappable ride and immense quiet. The GLS has got to be one of the quietest, most composed machines on the road at speed, and the 350d that is the most popular choice has little difficulty moving the heft around. Some 75 percent of GLS units sold in Canada will come in this spec: with the 3.0L turbodiesel V6 that makes 254 hp and 457 lb-ft of torque. Passing's a little tricky, as the oil-burner runs out of steam at the top end of the rev range, but throttle response and the sprint to 100 km/h are exemplary.

Other engine options for the GLS include the 333-hp twin-turbo gasoline V6 (GLS 350) and the 4.7L twin-turbo V8 of the GLS500 (GLS550 in Canadian nomenclature). This offering makes a much stronger 455 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, and was easily capable of zipping by lines of slow-moving traffic as though the GLS's mass was irrelevant.

And yes, you can buy an AMG version if you're a little deranged. The GLS 63 gets a 585-hp twin-turbo 5.5L V8, and while it wasn't available for drives on this particular program, has got to be slightly unhinged.

However, the diesel's the one to get, offering as it does good response and excellent fuel economy. Again, the GLS particularly impressed as the road got curvier and more technical, with body roll motions well composed. We're not talking maximum speed cornering here, we're talking a smoothness and subtlety that let my passenger drift off in the passenger seat for a good half-hour.

The new nine-speed auto is very well paired with the diesel, shifting quickly to mine prodigious torque and keep the noise levels down. The GLS hurtled on through the night, just as it would do with a family on board, headed for the cabin and a weekend away with all but the driver dozing off.

So sure, they'll likely make an ultra-luxe Mercedes-Maybach version to go up against that awful Bentley Bentayga, and no, the GLS can't touch the X5 for high-speed hijinks. It doesn't matter: in the segment, this is the seven-seater that carries the most sense as a luxe-oriented family hauler. The woolly mammoth didn't adapt, and it went extinct; consider the GLS evolved enough to thrive.

Millennia ago, mammoths would have walked these lands, surefooted and warm in their woolly coats. 1/22/2016 5:37:10 PM