VROOM WITH A VIEW
The Mercedes-Benz GLS 400d status warrior is a superb SUV
Don’t let the toys distract you from the fact that the Mercedes-Benz GLS 400d is a faultless SUV.
So it turns out you lot were right all along. South Africans buy VW Polos hand over fist and, having had one for a few days, I can absolutely see why. It was a reasonably spacious five-door hatchback with a good, torquey and efficient petrol motor and five snickety-snick manual gears engaged with a deliciously well-engineered clutch. It had aircon, front and side airbags, decent headlights and a level of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) abatement that would put some much more expensive cars to shame.
Objectively, the base Polo is a great car. All you’ll ever need. As it happened, I also had a rocket ship of an SUV in my driveway that week, and yet it was the Polo I was drawn to, and not merely because I think it’s important to drive what South Africans actually drive in their vast numbers. I really rather loved the anonymity, the simplicity and the quality of a product built for a buyer they wholly understand, designed just so and executed (in Gqeberha, if I may add) absolutely brilliantly.
The Polo made me consider the need-want gap that marks human existence, which – if the car market is anything to go by – can yawn like the Grand Canyon. In The Status Game, science writer Will Storr explains that for humans, as overly evolved simians, life is an unending status game that we play, as instinctively as we breathe, until we die.
How we play and what we play for is driven by where we choose to play, be that within antivaxxer circles (boy, that was an interesting chapter), among the yam growers of Micronesia (yes), boardroom bullshit in London, or, if you’re Paul McCartney trying to change Lennon/McCartney to McCartney/Lennon half a century after the songs hit Number One (also, yes, really). Your status is measured and intimately understood by fellow players.
I wandered down this wormhole because I recently spent a few weeks in a car that, in the status game that is the corporate carpark or the school drop-off zone, is an almost unbeatable expression of dominance. The Mercedes-Benz GLS is the SUV you buy because a standard German SUV isn’t big enough. It is vast. The Benz badge on the snout is bigger than a football. In my low-status house in Cape Town, I couldn’t open the boot with my driveway gate closed, which made me feel like what is – in psychology – known as “an absolute tit”.
Anyway, I had asked for the GLS because I had a very specific need: I wanted to drive from Cape Town to Sun City, and then on to the Kruger National Park, and then once again back to Cape Town. We would be seven-up, traversing the crappy roads of Gauteng and Mpumalanga, and also tackling some wet and slippery gravel roads. Oh, and we’d also be towing a very heavy luggage trailer packed to the gunwales with a hundredweight of baby-related paraphernalia.
So, is the GLS a city bruiser in smart sneakers, or can it actually take the dominance game to the Land Cruisers of the world?
Mercedes says the GLS is the “S-Class of SUVs”, which does rather slip off the ad agency’s tongue but, in my view, it is a tagline that does neither nameplate any favours.
The GLS is absolutely nothing like an S-Class. It’s like saying a delicious Gruyère is the cheese of chalks. Anyway, leaving aside the gigantic interior (that generously accommodates seven people and even leaves a reasonable boot) and the cockpit of rare comfort, I want to talk about engineering.
It’s easy in a car like the GLS to get distracted by radar cruise control and massage settings, five-zone aircon, endlessly customisable interior lighting, electrically adjustable ride heights and a gigantic sound system. Just take it from me … it’s all there.
But what really made me love the GLS was how unbelievably good it was as a family hauler on the long road. The 243kW inline 6 diesel spins out 700Nm of torque, directed to all four wheels through a silky smooth nine-speed torque converter automatic.
Excuse the techno babble, but the upshot of all this is that the old-school nature of the gearbox (no dual-clutch compromises here), mixed with a tonne of shunt at low revolutions, means the GLS 400d just eats the miles, soaking up the worst of the roads with air suspension.
Only when switching off the Distronic radar cruise control on some of the climbs and the descents did I feel how hard the car was working to rein in the mass we were hauling. It was all so effortless.
The car really shrugged off its considerable weight burden, not even dropping to eighth gear on many of the long climbs up onto the greater Karoo and then onto the Highveld.
Come the poor roads upcountry, and into the Kruger, the GLS got its smart shoes very dirty indeed and, honestly, didn’t miss a beat.
On one occasion, when I stopped at a historical monument near Bethulie, I really thought I was in deep trouble. The endless rain had turned the track into a quagmire that I couldn’t reverse out of because of the trailer and a lack of turning space. Praying to the Gods of Benz’s 4Matic system, I gave it some wellie and … just cruised effortlessly through.
Then the GLS looked like it had done the Dakar, which pleased me greatly all the way back to Cape Town, where it no doubt did not please Mercedes-Benz’s fleet manager one bit.
Over about 5,500km, it did all this with an average fuel consumption of around 11l/100km. That’s not good; it’s astonishing.
I suppose that a car like the GLS is seldom asked to prove its mettle outside of the confines of its urban status games. Asked to compete in a space you may not expect to see it in – among the Land Cruisers and the bakkies of the camping game players – it was so effortlessly good, it stood out.
And so, for a few of us, the GLS fills a need as much as a want. If you’ve got R2-million, a large family and a camping, horse or boating habit, you should look beyond the usual candidates. You may be surprised. DM168
Alexander Parker is a journalist, author and consultant.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.