The 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450 is about as much Teutonic luxosheetmetal (to use a compound German phrase) as you can get on four wheels. At more than 200 inches in length, the seven-seat SUV has plenty of room to transport five full-size passengers in comfort, and even some usable room left over for the kindergartners in the third row.
The real surprise with the GL450 is how much performance technology Mercedes has packed into it. For a car that is likely never to leave the asphalt or attack anything more strenuous than a multistory parking lot, the 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450 comes loaded with an array of standard and optional equipment, from an enhanced off-road package to an adaptive suspension that lowers the chassis for greater aerodynamics on the freeway. Inside, the GL450 boasts a typically Benzian cocktail of comfort with two parts luxury and one part tech.
Test the tech: Getting loaded with wine
Running our eye over the extensive spec sheet for the 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450, we noticed among its many performance features that it came standard with load-leveling suspension, which, according to Mercedes, "automatically compensates for changes in passenger and load weight." Hmmm, we thought, that sounds like a challenge. We determined, therefore, to load up the GL450 with a substantial cargo to see if the practice matched the theory. The first consideration was what kind of payload we would use for the experiment. While we recently managed to get a pack of eight dogs into the back of the 2007 Honda CR-V, we thought that a repeat performance would hardly be becoming of our leather-and-walnut-trimmed behemoth Benz. We needed something that would fit with the GL450's character, something upscale, something that smacked of the good life. What more worthy cargo, we resolved, than a load of wine cases?
A phone call and a short drive later, we found ourselves parked outside Arlequin wine merchants in San Francisco's trendy Hayes Valley. Our plan was to measure the distance from the top of the wheel arch to the center of the Mercedes Tri-Star in the middle of the wheel, load the car up, and then take the same measurement with the car fully laden. If the load-leveling Airmatic suspension was worth its salt, the distance should be the same with the car empty as with the back stacked with Chateauneuf-du-Pape. With the car empty, the distance measured 18.4 inches.
Having opened the car's automatic rear lift gate with nothing more than a push of a button on the key fob, we proceeded to load the GL450 to the roof with some choice vintages graciously selected for us by the store's manager, Chris.
The GL450's automatic third-row seats tumble forward and fold flat with the press of a button on either side of the cargo area. With the third-row seats stowed, the GL450 has 44 cubic feet of cargo room. Unfortunately, there is no automated system for loading wine into the back, and so it was by the sweat of our brow that we packed the car with 21 crates of wine of varying sizes. With the back fully laden, we unsheathed the tape measure once more. Although we didn't notice any self-adjustment going on, the GL450's load-leveling suspension worked as advertised: loaded with around 800 pounds, the distance from wheel arch to Tri-Star center point came in at 18.5 inches, suggesting that the suspension had indeed corrected itself to accommodate the load.
In the cabin
The cabin of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450 is a refined, elevated perch from which to look down at other road users. A stitched, upholstered upper dashboard bedecked in Mercedes-Benz Tex is complemented by plush leather seats and burl walnut trim lining the dash, center console, and door panels. Our tester also came with an optional $540 wood- and leather-trimmed steering wheel to complete the luxurious ensemble.
As we have seen on other Mercedes models, the luxury credentials of the GL450's cabin outweigh its technology offerings. Sure, the Benz cabin ticks all the boxes with its DVD-based navigation, hands-free calling interface, and MP3 and WMA digital-audio capabilities, but Mercedes is just not on a par with other (Japanese) automakers when it comes to bringing its interiors into the digital age.
Let's start with navigation: As we found in the reviews of the 2007 Mercedes E550 and the 2007 Mercedes E320 BlueTec, the Comand screen is small and less-than-intuitive to use. Programming the system is less frustrating in the GL450 than in the E-class sedans, thanks to the presence of a joystick to the right of the display as well as a quicker processor that eliminates the lag between inputs. The voice guidance on the 2007 Mercedes GL450 is also more bearable than that in the previous Mercedes navigation system, as it actually sounds like a person rather than a machine. However, the navigation maps are still unattractive and uninformative; even at the maximum level of zoom, street names are not visible for many roads. The GL450's navigation system also lacks the text-to-voice technology that we have come to expect in high-end models, although the monochrome multifunction display in the instrument panel does give a reading of the current street name, which goes some way toward mollifying us.
The GL450's audio system is a similar mix of decent technology with an unhelpful interface. Though the eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system fills the cabin with rich acoustic output, drivers of the navigation-enabled GL450 will have to reach across to the glove box to get at the six-disc CD cartridge if they want to play disc-based music, and those who opt for the rear-seat entertainment system will have to forgo the generic auxiliary input jack for playing their iPods. While we're on the subject of the rear-seat entertainment system, the movie-watching experience suffers from a similarly goofy design. The DVD console is located beneath the right second-row passenger's seat, and it is almost impossible to see where to insert a disc without performing some kind of yoga maneuver. Other than the placement of the DVD slot, the dual rear-seat entertainment system is impressive; it's one of the few that we have seen that offers headrest-mounted screens (two pairs of wired headphones and a remote control are also included with the $2,650 option).