If the 2017 Mercedes AMG GLS63’s daddy was a muscle car, its mother must have been a private jet. But this high-capacity hot rod conducts itself politely—for the first centimeter or so of gas pedal travel. Press your right foot much deeper and this luxury liner turns into a 5,754-pounds of fat fury.
(Full Disclosure: I begged Mercedes-Benz to let me drive a GLS63 because I love the idea of a fast car with seven seats. But more importantly, I wanted to find out how this compared to the barely-related G63, which I hated. This blue GLS was delivered to me clean with a full tank of fuel.)
Besides a few high-performance pretenses like a handmade engine and heavily bolster seats, the GLS63 doesn’t really have the directness or any intangible distinctiveness that “real driving enthusiasts” get blue-faced blathering about.
The ride is soft. There’s a climate-controlled cup holder where you might hope to find a shifter. And did I mention that this vehicle weighs three tons once you put two people and a tank of gas in it?
But the GLS63’s build quality is exceptional, and it’s more elegant than any family truckster has a right to be and the engine is a true masterpiece. After a few hundred miles of road testing, I really started to hate how much I liked this thing.
A Mercedes-Benz GLS is a $70,000 seven-seat Alabama-built SUV spanning over 200 inches in length.
High-riding upright seats provide a commanding view of the world below the GLS cockpit, which is a futuristic expanse of stitched leather and clean matte-silver controls. The whole joint looks like a plutocrat’s personal spacecraft and is drenched in the rich, leathery scent of success.
Now, the $125,000 AMG variant adds adjustable suspension, big brakes, a few subtle bits of decoration, and of course, a 577-horsepower handmade-in-Germany 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 exhaling through an operatic exhaust system.
There are fast SUVs and full-sized three-row SUVs, but it’s pretty rare for a vehicle to be both. Actually, I’m pretty sure the GLS63 is the only example of such a thing existing outside aftermarket-made madness.
So it’s tempting to dismiss the GLS63 as an exercise in silliness for the same reason I think a high-horsepower G-Wagen is dumb. Why is a truck trying to be a sports car?
Except while the G is, at its core, still a straight-axle’d agricultural vehicle invented back when disco was cool, even after an AMG treatment, the GLS is more like a station wagon with a little extra ground clearance and a lot of headroom. And an amazing engine.
Every material inside feels robust, correct, expensive. The cockpit of this machine is one of the most nicely-appointed and cleanly organized of any vehicle I’ve been inside.
Even the tablet-tacked-to-dashboard infotainment screen that Mercedes-Benz insists on taxing all its vehicles with doesn’t throw the flow of the dashboard too badly.
The seats pull you into a bear hug that gives you the confidence to chase after the vehicle’s limits. Don’t worry, the engine has the power to make those limits pretty well out of reach.
Handling and roadholding is decent, but downright incredible for a vehicle with the GLS’s mass. Hard-charging through canyon roads gets scary and illegal long before the GLS63 would start to feel sloppy.
When you’re driving casually enough to take your eyes off the road for an instant, the infotainment screen can be set to amuse you with important information like steering angle and instantaneous horsepower. All very cool and unnecessary, which is pretty much the GLS63’s whole story.
It’d be a filthy lie to say the best thing about this vehicle is anything other than its exhaust note, but the heated-or-cooled cup holder, a $180 option, is a dangerously close second. Combined with the steel cup I never leave home without, the ice cubes in my beverage survived for days of driving around in high-desert summer heat. And that’s the kind of tech you really care about in a $125,000 peoplemover, right?
Unfortunately, the same materials that make the GLS’s interior so smooth and sexy are annoyingly susceptible to fingerprints. You’re going to want to leave a microfiber cloth in the center console for sure, and don’t even think about eating road house food while underway.
The seats, good as they are at holding bodies in a tight embrace, are frustratingly difficult to get in or out of. This is particularly problematic for anybody who’s less than five-and-half-feet tall, who will already have a decent distance to travel from the ground to one of the GLS’s front thrones. And the side rails are far too skinny to be useful as steps, they’re just there to light up and look cool.
Another major practical shortcoming is the lack of cargo space the SUV has behind its third row of seats. If you really need to carry seven people, you’re probably carpooling on a longer trip or shuttling children, right? Either way, it seems like most passengers will have “stuff,” and the GLS’s cargo bay is only good for about five grocery bags with its third-row seating in use.
Cruising in the GLS63 at low speed gives you the opportunity to appreciate all those lovely design details and optimized ergonomics I mentioned earlier. It’s also remarkably idiot-proof, as the vehicle is bristling with proximity sensors and parking cameras that make nearly 17 feet of Mercedes surprisingly easy to squeeze through city streets.
The steering and pedals both feel heavy, especially for a family car, and force you to operate the GLS63 deliberately. This really sells the sensation that you’re driving a vehicle that’s not to be trifled with.
The SUV purrs and burbles as it struts, and the feeling of imminent power provides the same kind of ego shot you might get trolling a Cigarette boat toward the end of a no-wake zone. But unlike an actual yacht, the GLS’s land-yacht body is subtle when you want it to be. And when you don’t, you mat the gas pedal.
This vehicle’s most practical party tricks are supposed to be awe-inspiring acceleration and meteoric cruising speed capabilities. The GLS63 will thunder down the freeway at pretty much any pace you can count to once it’s built up steam. But from a stop there’s enough lag between burying the gas pedal and taking off that you almost have enough time to take your iced coffee out of that sweet cup cooler, take a sip, and set it back in without worrying about spilling it.
I think the combination of this vehicle’s turbo-derived power, aggressively safe traction control and sheer mass make truly neck-snapping-off-a-stoplight a big ask. But once the RPMs climb a short way up the tachometer, all seven people inside a GLS63 would be drowned in a deluge of power as the SUV galumphs from slow to scary-fast by the first shift.
If you really want to make your passengers scream, stomp the GLS63 off from a roll. Hitting the gas in a low gear, from low speed, at a relatively high RPM will suck seven guts into the SUV’s supple leather seats while the engine hisses and snorts and barks to escape velocity.
I’m pretty sure it’s physically impossible to make 6,000 pounds on four wheels feel “spry”, but at least the GLS63 is predictable through aggressively linked turns.
The vehicle keeps itself flat with a complex spiderweb of hosework that pumps air to each corner of the SUV, maintaining balance against a whole lot of moving mass. It actually does a good job keeping up with hard driving. The brakes, on the other hand, got a little soft after a couple hours carving canyons. I think they just got fatigued with heat, as they seemed to be back at full power a day later.
The AMG uses essentially the same 4MATIC four-wheel drive system as the regular GLS SUVs, but its power distribution has been pushed to a 60 percent rear bias instead of the standard car’s 50/50 split. With that in mind, it would be an exaggeration to say the vehicle “felt more rear-wheel driven.”
The vehicle’s traction control is so busy keeping you from sliding that, I think, you’d have to be borderline suicidal to squeeze the vehicle hard enough to make the back end step out.
On the truck trails and dirt tracks around California’s Big Bear Lake, the GLS63’s biggest weaknesses were its rubber bracelet-thin tires. Every sharp-looking rock, sudden bump and root across the trail had me worried I was going to be looking at a punctured Pirelli P Zero. That said, a POP never came.
Although the suspension can be raised about an inch for rolling over things (and lowered an inch for performance driving in Sport+ mode) we found ourselves running out of shock travel extremely quickly over speed bumps and pot holes. Slow going and careful wheel placement got the GLS down most fire roads easily enough, but the “lifting” feature is more for clearing snow and steep driveways than off-road adventures.
In the fantasy life I picture for myself when I’m in line at the DMV, at dinner with people I can’t stand or taking a dump on an airplane, I have a GLS63 with rubber floor mats, winter tires and two roof boxes full of skis waiting for me at a slopeside condo.
I can’t afford one though, and I’m honestly not sure who would have both the resources and sense of humor to want a seven-seat luxury wagon made for snorting past the speed limit and drinking gas stations dry.
But if you do appreciate an excellent interior, a big engine and like being the designated driver, and you have tons of money to burn, your enormous AMG is waiting.
The GLS63 is a good vehicle, but a “good deal,” I’m not sure. Our test vehicle’s $133,780 as-optioned list price would buy a lot of other cars. Or a decent house in most places. I mean, the climate controlled cupholder is totally worth $180 but you could get a decent used Chevy Suburban for the price of the GLS’s optional Bang & Olufsen stereo.
Then again, the GLS63’s value proposition is unique: earnest AMG performance with seating for seven. If that’s what you have to have, you probably don’t really care what it costs. And I guess you’re not worried about operational expenses, either. Which would be key, as owners will spend a fortune keeping a GLS63 fed and healthy even if nothing ever breaks.
If you wanted to hate the GLS63, I wouldn’t blame you. I mean, why would an outfit as illustrious as Mercedes AMG demean itself to sticking an excellent engine in another dumb SUV, right?
Except the GLS isn’t dumb at all. It’s dripping with safety tech and on-screen animations. It keeps you in your lane. It keeps you from rear-ending people in traffic. It works so hard to keep you from crashing when you drive like a dingus that you might not even realize if you were close. Its interior is on par with the airport lounges and corner offices AMG owners will be coming from with. And the 577-HP heart makes this thing a pretty cool package.