(Bloomberg) -- As I write this, it feels as if my test drive of the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLS 63 AMG happened a year ago. (It was last month, in Malibu, Calif.)
At the time, Mercedes’ $132,100 rig seemed excessive. Who needs a dozen cupholders, including some that are heated and cooled, nine USB ports, and eight types of driving-assist functions on a 5,900-pound, three-row luxury tank? Craven hoarders? Wealthy families with militia-style off-grid proclivities?
The thought crossed my mind more than once: This is a gilded sledgehammer where a wooden mallet would work.
Things, of course, have changed since then. Drastically.
Now, as I sit in day 10 of isolation, my perception of what I had considered a rather extravagant SUV has changed. The arrival of the Covid-19 coronavirus and its impact on daily life has given us a very different world. Now I think: all the comforts of home in a naturally isolated, leather-lined pod on four 23-inch wheels? A space that you and your quarantine partners can use together on weekly trips to the grocery store and back, or to drop off food for those who can’t get to the store themselves? Count me in.
Big but Nimble
Overstating the largesse of the GLS 63 AMG would be difficult. This is an all-the-tech, all-the-comfort, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink type of luxury vehicle … which is kind of what Mercedes-Benz does. Add the AMG distinction on top of that—the title reserved for Mercedes vehicles manufactured and tuned at its special higher-performance shop—and what you’ve got in the GLS 63 AMG is truly top of the line for big SUVs in this category.
The size is what I noticed first when I picked up the GLS in Santa Monica, Calif., several years—four weeks—ago. The GLS 63 AMG is 72.8 inches tall, above the top of my head, and requires a big step up on the floorboard to get inside. It’s wide and long, too. (Some 76.1 inches and 203.2 inches respectively; that’s 17 feet!) It’s easily larger than the Porsche Cayenne and BMW X7, though not quite as big all around as a Cadillac Escalade, to name a few competitors. Take note, ye who are on the shorter side or who have knee trouble; getting into and out of the GLS AMG will be taxing.
But here’s what’s useful about all that heft: the GLS 63 AMG has room for six (with optional captains’ chairs behind the front seats) or seven passengers; it has 80 cubic feet of storage space; it has a quick-opening sliding and tilting sunroof, with a power-operated sunshade, and visibility from behind the wheel. In each seat, you’ll feel as if you’re sitting in a greenhouse.
Even better, as if by some magic trick, Mercedes engineers have figured out how to keep its turning radius small enough to flip a U-turn across two lanes. I did that one afternoon after spotting a little roadside farm operation selling fresh berries along Pacific Coast Highway. (My high vantage point behind the steering wheel allowed me to spot the little nook; I was virtually eye-level to a U-Haul and could easily see over traffic as I cruised the seaside.) It’s like a distant memory now, from a different world: the idea that I could just be outdoors and stop in at a random farm, eat clover leaves off the plant, and shake hands with a total stranger. Nostalgia, you see, has already set in for me. The clover, by the way, was delicious.
All the Comforts of (a Very Nice) Home
The genius of the GLS 63 AMG, though, is how it behaves in spite of all of that space and weight. I’m happy to report that rather than being wobbly, soft, numb, or lumbering—as we experience in similarly big vehicles from Chevrolet, Infinity and Lexus (and even Audi, to some extent)—this vehicle carries itself with ease, even finesse. It has a 4.0-liter V8 engine good for 603 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque, way more than what is offered by the Cadillac Escalade or BMW X7. This sucker is fast: It hits 60 mph in 4.1 seconds. Plus, it has a battery-powered EQ boost that give an additional 21 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque under hybrid power. The GLS 63 AMG climbed the steep canyons of Calabasas much more happily than do many cars half its size.
As I drove it, too, the seamless and technologically advanced blend of the nine-speed transmission and six specific driving programs (Comfort, Sport, Trail, and so forth) made the tangled traffic of the highway and the hills of Mulholland Drive all feel like parts of the same tune. The sound of the standard performance exhaust added the finishing touches to make it an outright symphony, so to speak, of German engineering.
Mercedes has thrown the whole weight of its engineering behind the GLS 63 AMG, leaving nothing to chance. Buy one and you can have, as standard: ride control and air suspension to smooth out uneven roads and unbalanced turns; adaptive damping to help adjust the difference between aggressive driving and comfort in the passenger seats; blind-spot and brake assist, plus seven further driving assistance packages; and, of course, all-wheel drive. An AMG Dynamic Select function adapts the responsiveness of the engine and transmission, the characteristic curve of the accelerator and steering, and the suspension, though it varies with driving conditions and the person at the helm.
Meanwhile, as we have come to expect from the 100-year-plus company, we have the creature comforts to which I alluded earlier. I loved them when I first drove this car, and I love them even more now, as I fight cabin fever while migrating from the couch to the kitchen table to the car and back. Barring Bentley and Rolls-Royce, which sell SUVs for three times these prices, Mercedes has the corner on the market here.
A few favorite elements: Burmester surround sound for blasting uplifting or comforting music as you drive; 64-color ambient lighting that works as light therapy for anxious minds; front seats that massage; heated seats, even in the second row; and inductive wireless charging for cell phones underneath the “surfboard” style dashboard that comprises a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and 12.3-inch touchscreen multimedia display.
I had always thought that the “Energizing Comfort” effects in the cabin were silly; you select simple preprogramed prompts on the front dashboard screen to control light fragrances in the cabin, listen to soft music, settle into a massage program and, you know, breathe deeply to enhance your health. Now it makes complete sense. I’m wishing I could go through the 10-minute routine again. The “comfort” settings used soft yellows, blues, rose, and green to match selected music and lighting settings.
Mercedes claims the program “enhances health and wellness functionality and boosts drivers’ attentiveness and well-being while reducing sleepiness and stress.” At the time, I thought that a bit rich: Listen to some soft voices and you’ll somehow be instantly calmer? These days, the program—and the GLS 63 AMG itself—will likely feel like much-needed balm to cool frayed nerves. What a difference a month makes.
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