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The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

The Mercedes-Benz GLS has long been my favourite specimen of my least-favourite species. As a green-leaning gearhead, I prefer my cars small, agile and efficient (my daily-driver dream car would be a Volkswagen e-Golf with GTI suspension). But if ever someone gifted me a full-size luxury SUV, I’d have hoped for a GLS.

Offering all the status of a Mercedes, yet half a size smaller and nimbler than key rivals and previously boasting a fuel-frugal diesel option, it came closer than any of its peers to matching my values.”

Redesigned last year, the new-generation GLS has gotten bigger. But its American competitors have too, so it’s still relatively handy in size – at 5,207 mm long, closer to a BMW X7 than a Lincoln Navigator. The diesel option fell victim to the VW TDI-gate scandal years ago, however, leaving two turbocharged gasoline engine options for 2020 – a 3.0-litre inline six in the GLS 450, a 4.0-litre V8 in the GLS 580, both with 48V electric-assist mild-hybrid technology.

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The GLS got bigger with its redesign last year.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Our first exposure to the new GLS last year demonstrated its off-road capability in Utah (a so-called Enhanced Towing Package adds, among other items, a dual-range transfer case and underside protection for some serious off-road cred). This time, we spent a week just tooling around the Toronto area.

Although still recognizably a GLS, the new shape’s softer contours are arguably less distinctive than its sharper-creased predecessor. Wheels start at a large 21 inches, and go up to 23s. Our GLS 580 test sample (base price $117,300) was on optional 22s and decked-out with premium-seating, technology and inteilligent-drive packages for a total MSRP of $133,500.

Most of the upsizing has benefitted the second row, creating expansive legroom with the seats (a choice of 60:40 bench or captain’s chairs) fully back. The aforementioned premium-rear-seating package adds five-zone climate control, second-row MBUX tablet and wireless charging, and more.

It's easy to tailor a commanding view from the driver's seat.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Legroom remans ample even with the second-row seats fully forward, which they need to be to get adults into the back. Even then, I could only just fit my 172-cm frame back there with my knees together, albeit in reasonable comfort; methinks Mercedes’s claim that there’s room for an adult up to 194 cm (6-foot-4) in the third row must involve widely splayed knees.

Passage to the third row is less encumbered than in most SUVs, though the second-row seat is slow to power out of the way and leaves exposed seat rails that could threaten your feet.

Both rows of rear seats can be power folded. The resulting deck isn’t perfectly flat, but according to Mercedes data, there is meaningfully more cargo room (now 470 L), behind the third row while seats-folded volumes have grown minimally. Competitive comparisons are clouded by varying measuring methodologies, but it’s safe to say the GLS matches or beats European and Japanese rivals but is out-volumed by the Americans. A Class-III tow hitch is standard, and the tow rating is 3,500 kilograms.

Mercedes says the GLS has 470 L of cargo volume behind the rear seats.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Up front, it’s easy to tailor a throne-like posture with commanding visibility, if you can take your eyes off the Mercedes-signature super-wide screen that comprises the virtual gauge cluster and the interface for MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience infotainment system). The latter can be interfaced by direct touch or via a separate touch pad, and there are still plenty of physical buttons for most basic functions. I never did figure out, though, how to adjust the (optional) head-up display. Also requiring a learning curve is the slender stalk on the right of the steering column: it’s the gear selector, not a wiper switch.

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A super-wide screen runs along the dashboard, displaying the virtual gauge cluster.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

If you’re looking for an SUV that drives like an S-Class limo, the powertrain gets closer than the chassis. Performance delivered by the 483-horsepower V8 merits the “iron fist in a velvet glove” metaphor. In track mode, Mercedes claims 0-100 km/h in an assertive 5.3 seconds; in cruise, ninth gear delivers 120 km/h at a serene, loping 1,650 rpm. Even with a boost from the electric motor, however, there is still a hint of lag below 2,500 rpm. And fuel consumption – 15 L/100 km in our hands – won’t win any Green Car awards.

On the standard air-spring suspension, the chassis impressed us more for its handling (surprisingly wieldy and engaging for its size and weight) than for its ride, which seemed better controlled in Dynamic mode than Comfort but still occasionally sent shudders through the structure. Perhaps smaller wheels and/or the optional active suspension would deliver a suppler ride.

Name a driver-assist technology, and it's probably available on the GLS.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Let’s not even try to list all the infotainment, connectivity and driver-assist technologies: it’s a high-end Mercedes, so suffice to say that if the feature isn’t standard or available, it probably hasn’t been invented yet. That all said, for us the technology was sometimes more annoying than assistive. The voice control occasionally responded to commands we had not made yet took repeated attempts to execute a simple “dial number” request. And the driver-assist technologies were sometimes over-reactive – shrieking alarm at the hydrangeas bordering my driveway – or intervened for no apparent reason. Perhaps we would have been better off without the test sample’s optional MBUX Interior Assistant (basically, gesture control) and the Intelligent Drive package that pushes the envelope of almost-autonomous driving.

Technology niggles aside, it’s tough to top the sense of security and well-being you experience at the wheel of this high-and-mighty Mercedes. And notwithstanding our twinges of guilt at the gas pump (R.I.P. the diesel), it still represents the classy “old money” alternative in a peer group of mostly bling-dripping nouveau-riche status symbols.

The new shape’s softer contours are arguably less distinctive than its sharper-creased predecessor.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

  • Prices: Base, $117,300; as tested $133,500
  • Engines: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8
  • Transmission: 9-speed automatic
  • Drive: Full-time AWD
  • Fuel economy (city/hwy: 14.7/11.2 L/100 km
  • Alternatives: Audi Q7, BMW X7, Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX80, Lexus LX, Lincoln Navigator, Range Rover, Volvo XC90

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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