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2013 GL350BTC: Ultimate safety for seven

by: DAIMLER AG - The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL350BTC is bigger than before but still handles well and gets respectable mileage.The first time I parked the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL350 Bluetec SUV, I almost walked away with the engine running. Yes, it turbocharged diesel 3.0-liter V6 is that quiet. And driving down the road, the diesel is just a farway sounding dull rumble. It is easily drowned out by the stereo and even the air conditioner.

That’s a remarkable feat of engineering, considering how noisy diesel engines used to be not that long ago. But it is no more remarkable than everything else about the GL350, which is as large as an older Chevy Suburban but drives like a midsize crossover.

As the name suggests, the GL350 is part of Mercedes' GL line. All 350s are equipped with the diesel engine, which is designated Bluetec by the company. Hence the full name, GL350BTC.

Next up numerically is the GL450, which is basically the same but comes with a gasoline-powered, twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V8. Then comes the GL550, which comes with a 5.5-liter V8 and practically all of the options that can be ordered on the GL350 and GL450. And finally there's the GL63 AMG, which features a 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 good for 550 horsepower.

The GLs were completely redesigned this year and are slightly larger and boxier than before. Although all can seat seven adults in comfort, our test GL350 never felt that large, except during parallel parking, when the rearview camera was appreciated.

If you don’t know much about engines, the GL350BTC might seem seriously underpowered. It’s 3.0 V6 only produces 240 horsepower, compared to 362 from the 4.7 V8 and 429 from the 5.5 V8.

But comparing horsepower figures is misleading. Torque is what moves vehilces off the line and diesels produce more torque than gasoline-powered engines. The V6 diesel produces 455 foot-pounds of torque, compared to 406 from the 4.7 V8. As a result, our test 2013 GL350BTC had no trouble accelerating away from dead stops, merging into freeway traffic or even passing slower vehicles on the freeway, despite its bulk. (Both versions of the 5.5 V8 produce more torque than the 3.0 V6, but they are serious performance engines.)

The drivability of our test GL350BTC was undoubtedly helped by the seven-speed automatic transmission, which always seemed to find just the right gear for every situation. We didn’t feel the need to use the manual shift mode in day-to-day driving, but it would probably be useful when towing heavy loads.

The diesel engine also gets better mileage than the V8s. It is EPA rated at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined. That compares to 14/19/16 for the 4.7 V8 and 13/18/15 for the 5.5 V.8. in fact, the 3.0 V6’s figures are the best of any seven-passenger SUV currently on the market.

All GLs also come standard with all-wheel-drive. During a daytrip in the rain along the Columbia River, the combination of diesel power, a responsive transmission and all-wheel-drive gave us the feeling of invincibility, even when passing semi-trucks throwing up sheets of water. The moisture-sensitive windershild wipers helped, too, automatically speeding up and slowing down as conditions changed.

Wrapped in expensve leather and wood trim, we barely noticed the weather outside, choosing instead to listen to the excellent stereo and fiddle with the navigation system. With the third row of seats folded flat, our GL350BTC offered an enormous amount of carrying capacity. Cargo space was still respectable with them folded up, too.

There are two settings for the AIRMATIC self-leveling air suspension, Comfort and Sport. Despite the names, the performance wasn't all that different. Both were surprisingly supple and controlled for such a long wheelbase. Although the Comfort setting was a little softer, it did not float like an older Detroit luxury car. The Sport setting was slightly firmer but never harsh. We don't expect most drivers will strongly prefer one over the other. Both seemed fine to us.

Out test GL350BTC also had numerous safety systems, including seat belts that snug up when the transmission is put in gear, warning lights in the side view mirrors, tones when parking to close to another vehicle, and a steering wheel that vibrated when we started to drift outside our lane without using the turn signal. At first they all seemed a little too much, but as we got used to them, we came to appreciate the function that each one performed.

Although all GLs are expensive, if you value the safety of your friends and family above everything else, it’s hard to imagine anything short of a tour bus meeting your needs better. Although the profile is a little generic, the big Mercedes star on the angular front grill loudly announces you’ve arrived.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 GL350BTC

• Manufacturer: Mercedes.

• Class: Full-size SUV.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Styles: Five-door SUV.

• Engines: 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 (240 hp, 455 lb-ft).

• Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 19/26/22.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $62,000 ($97,895 as tested).