The luxury-appointed 2007 Mercedes GL-Class hitting showrooms in May is the first full-size sport utility vehicle in America from a European brand.
The debut of the $55,000-plus SUV with Class IV towing capacity also marks the first time Mercedes will go head-to-head against Cadillac’s best-known modern-day vehicle.
Those statistics, combined with the fact the new GL is based on the unibody architecture of the ML-Class and is being built at the same Tuscaloosa, Ala., assembly plant as the ML, encouraged Mercedes to enter a segment where Escalade is the leader.
More than 300,000 Escalades have been sold since the vehicle debuted in the 1999 model year, and calendar 2005 sales of 51,144 gave the Escalade a 36 percent share of the large luxury sport utility category, according to Cadillac.
The luxury SUV market has been an anomaly when compared with recent lagging SUV sales for most automakers.
The Escalade’s 6.2-liter overhead valve V-8 generates 403 horsepower compared with the GL’s 335. The GL is the first large SUV with a seven-speed automatic transmission, and Mercedes officials plan to add a diesel V-6 next year. Fuel economy numbers for the GL haven’t been finalized with the federal government. While Mercedes won’t talk about it just yet, a high-performance AMG version of GL is expected by analysts. The two separate third-row seats in the back of the GL fold into the floor and go back up by electric power, and there’s more leg room there than is found in the Escalade third row.
In the Escalade, this second-row function is done via electric power with the touch of a button. But the Escalade’s third-row seats must be folded down manually. They’re fully removable, too. The GL’s are not, which contributes to the GL’s smaller maximum cargo volume.
The GL is the first Mercedes passenger vehicle that can tow a 30-foot boat or a three-horse trailer. Maximum reported towing capacity is 7,500 pounds, which is just over the Escalade’s 7,400 pounds.
In the end, experts say Mercedes will have to offer more value to customers than the Escalade to be crowned king of the luxury SUVs.
"To dethrone the Escalade," Jantzi said, "will take a lot more than the Mercedes name."