Mercedes-Benz GL450Click to enlarge picture

Mercedes becomes the first European brand to sell a full-size sport-utility vehicle in the United States. The 2007 GL450 seats seven people and can tow a 30-foot boat.

For the first time, Mercedes-Benz officials are going after Cadillac Escalade buyers. They'll warmly welcome buyers of other full-size, boat- and trailer-towing, domestic-branded SUVs, too—like highly optioned Chevrolet Tahoes, Suburbans and Ford Expeditions.

With the debut of the luxury-appointed 2007 GL-Class in showrooms in May 2006, Mercedes becomes the first European brand in history to sell a bona fide, seven-passenger, big SUV with 7,500-pound Class IV towing capacity.

The more than $55,000 GL450 also marks the first time Mercedes goes head to head against Cadillac's best-known modern-day vehicle that has become an icon of pop culture.

Mercedes Sees an Opportunity
Mercedes officials said their reasoning is simple. "Thirty to 35 percent of domestic luxury SUV owners own a Mercedes sedan, so we said, 'Why not give them a Mercedes full-size SUV?'" said Ron Mueller, manager of the GL-Class product management.

Vince Piarulli, product specialist for the GL, added that 8 percent to 9 percent of owners of the midsize Mercedes M-Class over the years defected to larger SUVs such as the Escalade.

These statistics, combined with the fact the new GL is based on the unibody architecture of the M-Class and is being built at the same Tuscaloosa, Ala., assembly plant as the M-Class, encouraged Mercedes to get into the segment where Escalade is the leader.

Escalade Is New, Improved
The GL's debut comes just months after Cadillac began selling a new 2007 Escalade that is substantially improved over its predecessor.

The 2007 Escalade rides on a new, more modern platform, fitted with a new, more powerful V8, a larger, restyled interior and still retains the bold exterior styling that made this SUV one of the more sought-after vehicles for music videos, Hollywood stars and professional athletes.

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. It also was the Escalade's third best year, following U.S. sales records in 2004 and 2003.

See GL-Class vs. Escalade specifications chart

In the early months of sales in calendar 2006, the early-introduction 2007 Escalade was selling above expectations, Cadillac spokesman Kevin Smith reported. "Many dealers have their early months' allocations of Escalades pre-sold, and the vehicles that aren't pre-sold are sold within a few days," he said.

Among the early buyers is actor Adrien Brody, who hosted an Escalade party for Hollywood on behalf of Cadillac in Beverly Hills' famed Rodeo Drive shopping district in November 2005.

Mercedes' Mueller said the GL isn't just up against the Escalade, though. "It's a competitor to all full-size SUVs out there . . . anything [priced] from the high $40,000s on up," he said.

This could include top versions of the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition, said George Peterson, president of automotive research firm AutoPacific Inc. of Tustin, Calif. For example, a four-wheel-drive 2007 Tahoe LTZ has an MSRP of more than $45,000. So does a 2006 Ford Expedition King Ranch model with four-wheel drive.

No Official GL Target Sales
Mercedes officials refused to provide a sales target for their new GL, which will be advertised as "More Mercedes to Love." But Peterson figures GL-Class annual sales in the United States could be 12,000 to 18,000.

He and other analysts said gasoline prices aren't likely to restrain sales of large luxury SUVs to Mercedes' well-to-do target buyers with annual household income of more than $100,000. "If the Europeans could be criticized, it's that they entered the U.S. SUV market with products that were a bit too small [for American tastes]," he said.

Mercedes GL Has Subdued Look
What would be the primary draw away from the big, bold Escalade that has become an American icon?

Not the GL's exterior styling, which basically makes the nearly 17-foot-long, seven-passenger Mercedes look like a bigger version of the company's M-Class, analysts said. "The Escalade is the vehicle of bling," said Tina Jantzi, manager of North American forecasting at automotive researcher J.D. Power and Associates.

Mercedes' Piarulli explained the GL design is "subdued" to fit more with German tastes. Bold, ostentatious styling isn't as appealing as it is for American SUV buyers.

Indeed, while the Escalade has become a favorite canvas for aftermarket accessories and customization, the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association has yet to hear from Mercedes officials about custom touches for the GL.

"They are on our radar screen," said Carl Sheffer, vice president of original equipment manufacturer relations at SEMA, which represents American aftermarket companies. "We hope to get access to the GL for a measuring session for our members." SEMA members already are working on popular accessories for the 2007 Escalade, he added.

Cadillac officials understand now more than ever that buyers of expensive SUVs like to personalize their vehicles. Cadillac is offering its largest wheels ever—22-inchers—on the new Escalade.

Tim Herrick, assistant chief engineer for full-size utilities at Cadillac's parent company, General Motors Corp., said a beefed-up Escalade frame and robust suspension are designed to provide a comfortable, well-managed ride even with the trendy, larger wheels and tires that add weight at a vehicle's corners.

The largest factory wheels for the Mercedes GL450 are 20 inches in diameter. Mercedes officials said while they're aware some buyers might install larger, flashier wheels, they're not catering to that group.

Mercedes Seeks All-Mercedes Families
Mercedes officials said they are counting on American families with two or more children, household income of more than $100,000 a year and that already own Mercedes cars to want to swap their current large SUVs for the new GL.

"It will stop people from leaving [Mercedes]," Mueller said, adding that Mercedes' M-Class is good for small families, but "when you have more than one kid, that size SUV goes away [from consideration]."

The GL "is going to gather those people [with larger families] back into our brand," he added.

But automotive analyst Jantzi said that "to dethrone the Escalade will take a lot more than the Mercedes name."

Vehicle Details
Starting manufacturer's price for the GL450 is in "the upper $50,000s," but Mercedes officials said final pricing isn't ready yet. The base price does not include full leather interior.

Cadillac kept the starting MSRP for the 2007 Escalade in line with its predecessor at $56,405 for the all-wheel-drive model that has standard leather-finished seats. A two-wheel-drive Escalade is due in August 2006. Pricing on that model hasn't been announced.

Escalades also are offered in an extended-wheelbase version, the ESV, and as a four-door pickup called the EXT.

Mercedes offers only one version of GL—a 4Matic all-wheel-drive SUV with three rows of seats standard.

It's unibody construction—not the body on frame that typifies the Escalade and other large SUVs—and thus weighs hundreds of pounds lighter than a 5,800-plus-pound Escalade. The lighter weight aids the performance of the 4.6-liter double overhead cam V8.

But the Escalade still out-muscles the GL. The Escalade's new 6.2-liter overhead valve V8 generates 403 horsepower compared with the GL's 335, and torque peaks at 417 lb-ft at 4400 rpm in the Cadillac compared with the GL's 339 lb-ft that comes on as low as 2700 rpm.

The GL is the first Mercedes SUV that is rated to tow a 30-foot boat or a three-horse trailer. Maximum reported towing capacity is 7,500 pounds, which is just more than the Escalade's 7,400 pounds.

The GL also is the first large SUV with a 7-speed automatic transmission, and Mercedes officials plan to add a diesel V6 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 at some point by analysts.

Interior Differences
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 legroom there than what's found in the Escalade third row. But passengers still have to fumble manually with a lever to fold down and flip forward a second-row seat in order to get access to the 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 also fully removable.

The GL's are not, which contributes to the GL's smaller maximum cargo volume.

Rear-seat entertainment systems also differ between the GL and the Escalade.

The GL's system includes two viewing screens for rear-seat passengers—one at the back of each of the two front seat head restraints. The Escalade has one 8-inch screen mounted on the vehicle ceiling.

Cadillac spokesman Smith said the long-wheelbase Escalade ESV, out in showrooms in May 2006, will offer a "dual rear entertainment" package that has a viewing screen for the second row and another viewing screen for third-row passengers.

Cultish G-Class Remains
A final note: Mercedes officials cancelled plans to stop selling the low-volume Mercedes G-Class, a military-styled, boxy, five-passenger SUV, when the GL450 debuts.

Mueller said officials were "inundated with letters" from fans of the G-Glass, asking that the vehicle stay in showrooms. The G-Class, which starts around $80,000, has become a cult vehicle in parts of the U.S., particularly Southern California.

Along with customer pleas, Mercedes officials signed new military contracts that require continued G-Class production and supply of parts.

So, the G and GL can both be found in showrooms.

Specifications

2007 Mercedes GL450 vs. 2007 Cadillac Escalade*

Starting MSRP: $55,000-plus (estimated) vs. $56,405
Length: 200 inches vs. 202.5 inches
Wheelbase: 121.1 inches vs. 116 inches
Width: 75.6 inches vs. 79 inches
Height: 72.4 inches vs. 74.3 inches
Curb weight: 5,249 pounds vs. 5,818 pounds
Engine: 335-horsepower, 4.6-liter V8 vs. 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8
Transmission: 7-speed automatic vs. 6-speed automatic
Maximum cargo volume: 83.3 cubic feet vs. 108.9 cubic feet
Front-seat shoulder room: 58.3 inches vs. 65.3 inches
Second-row legroom: 40 inches vs. 39 inches
Third-row legroom: 34 inches vs. 25.4 inches
Maximum reported towing capacity: 7,500 pounds vs. 7,400 pounds

* Note: Comparison uses GL450 with standard all-wheel drive and regular-wheelbase Escalade with all-wheel drive.

Sources: Mercedes, Cadillac

Ann Job is a freelance automotive writer.

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