When your SUV is your safe space

Large, powerful and jammed with creature comforts, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLS 63 AMG may seem like overkill. It might be exactly what your family needs right now


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, California.)

At the time, Mercedes’ US$132,100 (RM572,520) 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 5,900lb (2,676kg), 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, California, 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 17ft!)

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.

The SUV seats 6, for those who opt for captain’s chairs in the middle, or 7, for those who choose to place 2 bench seats in the rear (Pics courtesy of Mercedes-AMG)

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 cu ft 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.

The GLS 63 AMG comes with a 4.0-litre, 603hp, twin-turbo V8 engine and a 21hp electric motor (Pics courtesy of Mercedes-AMG)

It has a 4.0-litre V8 engine good for 603hp and 627lb-ft of torque, way more than what is offered by the Cadillac Escalade or BMW X7. This sucker is fast: It hits 60mph in 4.1 seconds. Plus, it has a battery-powered EQ boost that give an additional 21hp and 184lb-ft 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 programmes (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.

Adjacent 12.3-inch screens form the digital gauge display and central infotainment display (Pics courtesy of Mercedes-AMG)

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 favourite elements: Burmester surround sound for blasting uplifting or comforting music as you drive; 64-colour 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.

The SUV comes with 21-inch wheels standard, or optional 23-inch wheels (Pics courtesy of Mercedes-AMG)

I had always thought that the “Energising Comfort” effects in the cabin were silly; you select simple preprogrammed prompts on the front dashboard screen to control light fragrances in the cabin, listen to soft music, settle into a massage programme 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.

The seats fold flat to maximise cargo space (Pics courtesy of Mercedes-AMG)

Mercedes claims the programme “enhances health and wellness functionality and boosts drivers’ attentiveness and wellbeing, 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 programme — and the GLS 63 AMG itself — will likely feel like much- needed balm to cool frayed nerves. What a difference a month makes. — Bloomberg