When Mercedes-Benz introduced the GL-Class in 2006, the idea was to make it the S-Class of SUVs, a 7-passenger carryall with the luxury accoutrements of the German automaker's flagship sedan.

By almost every measure that first-generation vehicle has been a success, attracting more buyers than similar Range Rover models and even surpassing the vehicle of choice for rap stars and high-net families alike -- the Cadillac Escalade. The GL-Class, Mercedes-Benz officials proudly proclaim, is now the best-selling large luxury SUV. With powerful engine choices, creature comforts galore and a sleek design that stands out from the boxy and utilitarian shapes of competitors, it's not hard to see why those who can afford a $60,000-plus SUV have embraced the GL.

The 2013 model year marks the second generation for this important vehicle in Mercedes' lineup, and as is expected these days, it offers even more of everything, from engine power and fuel economy to technology aimed at keeping occupants entertained and safe.

We had a chance to test-drive all three versions of the GL-Class before models go on sale in September, and came away impressed with this vehicle's quiet confidence on road and off. Appropriate for this car's clientele, Mercedes brought us to the idyllic town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to put the GL through its paces over countless highways, small-town roads and even miles of dirt roads.

Just about everywhere we took the GL, it excelled as the strong and silent type. Regarding the latter, the GL's cabin felt as hushed as a library on Friday night. If you think serenity and SUVs are mutually exclusive, get in a GL-Class and enjoy the silence. It's golden here. Options such as heated, cooled and massaging seats didn't hurt, either.

The GL's ride was similarly rewarding. With standard air suspension, the big SUV literally floats along highways while in "comfort" mode. Throw it into "sport" mode, though, and the suspension and steering tighten a bit. We enjoyed the firmer feel of both on twisty mountain roads, but wished that the sport mode would also affect throttle response for quick acceleration and shifts from the standard 7-speed automatic transmission.

On the subject of steering, our test-models were fitted with a lane-departure warning system that literally vibrated the steering wheel to call attention to the driver. If not corrected, the vehicle would intervene, applying brakes on one side to gently nudge the GL back into the proper lane and avoid a potential head-on collision. The system is savvy, but it was also hit-or-miss, no pun intended. These kinds of systems still aren't foolproof, and must be considered for what they are: merely supplements to safe driving.

The 2013 Mercedes GL-Class will offer three engine choices, corresponding to trim name. The least expensive is the GL350 BlueTEC, which uses a diesel V6. The GL450 uses a bi-turbo V8, as does the GL550, which uses an even larger V8 that creates more power.

We tested all three, and while none felt as swift as a Range Rover Supercharged or even a top-line BMW X3 for that matter, the gasoline-fed V8s did a laudable job moving the GL's heft. The V6 diesel, meanwhile, felt as strong as a V8 once at speed, but suffered noticeable turbo lag when you planted your right foot. This would be disconcerting if you had to quickly escape a sticky traffic situation. Fuel economy numbers are still to be determined, but Mercedes says all models will see improvement. (And for buyers who somehow require more on the power side of the equation, Mercedes will offer the GL63 AMG, a high-performance variant of the SUV, in the first quarter of 2013.)

For light and moderate off-roading, the 2013 GL-Class was a capable partner. All GL models come with all-wheel-drive, which Mercedes dubs 4MATIC. We drove the GL over miles of fire roads and up steep dirt roads to the Taos ski resort, where big signs warned us that only 4-wheel-drive vehicles were allowed. The 2013 Mercedes GL had no problems in these conditions, which we predict are about as extreme as most buyers would venture. On only one particularly steep and technical hill did the GL lose its composure -- and traction. For those few folks who do want to take their luxury SUV on such extreme inclines, Mercedes-Benz will offer the On/Off-Road Package that features a two-speed transfer case, traction control software, locking differential and increased ground clearance.

The GL-Class will go on sale in September with a starting price of $62,445 for the GL350, $63,445 for GL450, and $86,175 for GL550. Those putting down this kind of coin will receive an SUV that is quiet, comfortable, and more capable off-road than most buyers will ever venture.


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