Get the lowdown on more than 20 Mercedes-Benz models with this SUV buying guide.
Why buy a Mercedes-Benz SUV?
If you’ve decided you want a used SUV, you’ve got plenty of vehicles to consider. So why look at a Mercedes-Benz SUV? Well, like choosing steak over a hamburger, it’s about more than just meeting a need; it’s about enjoying the way your need is met. Inside every Mercedes you’ll find elegant, understated design and lots of attention to detail. Mercedes SUV models serve up practicality in luxurious packages that pamper their passengers on the way to their destinations.
What about the used Mercedes-Benz SUVs? While the new SUVs are higher-dollar vehicles, used models can give their owners a lot of top-shelf features, at a more affordable price. One of our CarMax buyers, who purchases lots of these SUVs for our lots, says this is really attractive to our customers. “A lightly-used, but more fully tricked out Mercedes SUV can be had for the same price as a new, but more basic SUV that won’t have as many bells and whistles,” he says. There’s still all the prestige, and all the same comfort levels.
Mercedes SUVs are also popular with customers who drive Mercedes sedans, and are ready to move up to a similar vehicle with more room and more power. Drivers with growing families will buy a Mercedes SUV when their C300 sedan or SLK350 convertible no longer fits their needs, our buyer says. “It’s a step up while sticking to the same nameplate,” our purchaser says, “and the style and comfort are very similar. The driving characteristics of the SUVs are very familiar to Mercedes sedan owners, who enjoy the firm handling and the Mercedes name.”
We’ll be looking at four groups of vehicles in this Mercedes-Benz SUV buying guide, plus a crossover wagon. They range from full-size to compact, yet they all share familiar Mercedes traits. They’re solidly built, quiet, and refined. They drive well (and are easy to drive) thanks to powerful engines and smooth-shifting transmissions. Most come with the highly-regarded Mercedes 4MATIC® all-wheel drive (AWD) system, and nearly all models offer a diesel-engined variant.
Understanding Mercedes-Benz SUV names
In 2014 the Mercedes SUV family included, in ascending order of size, the GLK, the ML, and the GL. In 2015 a new baby arrived, the compact GLA, and that triggered some alphabetic reorganization. The GLK became the GLC, the ML became the GLE, and the range-topping GL turned into the GLS.
The numbers following these letters have traditionally indicated engine size. For example, the GL350 would have a 3.5-liter engine while the GL550 had a 5.5 liter under its hood. However, we live in an age where engines are getting smaller yet more powerful, and this has led Mercedes to break this link. A bigger number still signifies a larger engine, but not its capacity. So the GLA250 has a 2L engine rather than the 2.5L you might expect. Other models have followed the same pattern.
A note on diesel engines
Mercedes has long been known for its diesel engines. These generally offer better mileage than a gasoline equivalent and also provide lots of torque at low engine speeds. Diesel-engined SUVs tend to be good vehicles for towing boats and trailers.
Before 2010, a diesel-engined Mercedes SUV included the letters CDI on its tailgate. This engine technology was updated in 2010, and the newer diesels are designated BlueTEC.
Now, let’s get into the different SUV models!
The GL-Class is a full-sized SUV with third-row seats and ample room for seven adults and their luggage. It appeared first in 2007, got a facelift in 2010, and was replaced with a new model in 2013.
The second-generation GL was bigger, all around, than the first generation and also featured engine changes. The GL320CDI was replaced by the GL350BlueTEC and the GL550 swapped its big, 5.5L V8 for a smaller 4.6L V8. As is the trend these days, the smaller engine made more power, in this case thanks to twin turbochargers. And for those who can never have enough power, Mercedes also revealed the GL63 AMG. This makes use of twin turbochargers on a big, 5.5L V8 to produce 550 horsepower.
Why the turbos? For added efficiency and on-demand power, our Mercedes purchaser says. A turbocharger lets owners drive a vehicle with the power of a bigger-engined SUV, but with better gas mileage. “Having a turbo under the hood of your Mercedes SUV means the engine weighs less than a heavy V8,” our purchaser says, “which means more efficiency and more miles per gallon. And, there’s more power there when you need it. The old mantra of ‘the bigger the better’ — that’s not so much the case anymore. Now, it’s more bang for your buck; you can have more power and more fuel efficiency at the same time.”
All-wheel drive is standard on all GL/GLS Mercedes SUVs, and when suitably equipped they can tow as much as 7,500 pounds. That makes them a practical workhorse, providing you don’t mind dirtying up the beautiful interior!
A midsized SUV, the ML first appeared in 1997 just as car buyers were starting to grasp the appeal of an SUV. Like most early SUVs, this had a truck-like, body-on-frame construction. For the second generation ML, which arrived in 2006, Mercedes adopted a car-like unibody design, and ride and handling improved significantly.
The third-generation models launched in 2012 with seating for five, but with no third-row seat and limited luggage space. Four models were available: the ML350 BlueTEC, the ML350, the ML550, and the ML63 AMG. The ML450 hybrid, available since 2010, was dropped from the range.
The diesel BlueTEC has a turbocharged V6 with loads of torque, so it accelerates with surprising alacrity. The ML350 is powered by a 3.5L V6, as its number suggests, but the ML550 received a 4.7L twin turbocharged V8 delivering more than 400 horsepower. For drivers who want even more power, there’s the 518-horsepower ML63 AMG.
Starting in the 2015 Mercedes-Benz SUV model year, you could buy an ML250 BlueTEC, with a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine. In addition, the older ML550 gave way to the ML400, which sports a turbocharged V6.
Second- and third-generation MLs feel a lot like the E-Class sedan, although they have a tendency to roll a bit through the curves. Seats are firm yet supportive and comfortable, and a lot of equipment, except leather upholstery, is standard.
Almost all MLs come with AWD, although since 2013 the ML350 was only available with rear-wheel drive. Higher ground clearance helps them tackle rough tracks and uneven terrain and they’ll tow up to 7,000 pounds, depending on the model and equipment.
If you’re shopping for a used, midsized prestige SUV, there are more than a few impressive alternatives to the ML-Class. Consider the BMW X5, the Audi Q5, the Lexus RX350, the Cadillac SRX, and the Acura MDX.
With a high seating position and easy-park maneuverability in a smaller package, Mercedes compact SUVs are a popular choice with CarMax customers. Mercedes entered this market in 2010 with the GLK350; somewhat upright and angular, it had a lot in common with the C-Class sedan, including the firm ride and build. There’s ample accommodation for four adults, and there’s enough seating for five, if a bit tight. Luggage space is similarly limited.
The 350 was the only compact model available in 2010; it had rear-wheel drive (4MATIC AWD optional) and V6 power. The GLK250 BlueTEC diesel arrived in 2013, with a turbodiesel motor and standard 4MATIC AWD. Properly equipped, a GLK can tow up to 3,500 pounds.
These SUVs got a styling refresh in 2013, which smoothed off some of their sharper exterior lines and edges. The interior was also updated to include higher-end materials and wood trim.
Mercedes replaced the GLK with its all-new GLC in 2016. Still strongly related to the C-Class sedan, this 2016 Mercedes SUV is both wider and longer than its GLK predecessor. Exterior styling includes softer lines, and the additional length gives backseat passengers more legroom. At launch, the only available model was the four-cylinder, turbo-powered GLC350. An AMG variant and also a four-door coupe joined the range for the 2017 model year.
All-new for 2015, the GLA is available as either a compact crossover or a tall hatchback, depending on how you define the word “hatchback.” Shorter and lower than the GLK compact SUV, it seats four comfortably and offers a modest amount of cargo room. One golf bag will fit, but you may need to fold down the back seat to fit two. Forward visibility is good, thanks to the elevated driving position, although the rear view is somewhat restricted due to its swooping roofline.
Inside, the GLA delivers the kind of premium experience Mercedes buyers expect with high-end materials and big, easy-to-read dials and instruments. Unusually, the gear selector is mounted on the steering column, which frees up center console space for storage.
There are two GLA models; there’s the GLA250, with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes just over 200 horsepower. Then, for the enthusiast, there’s the GLA45 AMG. This has the same engine as the 250, but it’s been tweaked to produce 355 horsepower, which makes it very quick. The 4MATIC AWD system is standard on the AMG and available as an option for the GLA250. Similarly-sized competitors include the Audi Q3, the BMW X1, and the Range Rover Evoque.
If the R-Class had sliding doors, people would call it a minivan. It doesn’t, so they don’t. Instead, this unusual vehicle could be called a crossover wagon. Tall and long, it seats six passengers in three rows of two, unless the original buyer specified the wider, optional third-row seat which made it a seven-seater.
The R-Class debuted in 2006 with a choice of two engines — a V6 in the R350 and, for the R500, a bigger V8. A seven-speed automatic transmission was standard, and almost all R-Class vehicles came with 4Motion AWD.
A diesel-powered R320CDI joined the lineup in 2007, along with a rather batty 500-horsepower R63 AMG model that’s push-you-back-in-your-seat quick. The R350 BlueTEC diesel replaced the CDI in 2010. The R-Class line received a mild restyling, in 2011, but it wasn’t enough to boost sales and it was discontinued after 2012.
Practical, not utilitarian
Mercedes SUVs combine practicality with luxury. Their wide-opening liftgates make them a practical choice for hauling pets, groceries, or sports equipment, and the high seating position gives drivers a vantage point for easy maneuvering in tight spaces. Like the sedans, Mercedes SUVs are built to very high standards, featuring beautifully-designed interiors and finer materials. If you’re after an SUV that’s definitely not utilitarian, give the Mercedes SUVs a look.
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