The 2020 Mercedes GLS-Class is, as Mercedes likes to put it, the S-Class of the carmaker’s SUV lineup. It’s a paragon of luxury, driving dynamics and state-of-the-art technology. The GLS stands a cut above its peers; it’s a delightful car, whether you are chauffeuring your loved ones about or having yourself chauffeured.
The biggest drawback to the Mercedes -Benz GLS is the obvious one, though: it’s freaking expensive. The entry-level GLS 450 starts at $75,950. The top-tier GLS 580 with a V8 begins at $98,900. Buyers building realistically will spend at least a few thousand dollars more than that; maxing out Mercedes’s active driver assists alone is a $2,250 proposition. We’re not talking G-Class-grade extravagance, but the GLS price tag will be beyond the means of most buyers.
Mercedes does offer a GLS in miniature, the all-new GLB-Class. It’s stylish, practical, tech-laden, and starts under $40,000. You can — with a fair bit of squeezing — cram seven passengers (if they’re not all adults) into that compact vehicle.
But to get that GLS gravitas and premium feel for a reduced cost in a similarly-sized car, you must look outside the Mercedes brand. Consider: the Mazda CX-9.
The CX-9 brings distinction and luxury you wouldn’t expect from a car made by a mainstream brand. I drove the highest-level Signature trim over the holidays ($47,855 as tested); while the exterior gave off a stately (if price-appropriate) appearance, inside, it felt like a much more expensive car. Our tester had Parchment Nappa leather and real Santos Rosewood trim — the sort of materials one would expect to find in a Mercedes. Heated second-row captain’s chairs proved a comfortable place to relax in the back. Even the ambient lighting felt like a high-end touch.
The CX-9, like the GLS, drives impressively for its size. One of Gear Patrol‘s own once called it “the best SUV (he’d) ever driven.” It only comes with a turbocharged inline-four, rather than a V6 or V8, but with 320 lb-ft of torque, the engine never feels overmatched. You don’t get the GLS’s fancy E-Active Body Control, but the CX-9 is smooth, refined, and consistent on the road; there’s a low center of gravity and hardly any body roll. It’s not a Mazda sports car, but it handles like a smaller machine.
Sure, there are some ways the CX-9 won’t measure up to the Merc. The GLS is a lot bigger, with 84.7 cubic feet of potential cargo space to the CX-9’s 71.2. The Mazda’s third row is tight, as is the trunk with those seats raised. The CX-9’s tech does not quite feel as advanced as the Benz’s; it offers just one 9.0-inch display to the Mercedes’ dual 12.3-inch ones. The infotainment system is a bit cumbersome and laggy, and the backup camera had the worst picture quality of any car I’ve driven recently.
That said, while the CX-9 does not offer everything the GLS-Class does, it offers a lot of the appeal for less than half the price. The base model CX-9 starts at just $33,790.
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