Twin Test – Range Rover Vogue SE vs Mercedes GL350
There’s nothing to match the Range Rover at the top of the luxury SUV market. It’s got the brand, it’s got the quality, and it’s got the space. It’s in a class of its own.
Or is it? Is there an acceptable alternative? Looks like there is. The roots of this test lie in a story from a company we know well at Professional Driver. England Limousines runs a high-profile service at the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Conditions are wintry and tough, and SUVs are preferred. But there are very strict environmental rules, which mean the Range Rover is forbidden.
But the Mercedes-Benz GL350 sneaks under the standards, and this year England Limousines took them out to Davos. On paper, the Mercedes-Benz GL350 ticks all the boxes. Brand? Three-pointed star. Quality? You’d expect Mercedes to have that sorted. Space? How would seven seats suit you? England Limousines; clients seemed happy enough too. But how does the GL350 compare head-to-head with the best-selling Range Rover derivative, the Vogue SE.
Only one way to find out – put the two cars through their paces for a week. First, the Range Rover. It’s been impressive since its launch at the end of 2012, raising an already high bar. Vogue SE trim remains the most popular model for chauffeuring – it’s a shame that this trim level isn’t available on the new long-wheelbase Range Rover, which only comes in top-line Autobiography trim.
Range Rover Vogue SE
Range Rover is very much a separate brand in its own right these days, with three model ranges – Evoque and Sport complete the range. But “proper” Range Rover is now in its fourth generation, but the DNA of the 1970 original is still present, including the “floating” roof, clamshell bonnet and split tailgate. The current car is 10% more aerodynamic than the previous model, and this, along with a lightweight all-aluminium bodyshell, has a major impact on fuel economy. The new Range Rover’s body is 180kg lighter than its predecessor and the overall weight of the car is 420kg lower.
Jaguar Land Rover sees the Range Rover very much as a chauffeur car. Even on the standard-wheelbase car we’re testing, a lot of attention has been paid to the rear seat area. An extra 42mm in the wheelbase has translated into 118mm more rear legroom, while the slightly lower seating position, coupled with larger doors, has improved entry and exit. With air suspension, it’s easier to get in too - ‘initial access’ ride height is 10mm lower than the previous-generation Rangey.
Our Range Rover doesn’t have the Executive Class seating option, which provides two individual rear chairs with a fixed central console rather than a three-seater bench with fold-down central armrest. Executive Class seating is standard on Autobiography and LWB models. Rear seats in our car nevertheless have electrically operated reclining and heated functions. Rear seat climate control – as part of the car’s four-zone system – has also been improved, with up to eight vents depending on trim level at face, foot and hip level. It’s controlled from the rear of the front seat centre console.
The view from the driver’s seat is commanding – the Range Rover feels as tall as any large SUV. An elevated seating position is another element of the Range Rover DNA. The dashboard is clean and stylish, with switches kept to a minimum thanks to the 8in touch-screen infotainment system that controls many of the car’s functions. There are very few knobs and switches – just a climate control unit below the sat-nav screen. Steering wheel buttons control the functions of the sat-nav, as well as the adaptive cruise control, and the oh-so-vital heated steering wheel.
This system will be familiar to anybody who’s driven the current Jaguar XJ – it’s essentially the same system, available with DualView software that allows the driver to see the sat-nav screen while the front seat passenger can watch a movie or Freeview TV from the digital tuner. In fact the first car to have this system was the old-shape Range Rover.
The touch-screen is also home to one of several sound systems supplied by Meridian, the best of which has 29 speakers and is a £4,000 extra. Behind the steering wheel is a secondary digital screen, replacing the traditional instrument clusters with a customisable display.
While we love the dual-view technology, we’re less enamoured with the way the system operates. At the risk of repeating our comments from last month’s Jaguar XJL test, the sat-nav system is starting to show its age. The 8in satnav uses a touch screen to manage climate control, audio, communications and navigation. The home screen contains a vast amount of information about the different functions.
We still prefer physical input devices, such as the Comand system used on the GL. Zooming in on the map isn’t easy, especially on bumpy roads – even with the Range Rover’s air suspension. At least you can control many of the functions via buttons on the steering wheel.
The resolution of the Range Rover’s sat-nav screen seems less sharp than competitor screens too. It’s certainly not as nice as the GL’s display. We do like the way the sat-nav integrates with the dashboard, putting up clear and detailed navigation instructions in sync with the main display on to the central digital display panel in the instrument cluster. No need to divert your gaze from the road ahead.
Two diesel engine options are available - we’re testing the more competitive 3.0-litre 258PS TDV6 engine rather than the 4.4-litre 339PS SDV8. Both engines share the same eight-speed automatic transmission.
Refinement and sound damping is excellent. The Range Rover is just about as quiet as it’s possible to make a large SUV. The engine noise is very hard to detect, and tight shut lines and good aerodynamics means wind noise is minimised at motorway speeds. The loudest noise is the air conditioning fan, accompanied by some gentle low-frequency tyre noise from the big 19in alloys.
And the air suspension is truly effective, keeping the car stable and smoothing out the bumps over the worst of the suburban potholes. With eight speeds, engine revs rarely get much above 1,500rpm, adding to the refinement.
The split tailgate is another Range Rover signature – only the “proper” Range Rover has it. The extended floor can help with loading – it means there’s no lip to negotiate. Luggage space is an acceptable 550 litres under the retractable cover. Stacked to the roof, you can get 909 litres of baggage in without folding the seats.
One final touch that we absolutely loved was the external courtesy lights. Small LEDs fitted under the door mirrors cast a spotlight-style pool of light on the floor just by the door. And within the light, the words “Range Rover” are spelt out. It’s a great touch, and it could be possible for a chauffeur to customise this with its own logo. Our only gripe is the fact that the light is next to the front doors, not the rear ones.
Don’t confuse the Mercedes-Benz GL350 with the Mercedes G-wagen. The latter is a rugged, go-anywhere 4x4 beloved of the German Army – the equivalent of a Land-Rover Defender. GL is a much more refined piece of kit. IT was first launched in 2006, and facelifted extensively this January, including is a 90kg weight reduction over the previous model due to the extensive use of lightweight construction methods.
It’s big – longer and wider than the Range-Rover, and taller, though only on account of its roof bars. And it’s got plenty of road presence, with its massive, grille-mounted Mercedes star. Design is somewhat fussy compared to the Range Rover’s clean lines. The GL shares some of its design lines with the pre-facelift E-Class and the latest CLS, with bulbous rear wheel arches and sharp creases in the side panels. It’s not beautiful, but it has a ruggedly handsome charm.
And despite the weight savings, it’s still 250kg heavier than the Range Rover – which shows how effectively Range Rover’s aluminium bodywork saves weight. But then again, the GL has something that its British-built rival doesn’t – a third row of seats. Yes, the GL is a genuine seven-seater. The third row is split 50%50, and folds flat into the boot floor, one half at a time, at the push of buttons in the side panels inside the boot.
Now, some councils might not license the GL as a seven-seater as access to the third row is not that easy. But it does add to the car’s functionality. And in five-seater mode, the GL has a decent 680 litres of luggage space below the cover – a lot more than the Range Rover. Not a lot of bag room with the third row up, however.
Rear seat comfort is good, though there’s not quite as much legroom as in the Range Rover. And it’s a lot less high-tech, with manually adjustable seats. But the seats ate heated and the second-row passengers do have control of climate from dials mounted in the centre console between the front seats. The cabin doesn’t feel quite as tall as the Range Rover, but there’s ample headroom.
Driving position is a little less elevated, and the dashboard looks more conventional, and very well finished, with a stitched leather-look top and a simple but elegant charcoal grey-and-aluminium colour combination.
Radio controls are traditional dials and buttons. But there is a large central satnav screen, though the primary dials are analogue, with a digital information panel between them. The system is not touch-screen – rather it uses the by-now familiar Mercedes-Benz Comand system, comprising a large wheel and buttons on the centre console. As with many Mercs, the automatic gearshift is column-mounted.
It’s not the absolute latest version of Comand – but if you’ve been driving an E-Class it’ll be very familiar. We like it a lot, and much prefer the stability of being able to rest your arm on the centre console while entering addresses or changing settings. You can operate the system without taking your eyes off the road – something that’s impossible with a touch screen.
As well as better functionality, the quality of the graphics is much better than the Range Rover – it looks a whole generation newer, with crisp, readable type and “road atlas-style” maps. This is where Mercedes, with its well-honed experience in the luxury sector, really scores over JLR, which is still to some extent finding its feet under Tata’s ownership. The Mercedes sat-nav system evolves with each new car launch, while the Jaguar Land Rover systems looks pretty much the same as it did five years ago.
There’s some impressive technology in the system too, especially parking cameras that give a switchable view, including a top-down view using cameras mounted under door mirrors and in the nose and tail, as well as conventional front and rear views. The screen’s big enough to display more than one view – for example op-down and rear camera together, side-by-side. Very useful when parking such a big vehicle – there are no excuses for minor body dings with such advanced technology is guiding you in.
On the road, again the GL is a little less refined than the Range Rover. The familiar 3-litre V6 turbodiesel engine’s growl is much more noticeable. Not in a bad way, though. There’s one fewer gear – the 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox is nevertheless smooth-shifting and well geared. Steering wheel paddles give a manual override. Revs remain manageably low at all times at 30mph, it’s barely ticking over at 1,000rpm, and 50mph is achieved at just 1,500rpm. At 70mph, we hit 1,800rpm, and the engine is still nice and quiet.
The overall feel is of a very solid, built-to-last piece of kit, with no squeals or rattles. GL is actually made in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, alongside M-Class, at a plant that has been building Mercedes 4x4s for more than 20 years. Ride is not at all floaty. Suspension settings – air springs are used, a on the Range Rover - can be selected manually, and comfort mode, with softer damping, is extremely effective.
Front seats are extremely comfortable, though, with the added bonus of massage functions, operated by pushing a dedicated button on the dash that switches the screen to seat controls. It’s not quite the “hot stone” massage of the S-Class, but the system is about on a par with the previous generation S-Class.
The Range Rover has clearly become the benchmark vehicle in the luxury SUV sector, with some chauffeur operators even charging a premium over S-Class rates for one. This might seem strange to a UK business client, but big sports-utilities are hugely popular in both the US and the Middle East, and foreign visitors often feel that a big 4x4 is the premium option.
The acid test is this. Would a premium rate-paying customer complain if a big Mercedes GL turned up when he’s ordered a Range Rover? On the basis of this test, it’s highly unlikely. For a start, it’s a Mercedes, and there’s no mistaking it, with a massive three-pointed star in the grille.
It’s just as big and just as luxurious, with comparable legroom and greater usable luggage space. And functionality of the satnav is much better – this alone makes the driver’s life a lot easier.
Where the Range Rover scores is in style and refinement. It’s a much more stylish design, both inside and out. We love the simple, clean lines of both the external styling and the dashboard. And engine noise is so well isolated you could be forgiven for wondering if the ignition’s on or not.
The GL isn’t quite such a smoothie. There’s a lot more engine noise, and general cabin refinement just isn’t as good. The external styling is a bit fussy, while the interior is functional without having much of a “wow factor”. But it has a very smooth gearshift and matches the Range Rover’s air suspension, so ride is very unfussed. Both these vehicles are thoroughbred off-roaders too, so you’d expect a suspension that could cope well on road.
The Mercedes also has room for a third row of passengers. The electric pop-up seats are of a reasonable size too – the only issue could be with council approval as a licensed seven-seater, so check before you buy.
These are big cars, so neither is the cleanest option available. The Range Rover has lower CO2 emissions of 196g/km against the GL’s 209g/km. And the lighter, more aerodynamic body of the Range Rover helps it to a better claimed combined fuel economy figure of 37.3mpg against the GL’s 35.3mpg.
How did we fare in the real world? An acceptable 29.3mpg on the Range Rover over 400 miles at 29mph. But a less impressive 23.6mpg on the GL – though this did include significantly fewer motorway miles and a lot more urban motoring at an average 23mph. The Range Rover should be the more frugal – on identical conditions we reckon there’s not a lot in it.
In price terms, our cars were pretty comparable too. The GL, in top-line AMG trim, came loaded with just about every bell and whistle in Stuttgart, taking a base price of £60,115 up to more than £85,000 – a fair bit more than the £77,910 Range Rover, which has a much higher standard specification level and rises to £83,120 as tested. Frankly, a lot of the GL’s options aren’t that necessary – a £4,000 Burmester surround-sound stereo, or a £1,985 off-road stability package, for example.
Do we have a winner? The Range Rover still edges it on quality and style. But the GL should be considered a genuine rival. It’s a very impressive car that will perhaps surprise you with its levels of refinement and quality. In some areas – especially high-tech – it outscores the Range Rover. And with other manufacturers as diverse as Bentley, Jeep and BMW all looking at big SUVs, this could be a major chauffeur market battleground in the future.
Range Rover 3.0 TDV6 Vogue SE auto
|Sliding Panoramic Roof||£1,900|
|Detachable Tow bar||£810|
|Rear Seat Entertainment||£1,900|
|Front and Rear Wing Head Rests||£400|
|Full Size Spare||£200|
|Price as tested||£83,120|
|Transmission:||8-speed automatic, permanent all-wheel drive|
|Max power:||254bhp at 4,000 rpm|
|Max torque:||600nm at 2,000 rpm|
|Combined fuel economy:||37.7mpg|
|Boot capacity:||550 litres|
|Fuel tank:||85 litres|
|Warranty:||3 years/unlimited miles|
Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC AMG Sport auto
|Active Curve System||£3,240|
|On- & Off-Road Package||£1,985|
|Parktronic Assist and cameras||£675|
|Interior ambient lighting||£365|
|Ventilated front seats||£750|
|Double sun visors||£100|
|Heated steering wheel||£275|
|Heated second row seats||£355|
|Front seats with massage||£1,150|
|Power closing doors||£575|
|Sun blinds – rear side||£280|
|Night View Assist Plus||£1,305|
|Tyre pressure monitoring||£320|
|COMAND Online system||£315|
|Rear seat entertainment system||£2,035|
|Bang & Olufsen surround sound||£4,335|
|Digital TV tuner||£1,035|
|Diamond White metallic paint||£815|
|Black designo roof lining||£370|
|Price as tested||£85,865|
|Transmission:||7-speed automatic, permanent all-wheel drive|
|Max power:||258bhp at 3,600rpm|
|Max torque:||620nm at 1,600-2,400rpm|
|Combined fuel economy:||35.3mpg|
|Boot capacity:||680 litres|
|Fuel tank:||100 litres|
|Warranty:||3 years/unlimited miles|