Back when the original GL500 (a forerunner to what is now the GLS range) debuted in 2007, many were stunned at the fact that Mercedes-Benz had shoehorned a mighty 5.5-litre V8 under the sizeable bonnet. With 285 kW on tap, it shifted. 0-100km/h was dealt with in a mere 5.9 seconds (claimed) - impressive for a car that weighed over two tonnes and seated seven in absolute luxury.
But perhaps that's what people didn't understand about the V8-powered GL. Yes, all that power is lovely - but necessary? Not really. As a result, the more popular model turned out to be the diesel-powered GL320 CDI, which returned far superior fuel economy and an equally luxurious ride.
But Mercedes must have done something right. Supplanting the GL500 as the range topper was the 63 AMG derivative introduced with the second-generation. Clearly, there was a market for outrageous, seven-seater family SUVs. With the nomenclature change, the GL became the GLS and was branded as 'The S-Class of SUVs.'
We've spent some time with the latest GLS, in range-topping AMG trim. With a turbopetrol 4.0-litre V8 under the bonnet, there's no sign of struggle when it comes to shifting the leviathan about. In fact, it's the opposite. Mercedes-AMG limits the big SUV to 250 km/h, but an optional Performance Package will bring that up to 280 km/h. Not convinced? Well, it will heave itself to 100 km/h faster than an E60 V10-powered BMW M5 - just 4.2 seconds.
Still, it's a family car at heart, so what's it like to live with on a daily basis? As with most AMG products, the engine really does dominate the experience. Still, there's plenty else on offer to become enamoured with. Quite frankly, the build quality and feeling of luxury is right up there (as it should be for nearly R3.2 million), with nearly everything one could possibly need (or want) being offered as standard.
Up front, the sumptuously trimmed leather seats are not only heated, but cooled too. What's more, they'll knead your back if you want a massage. The luxury theme extends to the rear, where it's all fine leather and soft-touch materials. There's a high level of practicality, too. Not only are all the seats electrically operated, but there are numerous USB charging ports and cupholders scattered across the cabin.
Speaking of those electrically folding seats, flick a switch and you have an incredible 2400 L of cargo space at your disposal.
From the outside, it's certainly got presence. You may not like the way it looks, but you're going to notice it. The GLS is imposing (much like it's X7 rival), but the 63 derivative takes it a step further with the AMG styling add-ons. Certainly contributing to the 'bling' persona are the optional R82 100 alloy wheels. The 23-inch items may not be to everyone's taste, but they certainly are eye-catching.
So what's it like to drive? Drive it gently - as you would when dropping the kids at school - and it's perfectly quiet, comfortable and refined. However, pushing it awakens the V8 living under the bonnet, providing startling performance and acceleration. Don't expect too much in the corners, though. After all, it's still a very heavy seven-seater. But, it's not bad, with plenty of grip and remarkable steering feedback.
The GLS63 is superb. As a piece of engineering, AMG should be applauded for creating a truly entertaining seven-seater that doesn't feel like a cop-out. That 'AMG-ness' is still evident and can always be felt. However, at R3 178 120 before options, we'd struggle to recommend it. If you're looking for a large and luxurious Mercedes SUV, it's worth pointing out that the Mercedes-Maybach GLS600 (which uses the same engine) retails for even less, despite the bigger focus on luxury. What's more, if you just want a really nice seven-seater, the more practical GLS400d or GLS580 are a lot more sensible - and cheaper, too. That being said, there's nothing with seven seats that can match the GLS63 for performance. If you want to be the quickest parent on the school run, nothing else will do.