This comparison test is more than a decade in the making. Usually, German automakers chase each other down every segment, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. But, in this case, it took BMW 13 years to deliver a response to the full-size, three-row Mercedes-Benz GLS-class. The X7 is BMW’s answer to that big Benz.
Initially launched as the GL in 2006 and renamed the GLS for 2017, it has been steadily chipping away at the marketspace long dominated by the domestics such as the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, Ford Expedition, and GMC Yukon. Those domestic entries have evolved from pickup-truck-based SUVs to properly civilized machines in their latest generation. A couple years ago the Lincoln Navigator received a massive update, and the new generation of the Escalade, Tahoe, Suburban, and Yukon will have independent rear suspensions that add much-needed third-row space. Those General Motors SUVs haven’t arrived yet, so we’ll simplify matters and pit the BMW against the Mercedes to see how they stack up.
Although both Mercedes and BMW sell smaller SUVs with third rows, the promise in this segment is a combination of luxury and space for up to seven people. Both the X7 and the GLS offer available heated seats and automatic climate control in their third rows. (That’s five zones of separate temperature control.) It also means sufficient stretch-out space for the rearmost area to be used in more than just a pinch and for more than just small children, plus there’s space for cargo even when that back row is occupied.
The X7 and GLS we’re testing here are the entry-level six-cylinder models—the X7 xDrive40i and GLS450 4Matic. Both start in the $75,000 neighborhood and can be optioned until they soar past $100K. Our test vehicles came well equipped, bringing their prices to $85,445 for the BMW and $96,835 for the Mercedes. The V-8–powered models, the X7 xDrive50i and the GLS580, start near $100,000 and continue the climb from there.
On the Road
These two vehicles largely deliver on our expectations for speed, comfort, and sophistication at this lofty price point. The GLS is refined and comfortable no matter what driving mode it’s in. Even in Comfort mode, it can hustle without feeling floaty. In contrast, an X7 in Comfort mode is softened to the point that its body motions are bothersome. But selecting Adaptive or the Sport setting cinches up those movements considerably. Think raised S-class and 7-series wagons and you won’t be far off. In fact, it’s easy to forget the size and mass and find yourself driving both of them much faster than you realize or intend to.
As in many BMWs, the X7’s steering is somewhat numb and disconnected. We thought we liked the GLS’s far better until we drove them back to back and found the Mercedes’s to be only slightly better. On big impacts, the GLS will send an occasional quiver through its structure, and the giant wheels send more noise and vibes into the cabin over broken roads. The X7 is resolutely solid. The GLS also exhibited odd body undulations over rough sections of roads, almost like they were tripping up its active, hydraulic-and-air suspension, called E-Active Body Control, a $6500 option. Perhaps the base air-spring suspension would do better in this regard. But E-Active Body Control also enables bounce mode, which is always a crowd pleaser, and also the possibility to lean into turns in three different intensities, but that sensation just feels strange in practice.
We might have preferred the X7’s firmer brake pedal over the initial squishiness of the GLS’s, but the GLS dominated in braking and cornering performance—0.92 g on the skidpad and a 154-foot stop from 70 mph—thanks to its $1750 21-inch wheels wearing Pirelli P Zero PZ4 summer tires. Upgraded performance rubber also is an option on the X7, but ours was fitted with 21-inch all-season Bridgestones.
Both of these SUVs are powered by turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-sixes. One key difference is that the GLS’s engine is assisted by an electric motor to boost low-rpm acceleration. The BMW’s engine makes 335 horsepower, and the Benz boasts 362. Despite the power difference, acceleration times are close. The Bimmer and the Benz remain within a tenth of a second of each other from their mid-five-second dashes to 60 mph all the way up to their governed 129-mph top speeds. But it wasn’t hard to pick BMW’s inline-six as our favorite. It’s simply more refined and expensive sounding, more willing to rev to its higher, 7000-rpm redline, and also more responsive. Despite the GLS’s electric assist, the X7 outhustled it in our 30-to-50-mph and 50-to-70-mph passing tests, although part of the credit goes to the BMW’s brilliantly tuned ZF eight-speed automatic transmission. The GLS channels its thrust through Mercedes’s own nine-speed automatic. These big boys also can tow when properly equipped, with the X7 rated to tug up to 7500 pounds and the GLS good for 7700.
The X7’s maintains its powertrain advantage at the gas pump. In our steady 75-mph highway test, the X7 returned 28 mpg versus the GLS’s 24 mpg. And although our GLS had the $1100 acoustic comfort option, which includes additional sound insulation and a laminated, sound-attenuating windshield and double-paned side glass, the X7 was quieter at 70 mph. We measured 66 decibels for the GLS and 64 for the X7.
The Inside View
Take a seat and it’s clear that both of these SUVs are all about extravagance. The GLS’s interior likely benefits from an upcoming Maybach version of the GLS that will crest $200,000. It’s likely that the GLS450’s power-adjustable second-row seats and power headrests are there because the Maybach version will have them. A power headrest isn’t new, but it’s a feature that’s usually missing from the front seats of wildly expensive vehicles, such as the Bentley Bentayga. The X7 also has power-adjustable second-row seats but not headrests, and it has the ability to control them from the driver’s seat.
Both have power-folding second-row seats. On the GLS, however, only the passenger-side seat is electrified, and the button must be held down the entire time it’s returning to its original position. Both the BMW and Mercedes setups are slow to fold. The fold-and-slide options on mainstream SUVs—for example, the Honda Pilot’s excellent one-touch operation—are quicker and more useful, although none of them has a power-return function.
In terms of pure space, the GLS is the clear winner, with far more second- and third-row room. Even sliding the second-row seats all the way forward leaves sufficient space for six-foot-five occupants, whereas the X7’s second row needs to be moved back to find comfort for the 99th percentile. The GLS’s third row has far more head- and legroom and can better accommodate adult humans.
We found the GLS’s front seats slightly more comfortable and also more embracing than the X7’s. But we preferred the appearance of the BMW’s leather to the elephant-skin-look graining on the GLS. And we still love BMW’s double-hinged seatbacks that allow for a separate adjustment of the backrest at shoulder height—part of the $750 Multi-Contour Seats option. The GLS does have one party trick that the X7 lacks. The Benz has a new automatic seat setting based on the driver’s height that does a pretty good job of choosing the right position, but it’s wholly unnecessary unless you just started driving.
A quick glance into the cargo areas makes the GLS appear to be able to carry a lot more than the X7. But in our cargo test of carry-on-suitcase-size boxes, the GLS accommodated four behind its rearmost row, just one more than the X7. Both have one-touch power-folding capability for their third rows, although the BMW goes one step further with dedicated controls for enabling maximum passenger or maximum cargo configurations with a single press of a button.
Even without its expensive active suspension, our GLS would’ve still cost nearly $5000 more than our X7, and yet the BMW had more features and content. Present on the BMW but missing on the Mercedes—although all of these things are on the Benz’s options list—was third-row climate control and heated seats, soft-close doors, and heated front armrests. Both of these utes have a long list of infotainment features and Apple CarPlay compatibility, but the GLS scores an additional mark for also featuring Android Auto. That said, we find BMW’s iDrive setup and its console scrolling wheel easier to navigate than Mercedes’s touchpad-based MBUX system.
The Bottom Line
We’re trying our best to resist the “you decide” cliché, but picking a winner in this case really depends on the buyer’s priorities. The X7 drives slightly better when not in its default Comfort mode, it’s quieter, has the more refined inline-six, and gets notably better fuel economy. However, if it’s space you’re looking for, the GLS dominates with larger second and third rows, and substantially more cargo space. But you pay for the Benz’s accommodations with worse fuel economy, and you’ll also pay more to get the same level of features. That the X7 is less expensive and better to drive while still offering loads of practicality heretofore unseen in the BMW lineup is enough to earn it our vote over the GLS in this initial matchup.