If you read our larger comparison story pitting the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 4Matic against the 2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i, the 2020 Lincoln Navigator 4×4 Black Label, and the 2021 Cadillac Escalade ESV 4WD Premium Luxury, you already know how this one shakes out. But within MotorTrend‘s larger-field comparos, there are always head-to-head matchups that demand deeper examination—and the 2020 Mercedes Benz GLS580 4Matic versus the 2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i is a natural throwdown.
Neither the Mercedes-Benz—built in Vance, Alabama—nor the BMW—hailing from Spartanburg, South Carolina—is new to the SUV game, but the latter is a new combatant in the luxury full-size SUV battle.
BMW launched the X7 as an all-new model in late 2019 for the 2020 model year, making it the 7 Series of SUVs in terms of the company’s product array. For this review, we employed our long-term 2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i. In the case of the Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class, the full-size three-rower is now in its third generation, which began with the 2020 model year. Sticking to the same analogy, consider our GLS580 4Matic test car the S-Class of Mercedes SUVs.
If you’ve noted one thing so far, it’s likely the fact Mercedes has quite a leg up on BMW when it comes to its experience selling SUVs of this size—going back to the predecessor of the GLS-Class, the 2007 GL-Class. That’s a big on-paper advantage in terms of developing and refining a particular vehicle concept, but the gulf between the big-boy GLS-Class and X7 doesn’t put them an ocean apart in the real world.
An important note about prices and powertrains, and the two vehicles we did not have present for this test: BMW makes an X7 M50i powered by a 523-hp twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8, with a starting price of $100,795. Mercedes-Benz offers a GLS450 with a mild-hybrid I-6 engine making 362 hp, and a base price of $76,195. Those alternative trims represent a better apples-to-apples money and engine comparison to the models we tested, as the GLS580 starts at $99,795, and the X7 xDrive40i at $74,895. However, price and horsepower did not contribute significantly to the outcome of this comparison test.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 vs. 2020 BMW X7: Interior
Neither one of these luxury three-row SUVs’ interiors caused our testers to stop in their tracks. (The Lincoln Navigator that won our overall contest was the only entrant to inspire anything approaching that reaction.) Between the BMW and Mercedes, though, we were unanimous in our opinions: The X7 wins this round.
The BMW’s interior is quieter while driving than the Benz’s is, and its quilted brown leather (complete with an interesting waveform pattern on the seats’ upper portions and spines) was notably attractive. Meanwhile, our test car’s combination of walnut, satin metallic, and black interior trim looked great. Frankly, BMW’s overall fit, finish, and materials choice make the 2020 X7 xDrive40i feel like a significantly more expensive car than the Mercedes—even though its as-tested price of $96,895 undercuts the Benz’s by $11,240. That’s a big win right there.
Some of our drivers found the 2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i’s seats, even when adjusted as much to their liking as possible, notably flat. Features editor Scott Evans said the seats do “very little to try to keep me in them, except poke me in the thighs.”
While the X7’s interior is filled with nice materials, the overall design is nothing fresh from BMW, and the wood’s gloss finish displayed a surprising amount of orange peel, making the wood itself appear fake. Meanwhile, all of the control buttons surrounding the shifter feel and look the same, so it’s virtually impossible to use any of them while driving without staring down at the center console instead of the road. And as features editor Christian Seabaugh noted, “With iDrive and MBUX, Mercedes and BMW seem like they’re in a race to the bottom to see who can make the most frustrating infotainment system. They’re both winning (losing?).”
Moving rearward in the cabin, the second-row bench seat’s power-operated bottom slides fore and aft. We were happy to see BMW maintained the front-passenger space’s materials quality and trim through the second-row area; the second row even features the same stitching pattern as found on the spine of the front seats, and the bench seating was comfortable and supportive.
Third-row access, however, is slow via power actuation. So slow, in fact, the seats may as well be manually controlled; we’d trade the speed of doing it ourselves for the “convenience” of pushing a button. The third row itself is tighter than the Benz’s, and we deem it fit for use only by children on anything but short trips. Conversely, while getting in the third row takes forever—and, unlike the Mercedes, the X7’s is narrow and limited to two seats—it is also easily the nicer of the two, with wood trim carried all the way back. You even get your own climate controls and reading lights.
Other notable points: Associate editor Eleonor Segura called the X7 “by far the most comfortable” and praised “the gorgeous crystal” shift lever. We also enjoyed the front seats’ eight different massage options that take care of you from rump to shoulders.
Similar to the X7, the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580’s interior is certainly nice, but it doesn’t break new ground. It’s effectively the same old interior design Mercedes has, for better or worse, used for the last few years. Compared to the manufacturer’s latest products—such as the new, actual S-Class sedan—it comes off as dated.
Indeed, the leather, wood, and metal trim pieces within the GLS580 are all the genuine articles, but they no longer feel particularly special—especially not in a vehicle with a starting price of $99,795. There are cheaper SUVs with features such as an Alcantara headliner, as one example, which you don’t get here. As Seabaugh observed, “This feels like a base model, and for $115K, you shouldn’t be reminded about the options you didn’t buy.”
We continue to find the MBUX infotainment interface finicky and at times frustrating to use, but you can mitigate some of that once you spend a fair amount of time with the system to build your fluency with it.
From a perceived-luxury standpoint, the GLS580 delivered more tire, wind, and engine noise than the BMW did. Unlike the X7, however, the second row features power-operated individual captain’s seats with nicely formed shells. You might prefer this setup, as some of us did, but some of our testers also leaned toward the X7’s bench seat, as it felt at times like we were sitting in a bucket. Blame different body types for that one; your mileage may vary. Evans was annoyed to discover the second row’s USB ports and power outlet hidden in a pop-out cubby underneath the second-row climate controls, making them more difficult to reach than he wished.
Overall, the seats in the GLS-Class are firmer than the X7’s, but they are comfortable and easy to adjust—except for the front-seat bolsters. To fine-tune those, you need to pull up the seat menu on the infotainment screen and make adjustments accordingly. Speaking of which, one fantastic feature is Mercedes-Benz’s Energizing Comfort function, which mixes sound, graphics, ambient lighting, and massage settings to deliver a relaxing experience.
Moving to the third row, the seating position is rather upright, but the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 boasts more third-row headroom, legroom, and shoulder room than BMW’s X7, mostly by an inch or two. In reality, jumping from one to the other doesn’t feel hugely different and results in the same conclusions: Adults will not want to ride in the way-back for long journeys. Accessing the third row can also be annoying: The second-row seat drops forward via power, but only on the SUV’s passenger side, and it’s again a painfully slow process.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 vs. 2020 BMW X7: The Drive
During a comparison like this, we always keep in mind the fact these are not performance SUVs. But for customers who enjoy the driving experience as much or more than they enjoy hauling people and cargo around town, the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 is the easy choice.
The GLS feels and drives far more like a passenger car than the X7 does, with a firm, responsive setup from its air-spring suspension. The BMW also features air springs, but Mercedes has tuned its version further toward the sporty side of the equation.
Steering response is relatively quick, and the GLS580 will actually provide some fun on a twisting country road. This characteristic might be beside the point for a vehicle in this segment, but the chassis is impressively buttoned down. It allows you to push it through curves with giggles while providing you a good sense of the forces building through the tires and steering.
The trade-off is a little passenger head toss and, at times, a less coddling ride than buyers might at first expect. But we’re talking in relative terms here: Even with the drive-mode switch set to Sport, the GLS is far from overly stiff. Some drivers will be happy to leave it in the more aggressive setting on well-maintained roads. The Benz’s overall suspension damping is excellent across a wide range of driving conditions and easily trumped its challenger.
The 2020 BMW X7 xDrive40i caused all of our test drivers to complain about its ride. Whereas the GLS settled down over all manner of bumps and suspension impacts, the X7’s body felt like it was moving constantly. It’s not a huge deal when you’re riding in the front seats, but it’s easy to imagine rear passengers having a worse experience. The overall ride is busy and underdamped, with a fair amount of body roll, to boot.
As Evans said, “The body control is just disappointing, especially for a BMW. The steering is very sharp immediately off-center, and every time you turn the wheel it pitches the car over on the front outside wheel. The body is always moving around—side to side, diagonally, front and back, and it’s never settled for long. The only upshot here is, the final ride quality is pretty good as a result of the very soft suspension, but no better than the Mercedes. Put it in Sport mode to fix the body control, and you lose the ride quality.”
As for powertrains, this contest wasn’t a fair fight if raw acceleration is your bag. The GLS580 comes with a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8—plus an electric motor—producing 483 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque. The engine is paired with a nine-speed automatic, and the combination is good for a 0-60-mph run of 4.7 seconds and a quarter mile time of 13.2 seconds at 105.9 mph.
The X7 xDrive40i features an eight-speed auto and BMW’s turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six, which makes 335 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. It ran from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds and covered the quarter mile in 14.2 seconds at 96.8 mph.
That said, as smooth as the three-pointed star’s mild-hybrid “EQ” powertrains are, we found the transmission of the GLS was prone to the occasional jerky downshift, especially when we caught the engine about to shut down to its fuel-saving “sail” mode. This usually happened when passing slower traffic and was accompanied by a moment of hesitation when doing so. The likewise fuel-saving stop/start system is usually very smooth, but more than once we also caught it by surprise when we released the brake pedal right as it was about to kill the engine. It gave a big, unbecoming clunk in these instances as it reengaged.
As for the X7, we liked the smooth-revving I-6. But while it is easily powerful enough for city driving, it starts to run out of bang north of 70 mph on the freeway—and that’s with just one person aboard. You’ll definitely feel it sweat with a full load of passengers and gear. However, its transmission is ultrasmooth and generally unnoticeable, and we never caught it asleep on the job. It performs and feels exactly as a gearbox should in a luxury vehicle.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 vs. 2020 BMW X7: The Winner Is
The Mercedes-Benz GLS580 is our pick over the BMW X7 xDrive40i mainly for its superior driving dynamics, and especially for its ride quality. Despite Mercedes providing a more powerful model for this test, the associated acceleration numbers didn’t factor much into our analysis.
While some might prefer the BMW’s interior to the Benz’s, the overall experience and functionality isn’t nearly superior enough to swing the vote in the X7’s favor. We also can’t overlook the slightly larger third-row accommodations of the GLS or its 17.4 cubic feet of rear cargo capacity with the third row in use (compare that with the BMW’s 10.3 cubic feet).
It’s important to note, however, the BMW wins the fuel-economy fight, boasting EPA ratings of 20/25 mpg city/highway compared to the 16/21 figures of the Mercedes. But if you’re flat-out looking to drive the overall best three-row luxury SUV available now from a German automaker, then the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS580 is our number one draft pick.
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