About a year ago, I decided it was time to move my 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee on to greener pastures.  It was still in great shape, but I had reservations about the Jeep brand being around for very long in South Africa.  It had served me well, and as far as the overall car was concerned, I really liked it.  But a few niggles lurked that I needed to take care of and they were not minor expenses.  I had had the rear diff crown bearings replaced and for some reason the diff whine came back and drove me crazy when decelerating from 100kmh to 80kmh.  Fine for city driving, but not so much for highway use.  This was going to be a larger expense to replace and I thought I would spend the R30k on a new car instead. 

But before I discuss the new car, I would like to make mention of the absolute pearl in the 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  It was the Mercedes CRD 3.0 V6 diesel (OM642) - what a beautiful beast it was!  It delivered 600nm and 195kw and Jeep had paired it with a Mercedes 5 speed automatic gearbox, which was both a blessing and a frustration.  The best part was the raw power that car delivered - not once did I have to use the low range - it simply had spare power at hand whenever you needed it.  The downside was it could really have used a 6th gear - as at 120kmh the revs were at 2500, and could have been sitting at 2000 which is where peak power output is.  So for those longer drives, the car was working a little harder than it needed to and was not as fuel efficient as it could have been.  It was far from terrible though, and still achieved 11L / 100km on average, which is fine for a 2500kg car doing 120kmh.  And it was shaped like a brick!

Bearing this in mind, and just how great the Mercedes CRD engine was, I decided to find an actual Merc GL (I'm a family man and like a big car for holidays etc.) that was within my budget.  The theory was that if Mercedes made such a killer motor that was just geared a litte low in the Jeep, then imagine how great the Merc GL must be with it's 7 speed gearbox and the same awesome V6 diesel.  The only real consideration was price - the first generation model I was interested in was the facelift version from 2010-2012 and was the Mercedes Benz GL 350 CDI X164 variant.  As a used option the retail price was around the R300k-400k mileage dependent.  Some variants had the rear seat entertainment and a few other bells that I did not really care about. The facelift version had an improved engine map that delivered 195Kw and 590NM - so very similar to the Jeeps output from this same engine.  It also came with side running boards as standard.

So how much of an improvement was the Mercedes GL over the Jeep Grand Cherokee?

Now bear in mind this is not a direct comparrison of the one against the other, as the 2011-2021 Grand Cherokee is in a different leauge to the older version I had been driving.  It has many bells and whistles such as air suspension and a 7 speed grearbox but sadly the first diesel variant  VM Moturi only came out in 2013, and it was not the same Mercedes diesel that I respected.  As mentioned, I had my reservations about "exotic" diesel cars and an Italian made VM Moturi diesel needed to prove itself to me before I jumped in.  I'm not saying they are bad, but if I'm cruising through the Northern Cape somewhere near Riemvasmaak and my VM Moturi gives me trouble, it's going to be the worst holiday of my life.  Mercedes mechanics tend to be available in most major satellite towns, like Upington and I'm not a fan of Dealer Only service centres when it come to older cars - purely from a budget perspective.  The Merc OM642 also has the advantage of powering more than just the ML and GL SUV's - it can be found in the S320/350, CLS320/350, E3350, C320, the VITO and the Sprinter.  Also used in the Chrysler 300C and the Dodge/ Freightliner - so a very well respected motor.  I think you get the picture and I'll end the powerplant praise right there, but basically you are not far from a qualified technician if something should go wrong.  And this is a fairly major consideration as we are shopping for a used car that will have reasonable mileage and is expected to take the family far and wide on holiday and also provide a comfortable daily driver.

Back to the difference between the car I had been driving and the new one:  The GL pretty much has it all - it's a luxury car with many features that make for comfortable driving enhanced practicality.  It has air suspension (more on that later), 7 seats where the rear 2 fold away into the floor at the push of a button and the seats themselves are very generously sized. Full leather interior with aircon in the roof panels that allows all passengers to control their heating/cooling needs independently. It has Park Distance Control and Blind Spot indicators built into the wing mirrors.  The wing mirrors have down lighting and fold away automatically on parking which is important because the GL really is a MASSIVE car.  It's not quite a van, but it's wider and longer than any other SUV I've ever driven.  It has lots of space and is very comfortable to be both the passenger and driver. It has a remote boot/tailgate opening and closing capability and side window flaps for the 3rd row ventilation.  The rear seats have a fixed glass sun panel with a sliding blind and the front has a large sunroof which automatically closes when it detects rain! 

It's also a very capable 4x4 and shares some of the same differential DNA with the mighty G Wagon.  And no it's not simply an extended ML, the GL has a limited slip differential and a low range selector, which the ML does not.  This makes it a very capable off-roader, and even though the spare wheel is a space saver, it can go places the ML will not.  The ride height is adjustable with 4 modes:  Normal, Ofroad level 2 and Level 3 which gives about 30cm clearance.  There is also a Sport mode which drops the car an additional ±10mm for highway driving and gives you slightly less drag and therefore better fuel economy.  The ride comfort settings give you Sport/Normal/Comfort modes that adjust the dampening of the suspension to be soft or hard - the latter being Sport.

Then there's a host of Navigation and Entertainment options which are now a bit dated but work well enough to provide directions and music. The same display gives you a reverse camera when you slip the column shift into reverse, essential on a car this size.  It has a 6 shuttle CD (if you still roll with those) and multiple inputs for iPod/USB/SD cards too.  2 Power points up front and one for the 2nd row to charge devices on the long haul.  So it has a lot of Stuff (and potential for things to go wrong)!  But it's a Mercedes right and the brand is built around paying more for quality - at least that's what I'm banking on...

Let's run a few numbers:

I was able to find a 2011 Mercedes Benz GL350 CDI 4 Matic with 148 000km for R320 000 from a private seller.  Similar year/mileage models were selling for R320k-R380k and I even saw one for R420k but it was very low mileage at 68 000km.  My car had a full service history, was clean inside and most importantly, the air suspension bellows had been replaced recently.  I had a closer look and discovered that it had 4 previous owners and the option to extend the Mercedes Service Plan for another 2 years to beyond 100 000km had not been taken - which is a great pity.  So this car's dealer services ended at 100 000km, not the end of the world but it just meant that possible neglect had occurred. I would adjust my offer price based on this.

I made an offer of R280 000 and the seller accepted!  Delighted to be the proud owner of the GL, I just had to sell my 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  We Buy Cars (don't use them) offered a miserable R86 000.  The car was insured for R180 000 and even though the mileage was at 187 000km, it was fair for the year.  I ended up selling it privately for R125 000 and made full disclosure to the buyer about the noisy rear diff.  I was hoping to R160k but Jeeps resale value is appalling so I accepted the depreciation as part of life and looked forward to driving my new "Merc GL".

A pertinent questions would be: is the 1 year younger 2011 Merc GL (145 000km) worth more than twice the price of the 2010 Grand Cherokee (187 000km), or are you simply paying for the badge?   Well I suppose the only way to figure that out would be cost of ownership in the coming years - hence this log of ownership costs.

So let's start with monthly set costs:

Fuel: Slight improvement with highway driving in the GL because of 7 speed gearbox.  Urban should be no change, possibly worse as it's 300kg heavier.
Insurance: Amazingly the GL is insured at R760pm and the Grand Cherokee was R1050pm - so that an immediate R300 saving. I can only imagine the cost reduction for insurance is because of a cheaper parts basket.  Shop around on comparecarinsurance
Warranty: The previous owner left me the balance of 2 year Motorite Warranty.  You can find monthly warranties on warrantyextender
Tyres:  Ok, so this is NOT going to be a happy day, as the GL runs on 20inch rims and those are at least R4k per tyre.  It might be worth finding a set of 18/19inch rims and tyres as the bundle price will no doubt be more affordable AND then sand driving and slow rock hopping will be possible.
Service Items:  I plan to have the car serviced at my trusted local workshop and so I will be using Midas/Goldwagen/Mercedes to source the most cost effective filters and lubricants. You might want to take your car to a Mercedes Dealership for the service and that's great, but I'm on a budget here and I believe that I can get the same quality items for far less by doing a little bit of homework. My local workshop allows me to supply parts - yours might not.

The Expensive Unknown Costs of actual Ownership

Suspension:

At this point, I have owned the Merc GL for exactly a year.  I had started off knowing that the air suspension was a potential big ticket item, but the previous owner said that he had replaced a front Air Bellows and one rear one.  The idea being that you simply replace the problem air bellows as they arise (or fall). This was good news as air suspension is frighteningly expensive if you buy from Mercedes (R57k for complete system) and only slightly less frightening if you buy from another vendor.  Scarcely a month had passed and I noticed the GL not sitting quite right in the mornings - front right sagging a little!  So I did what any sensible guy would do and pumped the car up into second level and it somehow managed to keep the car from sagging, but was obviously not a permanent solution. Just a note on leaky air suspension - the car will automatically pump up the lowered side when you start it and run the engine, so you are not at any risk of riding low and causing any damage to the car or risk to your safety.  The airbags get little cracks in them over time and these micro-leaks eventually let enough air escape for it to be noticeable.  When you change ride heights these cracks close up as the bellows (airbags) fold in over themselves and the cracks seal for as long as that position is maintained.  The downside is that you are not always going to be happy driving around with your car in high clearance settings, especially on the highway.  In fact the GL drops you down to normal height when you exceed 110kmh anyway.  Sport driving mode drops you another 5-10mm further to improve aerodynamics and resulting economy.  The short answer is, you're going to need to replace them sooner or later.  I would do so after my trip to the Northern Cape as the suspension was reasonable until now and there was little danger.

Fast forward 2 months to the June/July school holidays and I'm punishing the GL over a particularly bad section of rutted road from Sutherland to Calvinia.  I have the mode set to comfort to ease the ride and I firmly believe that rutted roads should be navigated at a speed of 90-100kmh, no less otherwise you hit all the corrugation and shake your car to pieces.  Maintaining this speed resuts in a significantly smoother ride - but you need to be on your toes.  It's also essential to deflate your tyres to around 1.6/1.8bar or you will rip them.  All fine and without any incidents we continue through to the Orange River - down to Riemvasmaak and the GL is still happy.  Over to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and then I made a mistake - I did not deflate the tyres to 1.8bar and was driving a very harsh section of road when suddently BANG!  My front left dipped and after a quick inspection I could hear the front hissing and the car would not maintain an elevated position.  No problem, I simply let it go into normal position and it stayed there.  I was very lucky, something either hit the bellows or they just gave out on the corrugations but the tear was in a high up position and the car sealed this hole in the bellows when it deflated.  Back home I now had the option to replace only the leaky bellows front and rear, or I could replace all 4, which is what I opted to do as I wanted to treat this wonderful car right. So after many phone calls 4 new bellows were found @ R3000 per bag from a third party supplier who offered a 1 year warranty and directed me to an installer whom he trusted.  The installer could do the entire job for R2000.  So I now had 4 new airbags installed and I was R14,000 poorer but compared to the Mercedes dealership option of complete replacement I had come off lightly, or so I thought.  I drove around for a month but something was not right - the suspension had become noisy since the Northern Cape trip and it wallowed in the rear.  After multiple short trips and several helpful opinions later, it was determined that the actual suspension struts were dead.  I would need new shocks front and rear...  See where this is going?

Much to my complete frustration, I have now determined that you cannot buy front shocks only.  The struts and airbags/bellows come as a complete unit unless I would like to buy locally re-manufactured struts only from a company in Joburg (Air Shock Centre).  But they could only supply the front struts (@ R7500pc) and I would need to send the old cores back to them.  The rear struts could not be re-manufactured and I would need to buy new ones.  I was advised by multiple source that the cheaper Chinese struts for both the front and rear were not an option as they were noisy. So really only one way forward here:  Completely new front struts and bellows as they do not sell Billstein nor Arnott struts only.  For the rear I could get away with struts only as the 2 components are separated and can be removed independently and remember I had only recently fitted new airbags front and rear - which meant that I now had a spare set of front airbags (going half price if anybody wants them).  So a very sad day when I had to cough up an additional R40,000 for Arnott  struts and bellows plus another R2,100 fitment.

At this point I have now spent R14k + R42k = R56k on getting what is essentially ALL NEW suspension.  The Arnott's carry a limited 2 year warranty (would have been a limited lifetime warranty in the US) so I'm reasonably assured of quality here.  I chose have mine imported as the cost saving was worthwhile on the Arnotts (All American Car Parts - speak to Brandon) but I did find Billsteins from Goldwagen to be much cheaper than MB.

Obviously spending R56,000 on suspension would leave a bitter taste in anybodies mouth - but then this was a Million Rand car when new in 2011.  I now know my suspension is good for a long long time.

To be continued...

Author: Pierre Theron