With sport-utilities outselling sedans, even at the luxury level, the automakers are doing all they can to keep them fresh. At Mercedes-Benz, that means a complete redesign of the GLE for 2020.
That means a longer wheelbase, new styling, a new four-cylinder engine along with a mild-hybrid system on the six-cylinder, and new features that include an optional third row. It’s the fourth generation of what used to be the ML, and if the new nomenclature confuses you, remember that the third letter indicates the rank in the lineup: the GLA, GLC, GLE, and GLS increase in size, just as the A-, C-, E-, and S-Class do.
At an event at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, northeast of Toronto, I drove the new GLE 350 (starting price: $64,000) and GLE 450 ($72,000) on public roads, a handling course, and – because 4Matic all-wheel drive is standard – on an off-road trail. A higher-performance AMG GLE 53, not included in the event, will be launched shortly.
The front end is more interesting than the rear, but overall, the GLE is a handsome vehicle. A twin-bar front grille is standard equipment, while the single-bar grille with dots of chrome is an add-on option.
The vehicles tested had some add-ons, including their 21-inch wheels, and on the GLE 450, a $750 upgrade for running boards. Leave these in the box. They’re too narrow to be useful steps, and you end up having to stretch across them to get out, where you then brush the dirt onto your pant leg.
Inside, the cabin stylists poured their hearts and souls into it. The interior is gorgeous, with a smoothly stitched dash, beautiful steering wheel (in available heated leather and wood), and brushed metal accents. Grab handles on the centre console, stolen straight from the Porsche Cayenne, are meant to evoke the GLE’s off-road capability, the company said. Open-pore wood trim is available; it dates back to when the company offered only ultra-glossy wood, and some customers complained that their passengers thought it was plastic. Adding the open-pore option let them know it was genuine tree.
The 2020 model hasn’t yet been rated by the crash-test folks, but given that the 2019 GLE received high ratings from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), I expect this version will as well.
There are some active safety features included as standard equipment, including blind spot monitoring and navigation with traffic sign recognition, but if you want to go higher-tech, you’ve got to check some boxes. Adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, speed limit assist, and active-lane keep assist are part of a $3,000 package.
The package adds some neat stuff, including automated lane-changing on the highway if you activate the turn signal; and a warning, tied into the blind-spot monitoring, that flashes and beeps if you’re parked and about to open your door when a vehicle or cyclist is coming up alongside. And in the ultimate of details, if the vehicle’s systems suspect you’re about to crash, they trigger a quick, loud sound that apparently prepares your ears so they’re not as easily damaged by the boom-blast when the airbags deploy.
Don’t bother dropping the extra $2,400 on the optional third-row seats. They’re strictly for smaller children (who will outgrow them if you keep your GLE long enough), and while they fold flat, you lose your space-saver spare tire in favour of a sealant-and-air-compressor kit. If you regularly need a third row, everyone will be happier if you move up to a GLS.
Beyond that, the GLE satisfies the usual practicality requirements of a five-seater sport-ute, with an acceptable amount of small-item storage up front, 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat, and a decent amount of rear cargo space. It’s easy to get in and out (at least when you don’t opt for the running boards), and the cargo liftover is relatively low. A power liftgate is standard equipment; a hands-free version, where you kick your foot under the bumper to activate it, is standard on the 450, and part of a $2,900 Premium Package on the 350.
User Friendliness: 7/10
Mercedes-Benz always seems to have a knack for blending the simple and the not-quite-so in its vehicles. Climate functions are handled by buttons and toggles – identical ones that often require you to glance down, but buttons nevertheless. The seat adjustment buttons are on the door, and the seat heaters are hard buttons as well.
But there’s also a console-mounted, oft-awkward control touchpad for the infotainment system that’s even less intuitive than the horizontal, half-hidden dial that usually resides here. And the system itself isn’t always easy in the first place. I was driving a GLE that had a head-up display, and which showed me everything but my speed. What the function is up with that? Who doesn’t make speed the one thing that’s always there, no matter what else you want to add to it? I couldn’t figure it out from the touchpad, and even the owner’s manual instructions were hard to understand. It should not take me five minutes to add a display function that should be the default.
The one saving grace, along with touch capability on the 12.3-inch screen, is the latest version of Mercedes-Benz User Experience, or MBUX. Wake up the voice control by saying, “Hey, Mercedes,” and it obeys most commands by listening to natural speech – and does a pretty good job of it, too. The downside? It actually doesn’t require the “Hey” in front of it. If you’re talking to someone about your car and mention the brand name, you’ll be asked what you want your MBUX system to do for you.
You’d expect a vehicle to have a lot of features in this luxury segment, and the GLE delivers, although you’ll pay extra for some of the fancier ones. Standard items include wireless phone charging, heated steering wheel, auto-dimming mirrors, and a sunroof, while add-ons include heated rear seats, heated front armrests, massaging front seats, head-up display, heated and cooled cupholders, and soft-close doors.
Navigation is standard – as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – and the map features “augmented reality.” When on a route, as you get closer to a turn, a front-mounted camera broadcasts a real-time video of what’s ahead, with street names and numbers superimposed on it. It comes in handy when signs are hard to see, or if your destination doesn’t have a house number on it.
The GLE 350 is powered by a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder making 255 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, while the 450 amps up with a 3.0L turbocharged inline six-cylinder that churns out 362 horses and 369 lb-ft. The upcoming AMG version will use that straight-six, but coax 429 horses and 384 lb-ft of torque from it.
The 450’s six-cylinder includes a self-charging, 48-volt mild hybrid system, called EQ Boost, that adds an additional 21 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, in short bursts as required for acceleration. The electrification smooths everything out, building power rather than launching you backwards into the head restraint. Even though it gets you to 100 km/h faster, it doesn’t actually feel quicker than the 350 version. The most noticeable difference is when you’re accelerating hard when you’re already at speed, where the 450 feels stronger.
Both engines are hooked to a nine-speed automatic transmission, and both have the brand’s 4Matic all-wheel drive. On the GLE 350 it’s a fixed split, with torque always distributed 50/50 between the front and rear axles. The 450 uses a transfer case with multi-disc clutch that’s primarily rear-wheel biased but which moves power to the front wheels as needed.
The German automakers have a knack for creating seats that may initially feel a bit hard, but which are incredibly supportive and provide long-distance comfort for one’s spine and legs.
The ride is smooth and in “Comfort” level becomes almost ridiculously comfortable, to the point that it can be too soft over undulating roads. I preferred the “Sport” setting, which firmed up to provide a still-more-than-decent amount of bump-soaking, but with better driving feel.
The second-row seats are as comfortable and supportive as the front ones, and with most of the extra wheelbase dedicated there, the extra legroom makes them even better. As mentioned previously, you’re best to leave the third-row option unchecked, both for comfort and cargo capability.
Driving Feel: 9/10
For all its size, the GLE is nimble enough, and with a surprisingly tight turning circle, that it feels smaller than it is when you’re manoeuvring it around. The steering is quick and responsive, but also very smooth: this is a luxury sport-ute, not a sports car.
Available on the GLE 450 is E-Active Body Control, powered by the 48-volt system, which can individually control the suspension at each wheel. It includes a forward-facing camera that looks ahead for road imperfections and adjusts the suspension for a smoother ride. On the handling course, at 60 km/h over a series of speed bumps, the wheels bounced over them while the body stayed almost flat.
Also included is a curve tilting function that leans into a corner, at varying degrees of intensity up to 3 degrees. It’s not so much for handling, as for helping to keep the passengers upright. I drove with it on the slalom course, and initially it’s a pretty weird feeling as it leans the opposite way to what you’d expect.
Bring up a slider on the centre screen, and you can lift or lower the suspension on each wheel. But by far the weirdest function is rocking, available only when in off-road driving mode, which bounces the GLE like it’s on a trampoline. The idea is that, as with the timeworn trick of rocking a transmission between Drive and Reverse, the motion helps the vehicle dig itself out if it’s stuck in mud, snow, or sand. But since you need the optional $2,450 air suspension, and then $6,900 for the E-Active, a tow truck will probably be cheaper.
As with most premium all-wheel SUVs, any manufacturer’s driving event must include a tough off-road course. The 450’s variable all-wheel did a remarkably good job of getting through the muddy trail, even on asphalt-intended tires, but really, if you can afford to spend $107,000 on a GLE 450 with all the suspension upgrades, your cottage road does not have jutting rocks and mud bogs.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
Even though the 2020 models are available to order, Natural Resources Canada hasn’t released official fuel figures for the two engines yet. We’ll have to wait until we get them for regular test drives to report on how much fuel goes through them.
For reference, the US EPA has published figures of 12.4 / 9.0 / 10.7 L/100 km city / highway / combined for the GLE 350, and 12.4 / 9.8 / 11.2 L/100 city / highway / combined for the GLE 450.
Value is always relative, and in relation to some of its competition, the GLE can leave you with a bit more in your wallet, especially if you don’t tick off too many of the available option packages.
A BMW X5 40i starts at $76,000, and the 50i at $86,000; an Audi Q7 begins at $66,300; and a Porsche Cayenne starts at $76,700. Mercedes-Benz’s offerings start at $64,000 for the GLE 350, and $72,000 for the GLE 450, making them viable contenders.
The GLE’s makeover is a good one: the engines are strong and smooth, the ride is comfortable, and the interiors are gorgeous. I’d like some of the features to be a little less cumbersome to operate, and I don’t think I’d be shelling out an additional $9,300 in total to get that trick electronic suspension, but overall, behind this wheel is a very nice place to be.
|Engine Displacement||GLE 350: 2.0L; GLE 450: 3.0L|
|Engine Cylinders||GLE 350: I4; GLE 450: I6|
|Peak Horsepower||GLE 350: 255 hp @ 5,800 rpm; GLE 450: 362 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||GLE 350: 273 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm; GLE 450: 369 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|Cargo Space||630 L|
|Model Tested||2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE|
|Base Price||GLE 350: $64,000; GLE 450: $72,000|
|Price as Tested||N/A|