Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: October 2, 2019
BOWMANVILLE, Ontario - It all started with the ML-Class back in 1997. This mid-size luxury SUV hosted sizable proportions, luxury amenities, and enough off-roading chops to outrun some of Jurassic Park’s most notorious dinosaurs. Mercedes claims it was the progenitor of the luxury SUV, and kicked off a tidal wave of similarly appointed family haulers that not only looked great but could handle sticky situations better than any low-riding sedan or coupe. Now in its fourth-generation, the successor to the ML, renamed the GLE to coincide with the E-Class nomenclature, aims to solidify its place in this lucrative SUV segment with more interior space, efficient powertrains, innovative suspension enhancements, and for the first-time ever, optional three-row seating.
Sitting on the same platform as the full-size GLS that we recently reviewed, the wheelbase of the GLE has been stretched by 80 mm, 64 mm of that added directly to rear seat legroom. It has also been given a facelift, following with Mercedes’ current design language with a two LED strips per headlight alluding to its E-Class lineage, standard 20-inch wheels, and the GLE’s unique trapezoidal taillights. And while some may find its soft and sober looks less appealing than the bolder BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne, it’s an entirely different story once you hop into the cabin.
Mercedes sure knows how to design an upscale interior. In fact, the GLE feels like a monumental step up from the compact GLC. Every surface, touch point, dial, and lever feels premium, fully-baked, and worthy of the silver star price tag. As standard, dual 12.3-inch screens are mounted along the dashboard, something we’ve seen grace every other new Mercedes like the S-Class, and are some of the most visually high definition and theatrical screens on the market. Compared to the one-screen affair on the rivaling X5 and Cayenne, the GLE will tug on the heartstrings of anyone looking for the latest gizmos.
The GLE utilizes the new MBUX infotainment system paired with an Apple-like trackpad instead of the outgoing rotary dial and number buttons. Users can tap, slide, pinch, and scroll, much like the inputs that command your smartphone. And while the rotary dial was our preferred method for interface control (it still is), this new trackpad is intuitive enough to use on the fly. I still prefer BMW’s iDrive unit with the row of eight programmable shortcut buttons, but the learning curve here is small and the menus are horizontally laid out with large button prompts. It’s similar to the Lexus interface that also uses a trackpad, but the MBUX unit is less complicated, the screens are not overloaded, and the input sensitivity level is more fluid and consistent.
If the trackpad is not to your liking, you can alternatively input your commands directly via the touchscreen, haptic touch buttons on each side of the steering wheel, or the new ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice command feature that acts much like your Google Home or Android Alexa. You can verbally instruct the car to do your bidding, whether it’s turning on the massaging seats, or adjusting the cabin temperature. Mercedes’ product planners said we could ask it whatever we pleased, so we firmly asked our GLE, “what do you think of BMW?,” to which it cheekily replied, “same as you, or else you would not be sitting here.” Some pundits were keen to point out and complain that anytime you casually mention the word ‘Mercedes’ in conversation, the system will cue itself up and interrupt you, but how often are you really saying that name? Mercedes has also implemented its latest augmented reality system for the navigation maps as well, which uses a video image from the front camera and overlays the screen in real time with helpful navigational information like street names, directional arrows, and correct lanes for turning. We’re happy to report that it works exceptionally well.
The rest of the interior follows the exact same format as the flagship GLS, housing squared off air vents, door-mounted seat controls, and center grab handles that are a neat off-roading touch but don’t play much of an ergonomic nor functional role to the everyday commute. Instead, they get in the way of you reaching the center trackpad and cupholders. Nary a feature has been left out however, with 64-colour ambient lighting, optional open-pore wood steering wheels, and illuminated running boards. The cupholders are even temperature-controlled, with the ability to keep your Starbucks beverage heated or cooled from 8- to 55-degrees Celsius. Keep in mind though, that they will not heat or cool your drink, rather it will maintain them within that temperature margin.
As expected, second-row seat room is spacious and accommodating, with more than enough wiggle room for my six-foot figure. The third row, not nearly so, and is best suited for children. It’s reasonably comfortable enough for small adults but should be limited to short journeys, much like the third-row capability in the Volvo XC90. Other competitively-priced luxury SUVs like the Cadillac XT6 and Infiniti QX60 offer a more usable third row.
There are currently three GLE models on tap, starting at the bottom with the GLE 350 ($64,000) housing a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 255 hp and 273 lb-ft, enough to sprint from 0-100 km/h in 7.1 seconds. The GLE 450 ($72,000) is where things get interesting, as it utilizes a 3.0L inline six-cylinder that delivers 362 hp and 369 lb-ft, in addition to a mild hybrid system that consists of a 48-volt battery and integrated starter-generator. These power the car’s electronics, act as both a starter motor and alternator, allows the engine to shut off entirely while coasting at certain speeds, and dishes out 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of supplementary torque that serves as an intermediary to eliminate turbo lag. That ensures the GLE 450 hits 100 km/h in a speedier 5.5 seconds.
The GLE 53 AMG is set to be launched at the end of this year, and takes the same -450 powertrain, tunes it for more power, and adds an additional electric auxiliary compressor to keep the turbo spooled at all times, much like the CLS 53 AMG. All three GLE models are hooked up to a 9-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, though the -450 and -53 utilize a variable AWD system instead, which means it can shuffle 100% of torque to either axle. Mercedes also tells us that we can expect a full beans -63 AMG version down the pipeline, as well as a fully electric variant similar to the upcoming EQC.
Like the GLS, the GLE offers a host of innovative technology to improve driving dynamics. For the full S-Class ride, you will want to check the box for E-Active Body Control ($6,900), a trick suspension system that uses electronically-driven hydraulics to control the spring and damper forces at each individual wheel. Mercedes says it’s the only system worldwide that can do this, and the application to the GLE allows it to challenge the off-road credentials of the Range Rover. Each spring can be individual controlled, raised, or lowered depending on the situation. Drivers can even dive into the infotainment screen and control the suspension height at each wheel themselves, or activate Rocking Mode where the dampers rock the GLE back and forth, and up and down, to free itself from deep sand or sticky situations. But from the outside, it seems like the occupants are engaging in Discovery Channel antics.
E-Active Body Control has other uses catered towards ride comfort like Curve Mode, which tilts the GLE up to three degrees into bends like a motorcycle to reduce lateral forces on occupants. While theoretically effective, the response is not the most pleasant for passengers, as the constant tilting and leaning from side to side can render them nauseous when they’re busy staring at their phones. The system also makes use of a front-facing camera to scan the road ahead, and it automatically preloads the dampers before hitting bumps for a smoother ride. While Mercedes does not expect a big take rate for these added features, it’s still a neat showcase of how far suspension and camera technology have come.
We took the GLE through its paces on the barren roads around Bowmanville, Ontario, and subjected it to brittle potholes and even a dedicated off-road course housed within the grounds of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park racetrack. While the GLE is not the most ideal piece of machinery to take corners at speed, the nicely weighted steering made it easy to articulate the front wheels, and the clever suspension counteracted any top heavy lean. The GLE does not noticeably squat or pitch under heavy braking or hard acceleration either, something its counterparts know all too well. And even though most owners won’t ever take their GLE off the beaten path, our 20-minute excursion on a dedicated off-road course showed us just how capable it is. Shod with summer rubber, the GLE was able to climb slippery slopes, navigate over deep elephant holes with two wheels in the air, and traverse through slim treelines with the help of an army of cameras.
We are splitting hairs but the ride in the GLE is a bit firmer than the BMW X5, could be due to the large 21-inch wheels. While the ride isn’t brittle, you do feel more suspension impact making its way into the cabin. That said, the dampers are so adept at predicting and absorbing impacts that there really is no better compliment than to say it’s incredibly comfortable and a welcome partner for long journeys.
While smooth and well executed, the inline-six engine in the GLE 450 needs a bit more juice in the mid-range, and there is a bit of hesitation and laziness from the gearbox when kicking down the throttle. And while the GLE 450 sounds exceptionally throaty and emits a decent exhaust growl, you don’t get the same sense of urgency as you would in the X5 xDrive40i or Cayenne S. The GLE prefers to take its time and ensure its occupants aren’t bothered by noise and throttle whiplash but boy, is that hybrid system one smooth operator. Even on engine ignition, the engine purrs to life but audibly and physically, you barely notice a thing. Surprisingly, the GLE 350 with its smaller four-cylinder engine does not feel as handicapped by its diminutive output, and while not as smooth at launch, it gets up to speed with a similar amount of propulsion. However, you can clearly feel its limits, as it huffs and puffs to catch its breath when hard on the throttle. The GLE 450 is the one to get but you’re not losing much with the GLE 350, especially if you frequent civilian duties rather than spirited drives up your local backroads.
Even four generations after its debut, the GLE continues to impress us with sophisticated road manners, an army of clever suspension technology, and a dazzling interior filled to the brim with digital real estate. While its ride may not offer the same kind of sumptuous cushioning and road confidence as the BMW X5, or the athleticism and corner carving ability as the Porsche Cayenne, the GLE instead focuses on solidifying its own niche as the leader in infotainment and premium amenities. It’s a calm, hypotensive, and sentient travelling machine.
Model: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 4MATIC SUV
Paint Type: Cavansite Blue Metallic
Base Price: $72,000
Price as Tested: $107,040
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,924 / 2,157 / 1,772
Curb weight (kg): 2,265
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six with EQ Boost
Horsepower: 362 hp @ 5,500 - 6,100 rpm
Torque: 369 lb-ft @ 1,600 - 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD