Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: October 12, 2020
The GLE SUV has always been a team favourite. The perfect size for both small and large families, what used to be known as the ML-Class has spawned countless iterations, as well as piqued the interest of competitors like the BMW X5, Volvo XC90, and Lexus RX. We’ve tested the new 2020 non-AMG iterations last year, with the GLE 350 and GLE 450 both sporting polished powertrains and demonstrating excellent road manners. Their seven-seater capability is useful as well. But before the hardcore GLE 63 AMG gets released with the full fury of its 600-hp V8 engine, we’re here to evaluate arguably the sweet spot of the GLE line up, the new GLE 53, the replacement of the GLE 43. It aims to balance both comfort and performance into a fully formed SUV without overkill performance or an overkill price tag.
As such, the GLE 53 follows in the footsteps of the E 53 and CLS 53, bringing to the table a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six engine that produces 429 hp and 384 lb-ft on its own, but Mercedes has also paired it with EQ Boost, a fancy term for an electric supercharger and a 48-volt electrical system. Much like in the CLS 53, this mild hybrid system serves multiple purposes. It powers the car’s electronics, acts as both a starter motor and alternator, allows the car to disconnect from the transmission while coasting at speed, and dishes out 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of supplementary torque that serves as an intermediary to eliminate turbo lag. Mercedes quotes a 0-100 km/h time of 5.3 seconds, a far cry from the rivaling X5 M50i that dishes out 100 km/h in 4.3 seconds instead, a full second quicker. It’s not much quicker than the GLS 450 (5.5 seconds) either that essentially uses the same engine but without the mild hybrid system.
The GLE 53 is one of the slower AMGs we’ve driven. Keep in mind that it clocks in at 2,373 kg, the exact same as a Range Rover with a V8 engine. Yeah, the big Range. Stomp on the throttle and you get some decent acceleration from the inline-six, but nothing earth-shattering to throw you into your seat back. Most customers will find the thrust sufficient. For street duties, I wholeheartedly agree. It’s just the right amount. After all, this is just the replacement of the outgoing GLE 43.
There’s a reason why BMW stuck with straight-six engines for so long, and continues to do so. They are inherently smooth, exhibit linear power delivery, freely rev up to the heavens, and feel refined at any point in the powerband. Mercedes’ new engine does just that, and gets the GLE 53 dancing in an upbeat rhythm that is absent in their grainy V6 examples. Turbo lag is imperceptible and the entire combustion and electric symphony is neatly integrated and harmonious. You hardly notice the start/stop system kicking in and out as well.
So if it’s not speed, what do you get with the AMG premium then? Well the 53 brings more than just a mild hybrid system to the table. It comes equipped with an air suspension on all four corners, as well as active anti-roll bars, wider front brake rotors, a tweaked 4MATIC all-wheel drive system that favours the rear axle, and 21-inch wheels. Of note, there are no 22-inch factory wheels available. But even with the dynamic additions, the GLE 53 is not a thoroughbred sports SUV. You won’t feel the need to carve corners in the same way a GT R would tempt you to, but it does cleanly slice through traffic with taut body control and effortless torque.
The steering is nicely dialed in and faithful to the front wheels, making it easy to point them where you want despite the substantial mass in tow. Even with its stiffened up suspension, the ride is not as brittle as you would expect, and is very usable for daily trots to the supermarket. Even if comfort remains a top priority, you will never second guess choosing a non-AMG GLE instead. Even in its stiffest Sport+ setting, the air suspension cleverly absorbs pockmarked roads just with a bit more jiggle at low speeds.
And it’s the exhaust that will seal the deal. Equipped with the AMG Driver’s Package that tacks on the AMG Performance Exhaust, the GLE 53 sounds like a proper sports car. Farting on upshifts and on throttle overrun, there’s a crisp howl to the straight-six engine that a V6 just can’t replicate. The dedicated exhaust button is a welcome addition, giving you the option of having a loud exhaust but without the super stiff damper modes. The sound under full acceleration is thoroughly enjoyable and though it’s higher in pitch than the equivalent V8-powered X5 M50i, the AMG lacks the soulful depths and inherent deep-timbered tones that come naturally with two extra cylinders. Have a listen to our Exhaust Notes video below to hear it for yourself.
Unlike the CLS 53, the GLE 53 carries the new Panamericana vertical-slat front grill, and it looks meaner here than in any other AMG application, due to the massive silver star badge and the way the grill protrudes outwards as if it's reaching out to swallow you. Amplifying the GLE’s bold and muscular shoulders, unique lines, and deep sockets, if there was one reason to upgrade from a GLE 450, it would be for the aesthetics alone. The flashy grill joins an AMG-specific front spoiler, larger air intakes, unique wheel designs, and a restyled rear bumper with quad exhausts finished in chrome. A side note: skip the optional running boards unless you seriously have trouble hopping into a mid-size SUV. Their odd placement and over-extended width make them more of a hindrance than anything else.
Inside is a beautifully laid out cabin, following the same mantra as the GLS but slightly narrower in every margin. That means square-shaped 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 or functional role to the everyday commute. They do give you something substantial to hold onto though now that the gear shifter has morphed into a column-mounted gear stalk. The cupholders are 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. The GLE lineup has also migrated over to USB-C outlets, so best bring your adapters.
Featuring an expansive dashboard, excellent visibility and sightlines, massaging seats, and heated armrests, the amenities are endless, and the refinement is as expected. Every surface, touch point, dial, and lever feels premium, fully-baked, and worthy of the silver star price tag. The interior remains a full feature film with an array of digital real estate. Dual 12.3-inch screens come standard and are mounted along the dashboard, something we’ve seen grace every other new Mercedes like the new S-Class. They 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 53 specifically adds more leather and suede throughout the cabin, as well as an AMG specific steering wheel with track and performance apps embedded within the new MBUX infotainment system. This is 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.
The GLE 53 AMG is not a critical upgrade over a GLE 450. The extra propulsion provided by the mild hybrid system will be hard for most casual drivers to discern, but the smoother application of power does make the weight penalty somewhat justified. Rather, I suspect most people will choose the 53 for the grill, AMG status, the overall aesthetics, and the road presence that it provides. While not a logical choice, it’s surely an emotional one, and we would take one if shopping in this segment as well. The X5 M50i puts up a solid fight with its faster, even more powerful V8 engine, as does the sleek and simplistic Audi Q8. Even the significantly cheaper XC90 puts up a decent fight with its minimalistic cabin and sleek interfaces. But where the GLE 53 gains its advantage is not through performance, but through its army of innovative tech, impeccable ride quality, hybrid fluidity, and a whimsical AMG soundtrack. It doesn’t win in speed, but it aces just about everything else.
Model: 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 4MATIC+ SUV
Paint Type: designo Hyacinth Red
Base Price: $92,500
Price as Tested: $118,250
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,937 / 1,999 / 1,782
Curb weight (kg): 2,373
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six with EQ Boost
Horsepower: 429 hp @ 6,100 rpm (EQ Boost +21 hp)Torque: 384 lb-ft @ 1,800 - 5,800 rpm (EQ Boost +184 lb-ft)
Tires: 275/45R21 front; 315/40R21 rear; Michelin Pilot Sport 4S