The craze for SUVs may be reaching its zenith. Every automaker sells them, and new models face an uphill battle to try and gain customers from the vehicles that have enjoyed years of success — models like this one: the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class. It started life in 1998 as the original luxury crossover, the ML-Class, made here in America and the trigger for an onslaught of tall-roofed, off-roadable, all-wheel-drive luxury wagons that have surpassed the traditional sedans as the most popular models in the luxury categories.
This latest version, arriving next year as a 2020 model, is set to renew Mercedes-Benz’s primacy in the field, thanks to a technology-laden, ultra-luxurious, astonishingly capable offering that’s likely to reset the bar.
An Excellent Driving Experience
What makes it so good? It’s a confluence of things, starting first with how it drives. There will be two GLE-Class models to start — the GLE350, equipped with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine good for 255 horsepower and 273 pounds-feet of torque, and the GLE450 that uses a turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine with a mild-hybrid system, producing 362 hp and 369 pounds-feet of torque. Both engines are mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel drive is standard on the GLE350; all-wheel drive is an option here and standard on the GLE450. I drove both models in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio at Mercedes’ media introduction and came away impressed with both powertrains. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its airfare and lodging at such automaker-sponsored events.)
The four-cylinder has plenty of usable around-town power, accelerating smartly once rolling but not providing that much oomph from a standing start. Most drivers will find it perfectly adequate, but for anyone requiring a little more confidence in their daily drive or hauling around a full load of passengers regularly, the six-cylinder GLE450 is the one to get. The EQ Boost 48-volt mild-hybrid system is seamlessly integrated, offering up quicker acceleration in all conditions but also boosting the efficiency of the GLE450 versus its competitors, according to Mercedes-Benz. In both powertrains, the nine-speed automatic transmission is smooth to the point of near invisibility, shifting gears with such unobtrusive operation as to make you forget it has any gears at all. Power comes on in a rush regardless of how you’re driving — there’s never any hunting, never finding yourself in the wrong gear, never any clunky operation at all. Both of these powertrains are beautifully tuned but decidedly geared more toward stately cruising than sporty demeanor.
Curvy, But Not the Styling
The GLE’s ride and handling characteristics are essentially a technology showcase. Three suspension options are available — a standard, non-adjustable steel-spring one, an adjustable air-spring suspension and the top-of-the-line option, a fully active electronic suspension that combines the air springs with adaptive dampers. The air suspension option on the GLE350 provides a smooth, comfortable ride with excellent road isolation and confident body motion control, but the real gem is the new E-Active Body Control fully active suspension, available only on the GLE450 due to its requirement of the 48-volt vehicle architecture. It uses the car’s forward-scanning cameras and mapping data to tilt the car into corners by adjusting the electric dampers at each corner independently. The effect is to counteract centrifugal force by leaning the GLE into a corner, much like a high-speed train or a motorcycle does, resulting in an astonishing effect for the vehicle’s occupants. In addition to a glass-smooth ride over some truly awful road conditions, you’ll notice that you sweep through corners faster as you’re not being thrown opposite the direction of travel. It counters the inertia the passengers feel when a car enters a bend, and it is one of the most amazing driving sensations I’ve had in any SUV.
This active suspension feature is activated in three of the GLE450’s several drive modes. In Comfort mode, it’s switched off — and it’s fun to switch between Comfort and the others (Curve, Sport and Sport Plus) to feel the difference the active suspension makes. The GLE450 also features an Eco mode to maximize fuel economy and an Off-Road mode that changes the system’s responses and raises the body to its maximum ride height. E-Active Body Control can also do something unique — a special feature called Free Driving mode can get you unstuck from deep sand, should you find yourself driving through a desert or onto a beach, by “jumping” the body up and down while applying the traction control. No word yet on whether or not this works in deep snow, but we suspect it doesn’t due to the different friction qualities of snow and sand.
The only low point of the GLE’s driving experience is that the brake-pedal feel is less than inspiring, with a mushy initial bite and a greater effort than expected to bleed off speed. The GLE350 feels a little bit better than the 450 in this area, which I suspect may be due to the 350’s lower weight. This is the only blemish on what is otherwise a superbly luxurious driving experience — but note that I do not say a sporty or entertaining one. The GLE is decidedly geared toward comfort and isolation, but it never embarrasses itself in the twisty bits. It’s competent, confident and satisfying to drive but never gets to be entertaining. For that, you’ll have to visit a BMW showroom and sample the all-new X5.
Luxury Accommodations, Now More Spacious
The first-generation ML crossovers weren’t lauded for their luxurious interior trappings — a criticism that will never befall this latest GLE. Mercedes-Benz has been crafting some impressive interiors as of late, using the idea of trickling down the top-of-the-line S-Class flagship’s materials and designs to lesser models, and the GLE continues that tradition. The materials, fit, finish, control knobs and buttons all shame most of the competition, even on the base GLE350. Step up to the 450 and start specifying some of the more unusual trim choices, and you’ll be rewarded with an interior that is beautiful, functional and flawlessly assembled.
It’s also bigger than before thanks to a wheelbase stretched by more than 3 inches, almost all of which went to backseat legroom. It has also enabled an optional third row to be offered, best suited for children despite Mercedes-Benz’s assurances that it’s comfortable for anyone 5-foot, 11-inches tall or less. The second row’s legroom has been boosted considerably, and it’s now a very comfortable place to be even with doors that seem to intrude on cabin width rather significantly. Unlike other luxury vehicles, materials quality does not fall off from the front seat to the rear; it’s just as nice in the second row as it is up front.
Technology, to the Point of Overload
Mercedes-Benz has packed the new GLE with the latest and greatest tech — and it will take some acclimation before you can use it smoothly and with minimal distraction. Front and center is the new MBUX multimedia system (that’s “Emm-Bee-You-Ecks,” not “Emm-Bucks,”), which now employs a touchscreen. Combined with the fully digital gauge cluster, the GLE presents an electronic cockpit that spans much of the width of the dashboard. MBUX is extraordinary for a couple of reasons, the first of which is the augmented reality function in the navigation system. Switch it on while navigation is guiding you, and as you approach turns, the screen switches to a front camera view with arrows, street names, house numbers and more superimposed, in real time, into the image. It helps you to determine exactly where to turn, where the house you’re looking for is and more. It’s a little distracting, as you’re watching the screen instead of what’s in front of you, but it’s still an astonishing bit of tech.
The MBUX system also has introduced “Hey Mercedes,” a voice-activated concierge along the lines of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Say the words “Hey Mercedes” and tell it what you want it to do — anything from adding a waypoint to your active navigation to looking something up on the web. It works quite well but has a specific flaw: Anytime you say the word Mercedes, such as talking about the car, or say something that sounds similar to it, the system activates, requiring you to cancel it. You’ll find yourself chatting with your passengers very carefully, being extra cautious not to say anything that sounds too similar to “Mercedes,” lest you wake the beast again and have to deal with an annoying, unwanted concierge activation.
Also impressive is the configurability of the gauge cluster, now with four possible options and the ability to choose what information is displayed on which side of the cluster, and in what combination. It features far more customizability than prior versions of Mercedes-Benz’s digital dash, and it augments the optional head-up display, now expanded to a massive 17.8-inch by 5.9-inch, super-bright, highly customizable form.
The problem with all of this high-tech wizardry is that it can be overwhelming and distracting, especially when trying to first familiarize yourself with it all. Most owners will likely spend time learning how to use some of the features, set things how they want them and never touch the configurable features again, such as the variable color of the interior ambient lighting. There’s a learning curve to figuring out the GLE’s technology, and it’s not an easy slope; it will require some study and dedicated practice, as any new technology generally does.
The New Benchmark?
Taken as a whole, even with the complicated technology and lackluster brakes, the new GLE is an extremely impressive new model. Its beautifully executed interior sets the stage, but the driving experience nails it home. While pricing has yet to be announced, Mercedes-Benz may have just set the new segment benchmark for luxury SUVs.