Luxury vehicles typically represent the leading edge of comfort, performance, safety, and technology. A good luxury car has an innate quality that goes beyond leather upholstery and wood trim. Materials should be of a higher grade than those in mainstream vehicles, with plush carpets, rich fabric, and quiet cabins.
Luxury cars can be so comfortable and enjoyable that once you’ve experienced the luxe life, going back to a mainstream car feels like a major downgrade.
Luxury SUVs also run the gamut from small to jumbo, as do their prices. The Mercedes GLE is one example of a mid-sized luxury that is on the higher end of that price spectrum with a price tag starting at almost $70,000 CAD.
Launched originally back in 1997, when Titanic broke movie box office records (yes it was that long ago), Mercedes-Benz was arguably the company that created the luxury SUV. While it’s true that Range Rover preceded Mercedes years before, Land Rover wasn’t so brazen to admit that premium segment buyers were more interested in the concept of a premium SUV that looked like it could go off-roading versus one that actually would be used off-road.
After more than two million global sales since it first went on sale badged as the M-Class, the second iteration of the GLE is Mercedes-Benz’s latest foray into the five-seat SUV market.
Responding to the competition
With premium brand SUVs having grown into many different classes from a wide variety of auto makers, there are a seemingly an almost endless number of choices these days in all shapes and sizes. Mercedes-Benz needed to truly innovate in order to continue to pique the interest of punters and have them spend their money.
This fourth generation GLE is a big leap in terms of driving dynamics, luxury conveniences, and of course, onboard technology. Rightfully so, it needs to be in order to take on what’s out there in the market and what’s forthcoming not just from the German and Japanese manufacturers, but also from the big three domestic players.
In North America, the 2020 GLE-Class starts with the GLE350, powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four-cylinder engine making 255 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque at 1,800-4000 rpms.
My test vehicle as the more upmarket GLE450 4MATIC, with 362 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque from 1,600-4,500 rpms thanks to a new 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six engine paired with Mercedes’ nine-speed automatic transmission. This engine also has an electrical ace up its sleeve courtesy of “EQ Boost” and an accompanying new 48-volt electrical subsystem.
EQ Boost is Mercedes’ mild-hybrid system consisting of a 48-volt onboard motor-generator that can give a boost of 21 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque for short periods. This is as close as we’ll get to an electrified version for now till the plug-in hybrid version of the GLE follows.
The GLE’s 4MATIC permanent all-wheel-drive system consists of a centre-mounted clutch pack that can shift power 100 per cent fore or aft, depending on what the computer thinks is necessary to improve the GLE’s driving dynamics whether on-road or off.
Innovative new suspension control technology
The 48-volt electrics not only provide more power but is also connected to an optional new active-anti roll system called “E-Active Body Control”. While Mercedes-Benz is no stranger to active suspension systems, having had them on their higher-end models for a couple of decades now, this E-Active Body Control (E-ABC) is truly revolutionary.
The system uses hydropneumatics units on all four corners of the GLE, sitting atop each air spring. The revolutionary part is due the fact that a stereo camera mounted behind the windshield allows the computer to actively scan the road ahead so that the system can pre-emptively prepare the chassis for each bump and corner just before the GLE reaches it.
Called “Magic Body Control” and “Road Surface Scan”, the system can independently soften/firm up each corner of the GLE as it passes over obstacles, such as speed bumps. A “Curve” drive mode even allows the GLE to actively lean into a corner to reduce the centrifugal forces enacted upon the vehicle’s occupants, much like how a motorcycle rider leans into a curve.
The effect is rather surreal as you can truly feel the GLE lean into the inside of the turn by up to three degrees, depending on how aggressive you want the system to react. Contrary to what you may think, Curve mode is designed to increase passenger comfort rather than increase sportiness, therefore it’s not available in combination with the firmer suspension settings.
Conceivably, the system can learn in even more than 3 degrees, but no doubt the Benz engineers determined that any more than that would be a bit beyond the limits of most passengers’ comfort levels. As is, the GLE is able to lean in and corner at speeds more akin to a sportscar without any untoward tire squealing drama.
Admittedly, it takes a while to become fully accustomed to the leaning effect which is most obvious at initial turn in. Find the right twisty road, such as on certain sections of the Sea-to-Sky Highway, and you’ll discover that the GLE450 flows incredibly fluidly from apex to apex.
Because E-Active Body Control can control each shock independently, if say, somehow, you get the GLE stuck in the mud or sand, all you must do is to activate the Free Driving Assist system. The E-ABC system then will bounce the vehicle’s body up and down with increasing aggressiveness to try to get some extra material under the spinning wheels so as to literally bounce the vehicle out from being high centred or stuck.
If one wheel is bogged down without any traction and just creating drag, the driver can manually lift up that specific wheel via the main MBUX touchscreen infotainment system to help to free the car.
Since E-ABC is connected to the GLE’s 48-volt electric system, as the suspension compresses, the energy created is used even to charge the on-board battery!
Behind the wheel
Sitting longer, wider, and taller than before, this new GLE’s has a 3.15 inch longer wheelbase and sits about 2 inches taller than an equivalent BMW X5. The growth in length combined with the increase in the wheelbase leads to short overhangs and some rather aggressive proportions.
This fourth generation GLE is based on a new MHA (Modular High Architecture) platform that is 33 per cent more rigid than its predecessor. The structure adopts aluminium nodes for the front and rear suspension mountings, as well as other material mix, that both increases overall torsional rigidity and reduces weight. These structure weight savings are partially why this latest GLE is largely the same weight as its predecessor despite being larger.
To compensate for the increase in size, underbody panels smooth out the driveshaft tunnel. Even the wheels and rear axle were developed in a wind tunnel, and a flush fuel tank and mouldings ahead of the front wheels also help to reduce drag.
Climbing up into the cabin through the larger front door opening and you’re immediately aware that this new GLE is far more luxurious than anything from before. A high mounted centre console with integrated grab handles also provides a wide divide between the driver and front seat passenger, further adding to the feeling of space.
Every surface looks and feels expensive, giving it a distinctly upmarket feel as befits the brand. Driver customizable multi-coloured ambient lighting further helps to set the mood. I really liked the multi-layered dashboard which boasts its own individual design with the signature rectangular air vents versus the circular units found on recent new Mercedes-Benz passenger car models.
The GLE’s interior is dominated by the huge widescreen black panel display that stretches from behind the steering wheel over and beyond the centre of the dash. This panel of glass is made up of two 12.3 inch screens and uses the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system that debuted on the latest A-Class. More on this later.
The new inline-six-cylinder turbocharged engine is immensely refined, never feeling out of breath at pretty much any speed. The GLE feels borderline-AMG fast, even off-the-line, thanks to the EQ Boost system. The electric motor effectively fills in any sort of turbo lag that would normally be there from a typical forced induction engine.
Despite its power, the GLE is indeed big and feels it on the road. Steering feel is a bit numb for my tastes, despite the selectable Sport mode setting. Hopefully the sportier GLE53 AMG rectifies this. Some other reviewers have complained that the steering ratio is a bit too fast for an SUV, however it was quite to my liking.
The nine-speed auto gearbox is calibrated very well in most circumstances, although I did notice some slightly more pronounced downshifts on occasion. Paddle inputs are pleasantly faster than expected from a non-AMG Mercedes.
Ride comfort, particularly due to the E-ABC system, is a traditional Mercedes-Benz strong suit. The GLE’s ride can be described as stately but not particularly sporty.
In combination with a heavily reworked double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, Magic Body Control in combination with the Airmatic air suspension system creates almost a bit of a floating feeling over slight rises. Rough pavement is smoothened out nicely. Sport mode firms up the suspension for more spirited driving situations but also eliminates the use of Curve mode.
The Air Suspension system has several different heights and can be lowered to help to make loading the vehicle easier, whether it is passengers or cargo.
In the rear, the longer wheelbase has added an extra 2.7 inches of rear legroom. There is actually enough room to accommodate a small third row seat thanks to a longer rear overhang. However, the larger GLS is still a much better choice for adult passengers.
Trunk space remains competitive at 630 litres despite being reduced by 60 litres. Fold all the seats down and there is a copious 2,225 litres of space.
Other technical highlights
The hoodless MBUX infotainment system that dominates the interior is an absolute joy to look at. The high definition displays can be configured in a variety of themes to suit your fancy. The centre screen and instrument dials can be controlled by the centre console touchpad or the touchscreen.
Also available to use are conversational speech and gesture control functions that compliment small BlackBerry Bold-like touchpad controllers within the horizontal spokes of the wheels.
Other new technological highlights include a highly customizable full-colour heads-up-display with a large 17.17 inch x 5.9 inch screen area and a high 720 x 240 pixel resolution.
Active Stop and Go assist, a driving function that permits semi-autonomous driving in traffic jams, is also among a wide range of driver assistant programs adopted by the new model.
Other highlights include the augmented reality GPS satellite navigation system, which overlays turn-by-turn arrows and street names over a live video image in the centre infotainment display when approaching turn-off points. This clever system really does help to clarify the intended route quite nicely around complex junctions.
Having owned several Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUVs in the past, many of the reasons as to why I chose the ML still ring true today.
While not the GLE450 is not the most dynamic option in the class, its refined and isolated cabin provides a luxurious and serene environment in which to spend many hours behind the wheel. Standard equipment level is strong, and the level of available cutting-edge technology (for the right price) is mind boggling.
Overall, the fourth generation GLE offers greater space, markedly higher levels of refinement, and a range of technological features formerly only available on top-end Mercedes-Benz models such as the S-Class.
It is a compelling, completely, and outstanding choice for family transport and likely has the necessary appeal to uphold the sales success of its predecessors.
Just make sure you spring for the AMG versions if you want to enjoy a sportier driving experience.
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