This US-built luxury SUV from the German brand has received some radical updates and new tech. We drive the GLE on empty ranch roads outside San Antonio, Texas, to sample the changes before it comes to India
We head to the States to sample the radically updated GLE
They say everything is big in Texas. Thus, this served as a perfect backdrop for the Mercedes’ large, luxurious new GLE drive. The SUV has grown in size and, for the first time, gets seven seats, three interesting engine options, and comes loaded with innovative features. The important news for Indian buyers is that it will be coming to India in 2019, when it will compete with the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and Volvo XC90.
Now let’s jog your memory a bit. This Mercedes first hit the road back in 1998, wearing the majestic “ML” badge, and, if you are a Jurassic Park fan like me, I bet you can still recall it. But the name “GLE” (hinting at it being based on the E-Class platform) was only introduced when the third-generation model was given a facelift in 2015. What we’re driving now is the fourth-generation model, which is being produced in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and it’s easy to see the connection, for the new GLE carries ahead the forward-inclined C-pillar which was a signature design element on the ML.
The new GLE is much larger than before. Think stegosaurus and T-Rex. It has now grown in length by 105 millimetres and is wider by 12 mm, but you won’t be able to spot the difference by looking at it as the clever design and 24-mm lower height beautifully camouflage the actual size of this SUV. Despite being full of equipment, it doesn’t weigh more than the outgoing model, courtesy the extra dose of aluminium and highstrength steel.
The design team has etched a modern and smoothflowing silhouette for the GLE from the boxy shape of the ML. The subtle body lines and well-rounded edges make it look more athletic than beefy. I like the way it looks head-on, especially in the version which has the pinhead-type front grille treatment and a single slat holding a large tristar badge. The other option is a twinslat grille merging with the Mercedes logo in combination with a more conservative front bumper. The prominent lines on the bonnet add to the aggression and the sleek headlamps with arrow-shaped daytime running lights (DRL) complete the sporty front design.
The side profile, as mentioned earlier, follows the ML design language. Though the C-pillar’s execution is a lot better now, the large rear threequarter window gives it a distinct appeal. The wheel choices range between 20 and 22 inches and the larger ones fill up the arches really well. A set of narrow tail-lamps and a contoured boot-lid complete the comparatively plain looking rear half of the new GLE.
What will wow you, though, is the completely new cabin. It’s a refreshingly new approach and looks ready for the future. Interestingly, the layout isn’t quite biased towards the driver; there’s no hood protruding over the driver’s information display and two pairs of a-c vents are lined up in the centre of the dash. Overall, it exudes and retains the Mercedes-Benz design language, albeit with a slight modern twist. For example, the gear selector is still mounted on the steering console, but the turn indicator stalk is slimmer
and looks smarter now. Similarly, the seat adjustment buttons continue to be on the door-panel but carry a sharper design. The dashboard gets customized ambient lights, while the centre console gets neatly integrated grab-handles. Everything in the cabin feels premium and beautifully crafted, as expected in this segment.
The star of the cabin is Mercedes’ swish new MBUX infotainment set-up, consisting of two 12.3-inch displays side-by-side. One serves as the instrument cluster, while the other is a touchscreen infotainment system. The driver can completely customize the instruments using a pair of steering-mounted touch-pads. The clever MBUX system understands hand gestures and can run a host of errands for the driver or the co-passenger without either of them having to press any buttons. There’s voice command, too, which gets activated when you say ‘Hey Mercedes’ and works pretty much like Google’s smart assistant or Apple’s Siri. It can answer your queries and set up the GLE as per your command. The system still needs some fine-tuning; sometimes it refuses to respond and, at times, even stumbles to decipher simple commands. So, one ends up using the touchscreen instead, where the menus are simple to follow and the augmented reality-equipped sat-nav is simply brilliant.
Since the dashboard is fairly high and the car’s hood-line comparatively low, it takes a while to get used to the size of the SUV. The small wing mirrors and chunky C-pillar don’t help this cause either. This is where the large display comes in handy as it transmits a live video of the view ahead as soon as the turn signal is flicked on and offers 360-degree view when needed. You don’t want to bump into a raptor hidden in a blind spot, do you? The navigation system also uses the video with hovering arrows that point out the turn that you need to take. On American tarmac, the navigation faltered a couple of times, probably because these were Europe-spec cars imported into the US for this particular test drive. The system also comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard but require users to plug in their phones only via tiny C-type USB ports that the new phone models are migrating to. Better invest in a new charging cable along with the GLE.
Now some updates on the interior. A bigger car translates into a more generous cabin room. The first two rows are large with ample legroom. The optional third-row seat is rather cramped, although you can free up some space by sliding the second row ahead. The front seats are not just comfortable but come with a host of interesting features. Apart from helping you find the perfect driving position, they are equipped with “Energizing Seat Kinetics”, a system which discreetly alters the seat backrest
and base cushioning at regular intervals so that you’re not seated in one position for too long.
We’re not sure how many of these features will actually make their way to India, nor have Mercedes-Benz revealed which of the engines from the vast offering will be brought here. So we kept it simple and sampled the most powerful options available: the petrol GLE 450 and the diesel GLE 400d. You never know when one might need to outrun a T-Rex! The “450” badge on the tailgate doesn’t indicate the power figures but the potent 3.0-litre in-line six makes a decent 367 PS between 5,500 and 6,100 rpm and 500 Nm of torque between 1,600 and 4,500 rpm. It uses a 48-volt mild-hybrid system which not just helps conserve fuel but adds another 22 PS and 250 Nm of electric boost. The electric motor helps take the strain off the engine when accelerating. This makes the petrol pretty quick and claims an AMG-rivalling 0-100 km/h time of just 5.7 seconds. The power delivery is also extremely linear, making this car a great city cruiser, and high-speed highway overtake manoeuvres are equally easy to execute.
Where the 450 makes its biggest stride is in the way its new E-Active springs suspension devours bumpy roads. Scanning the road surface ahead, the system preps the suspension to ensure there’s hardly any body movement. The new set-up also gives this SUV car-like drive dynamics, making it effortless to drive, and lends it composure like a luxury sedan. Selecting “Curve” makes GLE lean into corners and perfectly sharpens the cornering line — pretty much like motorcycles. This system works well on flat tarmac and with single steering inputs. Bumpy surfaces and quick steering movements tend to confuse the system and, in turn, the driver. The optional Driving Assistance package also includes one of the best semi-autonomous systems on sale. This includes the Active Lane-Keeping system, Adaptive Cruise Control, Auto Braking, and the very interesting Free Drive Mode, which makes the body of the SUV bounce to get it out of loose sand. We didn’t get an opportunity to see if the GLE could cross a riverbed, but it should be good at that, too. If chasing dinosaurs is your game, then you can even opt for the additional offroad pack and further enhance its all-terrain prowess.
We also tried the 330-PS, 3.0-litre GLE 400d. This diesel offers an enormous 700 Nm of torque which one can experience from the time one puts one’s foot on the accelerator pedal. For
an SUV of this size and stature, a refined diesel motor like this seems to be a more appropriate option. The in-line six delivers strong performance, offers smooth operation, and is frugal enough to offer a long driving range between fuel refills. Mercedes claim that the GLE 400d is the first SUV that meets the 2020 Euro 6d emission standard globally. In both, a nine-speed automatic transmission shuttles power to all four wheels. Moreover, it can divert zero to cent per cent power to the front or rear wheels, depending on the need. The gearbox never gave me an opportunity to use the paddle-shift, thanks to its quick and seamless shifts. In comparison to the 450, the standard air-suspension of the 400d doesn’t do the fancy tricks of the E-Active suspension. The diesel feels tuned for comfort and one can feel a bit of wallowing during braking hard or while going fast over a crest. For regular city driving, it remains pliant, reasonably composed, and gives little reason to complain about.
We are sure that the GLE will further strengthen Mercedes’ SUV portfolio when it comes to India by mid-2019. Apart from the wide range of engine options, the spacious cabin oozes luxury and comfort, while the E-Active suspension is nothing short of magic. Consider it for these virtues. But if you want a proper seven-seater Mercedes-Benz, then you’ll have to increase your budget and go for the GLS.
( Below) It’s a simple job to customize the instruments using the steering-mounted touch-pad
There’s ample room in the second row, but the optional third-row is rather cramped
( Above) The navigation uses live video with hovering arrows to point out the turns
( LeftBelow ) The star of the cabin is the swish new MBUX infotainment set-up, consisting of two 12.3-in displays side-by-side
( Below) The GLE makes its biggest stride in the way its new E-Active springs suspension devours bumpy roads
( Above) Tonnes of gadgets include Active Lane-Keeping, Adaptive Cruise Control, Auto Braking, and the very interesting Free Drive Mode