Is the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe a case of form over function? James drives the GLE 350d 4Matic Coupe to find out.
“I see a lot of these around”, said a random fellow as I was putting some shopping into the boot of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350d Coupe. “Or maybe I just see the same one all the time...”, he mused.
“Either way, I really like it. Nice car.” And off he went, back into the crowd.
Whichever way his age-old quandary of one-sighting of lots of cars, or lots-of-sightings of one car swings, he wasn’t wrong. The big GLE Coupe is growing in popularity.
Sales so far this year have been just shy of 600 units, which is enough to make up almost a quarter of all GLE sales, and to out-sell arch rival, the BMW X6.
In the grand scheme of things, these aren’t massive numbers. Those 600 GLE coupes make up just two per cent of Mercedes-Benz’s 2016 sales to date. But in our very competitive market, every extra per cent counts.
It isn’t a car for everyone though.
Even simply having it parked in the CarAdvice garage resulted in a few arguments. There’s very little middle road with this car – you’re either on Team Coupe or you’re not.
The lines are more akin to a high-rise Mercedes-Benz CLS than a squashed GLE wagon. In a way, the relatively low glasshouse looks disproportional to the high flanks of the car, and as such it can look a bit goofy from certain angles.
Stylewise the GLE Coupe follows the form of other Mercedes coupe models, with its slim LED tail lamps and tapering rear pillar.
To further differentiate from the Wagon, the Coupe features a standard AMG body kit which gives it a lot more street presence and a more sporting demeanour.
There’s enough chrome and dark plastic trim to break up the paint though, and the car is available in 11 colours, with only the Designio shades of Diamond White and Hyacinth Red attracting an $1100 premium.
Our car is finished in a Mercedes-traditional Diamond Silver and is fitted with just the panoramic sunroof ($3900) as an option.
Personally, I’m a fan of it. It’s the combination of something a bit ‘different' and the muscular stance that works for me.
And it really is mainly the design that causes disagreements, as Mercedes has done a very good job in packaging the GLE wagon’s practicality into the coupe shape.
Size-wise, the GLE Coupe is 81mm longer (4900mm), 68mm wider (2003mm) and 65mm lower (1731mm) than the GLE wagon. The cars are on the same platform so the 2915mm wheelbase is the same, but part of the extra width in the coupe comes from a wider track, 22mm front and 61mm rear, which help accommodate the huge 21-inch wheels which are 11-inches (315mm) wide at the back. Those extra dimensions account for a 17kg weight penalty for the Coupe, which tips the scales at a husky 2337kg.
Space in the boot is actually a world record for a coupe at 650-litres, which I have to say sounds like a bit of a slow day around the Guinness offices. The seats fold 60:40 and expand the capacity to 1720-litres.
A small gripe with the way Mercedes has dealt with the folding seats is that in order to attain a flat floor, the rear seat base needs to be flipped forward to allow the seat backs to fold down. While this is helpful for finding lost pencils and stray foodstuffs from having children in the back, it looks a bit messy and low rent for a car of this calibre.
There is an annoying hard parcel shelf which can be cumbersome to remove, plus the load lip is really high at 931mm, making large or heavy bags quite tricky to load, as well as being a challenge for old Rover to hop up into.
The back seats are comfortable and you sit a bit more ‘scooched’ down than in a wagon. The lower roofline makes it feel a bit more-snug for passengers, but there is still a good amount of room for your head, shoulders, knees and toes. And yes, I know you just read that in the tone of the song, sorry.
There are map-pockets, door bins and a center arm rest with cup holders. Rear passengers get a 12-volt outlet and there are vents in the centre cubby.
Up front, things feel much more familiar.
The dashboard layout and functionality is the same as in the GLE wagon, which itself is a mild update of the older ML-Class. It doesn’t make the GLE feel like a ‘brand new’ car, particularly when compared to the smaller GLC and new E-Class interiors.
There’s an eight-inch high resolution screen in the centre of the dashboard, accompanied by the new COMAND touch-pad and wheel control on the console.
While the centre stack still has the older numeric keypad and CD-slot, the COMAND software has been significantly updated and brings some modern inclusions to the standard navigation and telephony services.
Cars built from August 2016 onward have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration available by using a specific USB point (there are two) in the centre console.
The new graphics and overall interface is very smart, and the little animations and contextual representations of the car when you are adjusting settings and the like are very welcome. We’re big fans of the ‘online’ user manual as well as the cool telemetry function that shows ride height, steering angle, suspension settings, and when used with Sport driving mode, shows a little red ‘smartie’ to illustrate current g-force loads.
In terms of usability, this COMAND iteration is not quite as good as BMW’s iDrive, but it is getting much better, particularly when you get used to the quick-access Favourites menu.
The issue though, is while the setup in the GLE is good, Mercedes has an even better system available in the new E-Class, which immediately dates the GLE.
Trim components have been given the AMG-Line treatment, and the stitched dashboard and door inlays are particularly nice. The seats are well bolstered, but perhaps a little firm, and it does feel as though you are sitting in, rather than on the car, as can be the case with other SUVs.
Despite being the ‘base’ model in the GLE Coupe lineup, the 350d gets the full-loaded treatment and includes heated front seats, automatic parking and a 360-degree camera, DISTRONIC adaptive cruise control and steering assistance, air suspension and a power tailgate.
Vision out front is good, helped by your higher vantage point, but through the rear the steeply raked window gives a narrow portal to what is behind. This almost vanishes entirely if you have passengers in the back too.
On the move, the 190kW/620Nm 3-litre V6 turbo diesel feels a bit laggy off the line, but once engine speed builds to the peak torque point of 1600rpm the big SUV gathers pace nicely.
Keep the engine spinning above 2000rpm and the response is good too. It’s no supercar, but it feels sporty enough. Mercedes claims a 0-100km/h sprint of seven seconds, but our best was 7.6sec.
Fuel consumption is also quite good for such a big car, with our week seeing close to the claim of 7.2L/100km on a combined cycle, at 7.8L/100km. We saw it drop as low as 5L/100km on a sustained highway run and sat around 10L/100km when driving exclusively around town.
The V6 is paired with a nine-speed (9G-Tronic) automatic gearbox, which is a smooth and intelligent unit. Nine ratios work if you are just casually driving and letting the car do the work, but shifting manually with the lovely alloy paddles will have you either holding in a lower gear or constantly changing up and down if you insist on using the full spread.
With the car left in automatic, you experience a slight delay when needing to kick-down to overtake, as the car works out which gear it needs to be in.
Changing the drive mode to sport will see the car hold lower gears for longer, and increase throttle sensitivity, which makes the GLE quite twitchy to drive around town. It’s really best left to the open road.
But building and holding speed is one thing, washing it off is another.
The GLE Coupe has big 330mm front cross-drilled brake rotors and four-piston callipers up front (with 325mm rotors on the rear), but given its hefty weight, slowing and stopping is not the big guy’s best skill.
Pedal feel errs on the softer side, and you don’t get any sense of urgency from the brakes until you really stamp on the pedal. The hardware is there, it just seems that the braking system needs a slight recalibration to communicate better to the driver.
And then there’s the ride.
The GLE Coupe is pushed as the ‘sporting’ SUV choice over the more sensible Wagon. I don’t think anyone expects a pin-sharp corner carver in a car like this, but the way the big coupe attacks a winding road is a little bit like seeing an overweight person in full lycra on a carbon-composite race bike.
We get it, you’re trying… but you aren’t fooling anyone.
It’s not particularly bad by any stretch, just a bit rolly-polly to be properly sporty. The GLE Coupe rides on adaptable multi-chamber air suspension which should allow a varying degree of ride compliance and sharp handling. But, as with the brakes, it’s the weight that is working against the GLE here.
Forget engineering, physics alone says that changing direction is harder for a heavier object than a lighter one. The air-ride tries to mitigate body roll as best it can, but the car just doesn’t feel wholly confident when driven in a more aggressive manner.
Dial back the red mist and the issue doesn’t go away, it changes. Even on a smooth road at a constant speed the car feels as though it is constantly floating about. You can even see this by putting the telemetry display on the screen and watch the little red smartie jiggle about.
Again, none of this is terrible, and you do get used to it, but driving dynamics are an area where the GLE Coupe lags behind arch rival, the BMW X6.
So it comes back to the GLE Coupe being a style option rather than a sporting one.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350d Coupe gives buyers a choice. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in terms of providing all the inherent luxury and usability of a GLE Wagon in a bit more of a ‘look at me’ body style, it ticks the box.
And if those sales continue to grow, it will start ticking even more.
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