There’s a lot more than just a change of name for the new Mercedes-Benz GLE, the premium SUV that the German brand used to call the ML-Class.
While it retains the same body as the previous model there have been extensive cosmetic changes, suspension and steering revisions, interior updates and specification and pricing changes. Read our Mercedes-Benz GLE pricing and specifications story.
Among others the new GLE will compete against its well-known German rivals, the big-selling BMW X5 and all-new Audi Q7 which also arrives later this year. As such, Mercedes-Benz is entering the market with a five-strong model range at launch in September 2015.
There will be three petrol models and two diesels available initially, while a sixth – a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid model, known as the GLE 500e – will join the ranks in December this year.
It was this variant that we drove first at the global launch of the new GLE range in Europe this week, and it made a strong first impression.
The GLE 500e is the brand’s first SUV with plug-in hybrid capability, one that is said to “combine the power and refinement of a V8 engine with the fuel consumption of a three-litre car”. Not a car with a 3.0-litre engine, though it has one of those – that statement refers to a car with fuel use in the 3s – and this 2465-kilogram SUV does that, using a claimed 3.3 litres per 100 kilometres on the European test cycle.
Powering it is a 245kW V6 twin-turbo petrol engine paired to an 85kW electric motor. Their maximum combined output is 325kW and 650Nm, and the SUV can be driven at speeds up to 130km/h in all-electric mode, with a claimed electric driving range of 30km.
We didn’t quite make that claim during our short stint in the car, but we did get 26.4km. That was in E-mode, which will run the car fully on battery power unless there is very strong acceleration.
On the topic of modes, the drive selection variations include: Hybrid, which uses the car’s computer to choose the best power source (petrol or electric); E-mode, for all-electric driving; E-save, which keeps the battery at its current state of charge, reserving e-power for urban driving; and Charge mode, where the petrol engine recharges the batteries. It may sound a bit confusing, but it all makes sense as soon as you’re in the car.
After our stint of e-driving a little red light came up on the dash suggesting we plug in, but since we were less than halfway to our destination we kept driving, with the car selecting Hybrid mode to get us there.
There are also Dynamic Select drive modes to choose from, consisting of Slippery, Comfort, Sport, and Individual. If you choose Sport, you get to experience the powertrain’s other side, which is all about performance. And there’s plenty of that, with the engine offering plenty of willpower and grunt, and it even sounded great.
The transition between EV and petrol modes was almost imperceptible: the powertrain offered excellent refinement, and the seven-speed automatic gearbox seemingly knew what to do in terms of choosing the right ratio before it actually needed to.
That said, the ride of the 500e wasn’t perfect, with sharp bumps upsetting the body of the car, and while its handling and steering seemed perfectly acceptable for an SUV of this size, we had little chance to explore its capabilities on our route.
The brake pedal feel was initially quite spongy – it took us three attempts to start the car because we didn’t have the brake pushed in hard enough – but on the road the braking performance was decent.
So did we achieve that miserly 3.3L/100km claim? No… we saw fuel use of 4.6L/100km after about 60km of driving. We’d love to do more distance to see how it stacks up.
What we found to be possibly the biggest issue with the 500e was its boot. The battery pack eats in to luggage space, and while there is still 480 litres available where standard models have 650L, the floor is quite raised, and that could be problematic when loading heavy or awkward goods.
Otherwise, the interior is a nice place to be. There’s ample storage for loose items in the front and the rear of the cabin, and rear seat occupants have two sets of vents to keep things temperate. Head, leg and shoulder room is good for adults in the second row, too.
The cabin has been updated with a new media system that is similar to the one in the C-Class. That means an 8.0-inch tablet-style media screen atop the dash and a new rotary dial selector with touchpad input.
With a bank of buttons below the screen it may look a bit uncertain of itself, but the buttons make navigating the menus a bit easier, as the rotary controller isn’t as intuitive as a BMW or Audi.
Overall, the interior presentation is fine, but the new-generation Audi Q7 – due around the same time as the GLE – looks set to give it a run for its money.
While the vast majority of these types of SUVs will hardly ever leave their lavish tree-lined suburbs, some will get out in the bush – and the new GLE has a fair bit of kit to help out if you’re such a buyer.
There’s an optional Off-Road Engineering package, that takes the GLE from soft-roader to hardcore, with a low range mode, centre differential lock and multi-mode off-road settings.
With the Airmatic air suspension as part of the pack, the GLE can ride up to 285mm above the deck, while its wading depth is impressive, too, at 600mm.
We tested the off-road system on a purpose-built off-road course that Benz had built. It was a challenging circuit, with the steepest decline we encountered being a seatbelt-jerking 58 degrees (easily accounted for by the Dynamic Slip Regulation hill descent control system, which offers incremental speed adjustments using the cruise control stalk), while we crawled at a 26-degree angle with the driver on the high-side.
There was never a shortage of traction on offer, despite the damp track degrading with every pass. The tyres fitted to our GLE 400 test vehicle – General Grabber 255/50 19-inchers – offered commendable grip, too. The nine-speed auto with reduction gearing made excellent use of the twin-turbocharged V6 petrol engine’s power.
Back on the road we also had a chance to sample the price-leading GLE 250d, which could be the pick of the range for family buyers.
This version is powered by a 2.1-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder with 150kW/500Nm, and it has the new nine-speed automatic, too. That’s helped fuel use dip over the existing ML 250 BlueTEC, now 6.0L/100km.
There’s no denying the engine offers enough punch for the needs of most people, and it is a nice engine and gearbox combination with a good amount of low-rev grunt and not a lot or turbo lag, either. That said, a BMW 2.0-litre diesel would likely offer better refinement and power linearity, and the diesel GLE is still a bit grumbly like the old ML.
Still, there have been major improvements to the dynamic ability of the GLE 250d compared to its predecessor.
The old ML was a wobbly thing over bumps, lacking body control; the new GLE 250d has an assertive feel on the road – not firm or uncomfortable, but the suspension offers a level of assuredness that was lacking in the existing version.
The steering, too, is better than before: while still light and lacking some feel, it is more direct and gains a nice amount of resistance as speeds rise.
In terms of safety gear, Mercedes has loaded the GLE with lots of standard safety gear, including Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control with active steering assistance, autonomous emergency braking, crosswind assist, blind-spot and lane departure warning systems. It also has nine airbags.
The GLE is an improvement over the ML it replaces, and it needed to be, too. With the new Audi Q7 on its way and the impressive BMW X5 reigning supreme at the top of the sales charts, the Mercedes-Benz GLE will have its work cut out for it – new name or not.