Let’s get this clear very early on. The 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 250d is the facelifted and updated version of the 2015 Mercedes-Benz ML250. That’s right, this year all ML models become GLE models which, strangely, makes sense.
So why ‘G’? Back in 1979 the original 4x4 Mercedes ‘Gelandewagen’ arrived on the scene. Translating roughly to ‘cross-country vehicle’ the rugged and capable four-wheeler became known simply as the G-Wagen.
With the introduction of the GLE badge, all Mercedes-Benz SUVs now feature the G-prefix to signify their off-road heritage and potential.
Now that has been sorted, let’s move on.
Only the keenest of car-spotters will note changes to the 2016 GLE on the outside.
There is a mildly revised front bar and rear chrome treatment, as well as an update to the grille and lights, giving a more pronounced and upright nose.
The W166 ML/GLE has never been a standout in the style department, and while the facelift does smarten things up, it’s not Mercedes’ best effort in recent years. That said, the use of chrome and inclusion of LED head and tail lights give the GLE, even in the 250d’s entry-level trim, a classy and premium appearance.
One cool trick of the GLE is a beautifully detailed Mercedes-Benz logo puddle-lamp that illuminates the ground when the car is unlocked at night. Pointless, but fun and a bit special.
Inside though, the changes are much more evident.
Gone is the recessed and somewhat dated seven-inch navigation screen, replaced by an eight-inch TFT panel. Yes, it does look like a stuck-on iPad, but with improved clarity and much higher resolution graphics of the newer COMAND interface, it also helps to modernise the GLE’s cabin.
To complement the revised COMAND screen is the new controller on the centre console. The combination wheel and touch-pad is a far more intuitive interface than the previous generation, and a welcome addition to the GLE.
Also new to the GLE is the Dynamic Select drive-mode switch. This allows you to change on the fly between Comfort, Sport, Snow and Off-Road drive programs. There is an Individual mode that essentially operates as a hybrid between Sport and Comfort, only allowing engine response and steering feel to be modified from either of the two standard programs.
An optional OFFROAD+ mode is available ($3,350 plus the required $3,300 Airmatic suspension) to further extend the GLE’s ‘Gelandewagen’ prowess. This provides a locking centre differential, low-range gear ratio and underbody protection – not something most GLE’s will need when navigating cobbled inner-suburban laneways, but a statement about the capability of the GLE, even without these packages.
The rest of the interior is largely unchanged from the ML, but the aluminium trim panels are again another nice premium touch.
The seats are electrically adjustable (memory is frustratingly optional at $2100) and comfortable up front. Electric lumbar support is standard, unlike some competitors.
Moving to the rear bench, which is split 40:20:40, there is still excellent room for adults, but comfort levels drop a bit as the seat bases are quite firm. There are air vents, storage bins and map-pockets for passengers, but we have a few gripes with the back-seat setup of the GLE.
With the seat back headrests in their lowest position (where they must be if you need to fold the seats), they dig into adult passenger shoulder blades, making a readjustment compulsory for passenger comfort.
Speaking of folding the seats, it is a multi-step process of flipping the seat-base forward and then folding the back down flat (providing you have returned the headrest to its lowest position). It’s not the end of the world, but certainly not the smoothest and most flexible interior in the category.
A power boot is also standard equipment, as is proximity keyless entry, making loading an armful of shopping into the 690-litre boot an easy task. A cargo blind along with integrated load/pet barrier is again standard.
Fire up the 150kW/500Nm 2.1-litre turbo-diesel (keyless start is standard) and you are ‘treated’ to a rather rudimentary clatter at idle. Inside and on the move, the 250d’s engine noise is suitably muffled but there is a sense that perhaps the powerplant isn’t as refined as it could be.
It pulls adequately in Comfort-mode, and is very smooth on the go thanks to the nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic transmission. Sport mode shuffles the 2,150-kilogram GLE 250d with a bit more vigour, but this isn’t the hot-rod engine by any stretch and any ‘urgent’ driving will result in a harshness in both noise and feel from the engine bay.
What it lacks in poke though, the 250d makes up for in economy. With a claimed combined fuel consumption cycle of just 6L/100km, and a highway cycle of just 5.6L/100km, the 250d has a theoretical range of over 1500km per tank.
Even on our test loop, the GLE managed 7.6L/100km with reasonably spirited driving and use of multiple drive-modes.
Fair to note that the GLE’s start-stop function no-doubt assists in these efficiency achievements, but it isn’t the smoothest we’ve encountered particularly when starting up.
A common criticism of the ML was the somewhat vague steering feel. This has been addressed with the GLE where the feedback both around town and on country roads is more direct than before. The GLE still feels light, which helps with parking and urban running, but it is distinctly more engaging than the ML was.
Ride, too, has been improved, even on cars not fitted with Airmatic air suspension. The car is compliant on poorly surfaced roads and very comfortable on smoother highway surfaces.
Through rural curves, the car feels confident and offers a more engaging drive than the ML did. It’s not quite to BMW X5 level of driver feel, but doesn’t float or skip harshly, even over corrugations.
Long highway touring is the Mercedes-Benz GLE 250d’s bread and butter, and it is made even easier thanks to the full suite of driver assistance packages offered as standard equipment.
Distronic radar-guided cruise control, lane departure warning, lane keeping assistance (with automatic steering) and autonomous emergency braking are among the safety and assistance technology included on the GLE.
Mercedes-Benz should be applauded for taking the leap from making these features optional to standard, particularly on a car with such a strong family focus.
As you would expect, there is a long and varied options list to configure your GLE just the way you like it. Eleven colours (ours in $2,100 optional Tenorite Grey Metallic), ten interior trims along with seven wheel packages promote a capability for exclusivity – despite many of them destined to be silver on black with standard rims!
On top of all this, though, is the GLE 250d’s impressive starting price of $86,900 (before options and on-road costs). To have a sub-$90k vehicle of this quality, with such a high level of standard equipment and the benefit of full-time 4WD, will likely lift the profile of the GLE and put a strong challenge to the BMW X5’s premium-large SUV sales success.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 250d may not be a step-change forward, but it is an improvement on the ML in many key areas and a worthy way for the large luxury Mercedes-Benz SUV to earn its 'G' badge.
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