2019 Mercedes-Benz GLE review

First international drive

The Mercedes-Benz GLE has come of age in its all-new fourth generation. It’s brimming with tech and grows into a seven-seater, but is it a finer large luxury SUV?

With the all-new fourth generation, Mercedes-Benz has upped the size, tech and features list of its popular GLE, while filling at least one hole left gaping in the outgoing generation. The large SUV from Stuttgart, Germany (via Alabama, USA), will finally come as a seven-seater when the three-variant-strong Aussie range lobs locally in Q2 2019.

In fact, the seven-seater format is standard in the new GLE. Buyers can opt for a five-seater as a no-cost option, but it’s expected the ‘seven’ will be vastly more popular, if for no other reason than that a stowed third seating row allows identical cargo space, up to 825L, to the ‘five’ – the only sacrifice being the deletion of the latter’s spare wheel.

This merely scratches the depth of the GLE's improved packaging and added practicality. Gen four is larger in every measure outside bar roof height, the most significant upsizing being overall length (up a whopping 105mm) and wheelbase (80mm) compared with moderate stretching elsewhere.

The conservative and evolutionary approach to exterior design – familiar proportions, short overhangs, a compact front fascia – certainly masks the growth spurt in the flesh, but the benefits to interior spaciousness are far more conspicuous once you climb inside.

Bar a touch of extra shoulder room up front, first-row roominess is about the same. Row two, however, is noticeably more palatial, the added wheelbase paying handsome dividends, especially in leg room (up 64mm) with the regular rear seat. It’s properly limousine like.

The situation improves with the optional/high-spec electric slide and tilt rear seating, adding almost 7cm of leg room when slid into the rearmost position.

Adjusted forward, the new GLE’s 825L boot space is a huge 135L improvement over the outgoing generation. Better yet, row two tilts forward (for third-row access) or folds mostly flat, thus liberating a whopping 2055L of space, electrically at the touch of a button located in the boot space wall.

A neat trick, too, is that the detachable fabric parcel shelf assembly has its own stowage space under the boot floor.

The design inside is much like the exterior façade of other recently revamped ’Benz model lines: a good shove in a more contemporary direction with neat upmarket touches, and oodles of conspicuous new-age tech and flash. The increasingly familiar dual 12.3-inch widescreen digital driver and infotainment screen arrangement, floating proud of the dash fascia, won’t be to more ‘classic’ buyer tastes, but jeez is it nice, crisp and crystal clear.

All four choices of selectable display themes are pleasing to the eye, and intuitive to use and navigate – distinguishable from some other ’Benz range formats with an extra 40 expanded functions to ’Benz’s new-school MBUX control structure.

I personally still find MBUX’s suite of electro-conveniences a bit of a mixed bag, though I’m not terribly experienced with it. Perhaps more familiarity might yield more usefulness to this Luddite journalist. Buyers want this stuff, or so German ’Benz reps constantly spruik at international product presentations.

The ‘augmented reality’ forward-facing camera-based navigation enhancement is bloody brilliant. The ‘hey Mercedes’ voice-control interface is, in my experience, less hit and more miss. And the newly introduced Interior Assist, a sort of gesture control while your hand hovers near the touchpad or touchscreen, seems a bit gimmicky with limited practical purpose, though it functions perfectly fine.

Of course, there’s lots of soft-touch, double stitched, satin and gloss alloy-look detailing abound, anchored with a classy multifunction steering wheel and a neat, slim-line, column-mounted transmission controller. But the light and handbrake cluster is cheap, some of the switchgear a little too low-rent for ’Benz, and while we had hoped to find the glorious turbine air vents as featured in other ranges, they are supplanted by ordinary black rectangular outlets.

The seat trims, leather or fake stuff depending on cabin location and variant, are similar to what you’d find in the C- and E-Class: decent and hardy, if lacking a touch of suppleness. The first two rows are shapely and well contoured with a nice balance of support and comfort, while row three’s twin-seat errs towards ‘larger kid’ sized.

At its international launch in San Antonio, Texas USA, we got to sample two of the three available variants due for Oz in the entry 300d diesel and flagship 450 petrol-electric. We'll have to wait until the Aussie launch in Q2 2019 to see what the high-spec diesel 400d goes like.

For the record, word around the Aussie media contingent is that the top-spec diesel version, with its high output and torquey 3.0-litre six, could well be the sweetest spot in the range.

Initial signs are quite positive for the 300d – for various reasons sampled here in Euro spec – not merely as a reflection of the GLE range quality, but a reflection of the finery of today’s contemporary premium large-SUV breed. To the latter point, there’s so much core goodness, and goodness where it counts, in base-level variants that: a) you should never discount the entry version when shopping the range; and b) it seems increasingly tricky for carmakers to pull inherent goodness out of these versions (thus protecting pricier higher-tier specifications) when chasing the sharpest, most competitive pricepoints in the market.

The 2.0-litre diesel four in the 300d is certainly handy enough, at least two-up with luggage as tested. It’s not particularly powerful (180kW) nor quick (7.2sec 0–100km/h), but it is smooth and quiet, and the slick nine-speed automatic it’s paired with is keenly attuned to plucking the engine’s 500Nm sweet spot (1600–2400rpm) with low-effort polish. Impressively driveable and foible free, it’s more than purposeful enough for most SUV buyers’ needs.

Like all GLE variants, the 300d drivetrain gets all-wheel drive with torque vectoring, though the diesel four fits a 50:50 fore-aft torque split with individual wheel braking to convert torque to traction. It’s not as sophisticated nor as multi-surface-talented as the more advanced electro-multi-clutch design fitted to the six-bangers (more soon), but there are certainly no gripes with its operation during our mixed urban/highway/sealed country road driving environments at launch.

Pleasant, co-operative, comfy, quiet: all positive first impressions for the 300d, though frankly this is far from a definitive assessment. Why? The GLE’s launch drive program was very lightweight. The roads around San Antonio are particularly well manicured, with a lot of hot mix and a lot of 35mph (55km/h-ish) signposts, potholes and road acne near non-existent, and, importantly, no off-roading on the driving program.

Whether our drive environment was forensically tailored to highlight the smoothness and quietness of the GLE experience – one of ’Benz’s main boasts for its new steed – is debatable, but that was exactly the net effect.

There was the odd surface lump and bump, exposing the effort with which the steel-sprung suspension system works to control the huge and heavy 21- and 22-inch wheels fitted to our test cars, even at highway speeds. In some markets, wheel size starts at 18 inches, and I’ll wager controlling the lighter wheel mass with the same suspension tune would yield an even more polished ride. But that’s a bit of tough-crap policy at play for buyers who consider the big-wheel appearance a must-have.

We did find a few corners: driven ‘normally’, the 300d’s flat cornering stance, obedient co-operation with driver inputs, and ample body control and grip deserve ticks, though any differences compared with the old generation are tough to pick. We did find a short strip of coarse-chip in Texas and, unsurprisingly, tyre noise did become noticeably more intrusive.

The flagship GLE 450’s petrol-electric ‘mild hybrid’ is excellent. The new 3.0-litre straight six – not ordinarily an inherently torquey configuration – piles on 500Nm from 1600rpm and produces 270kW from 5500rpm, and it’s buttery smooth in delivery in between. Nestled between the engine and transmission is an electric motor with 48-volt architecture that, while contributing just 16kW of power, provides an additional 250Nm to the bottom line, subtly fattening and rounding out the thrust.

For the record, the 450 comes with a 5.7sec 0–100km/h claim, just one-tenth quicker than the highest-spec (243kW/700Nm) 400d diesel that will effectively become the mid-range variant in Oz. Meanwhile, official fuel consumption is 8.3L/100km at its most favourable compared with the 400d’s more frugal 6.95L best.

Again, a nine-speed auto is employed, if mated to a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system than the entry 300d. Its electro-multi-clutch arrangement is able to send up to 100 per cent of torque to either front or rear axle and – before you write this off as a mere soft-roader – low-range reduction gearing in the transfer case.

But the largest bag of techno party tricks is the 48-volt E-Active Body Control (EABC) active suspension system, optionally available on both the 400d and 450 mild hybrid, and paired with a redeveloped version of the Airmatic air suspension. Mercedes-Benz claims it’s the world’s most intelligent SUV suspension system, and on smarts alone it’s a tough act to argue against. EABC is said to be the only system out there where each wheel’s spring and damper forces are individually controlled – the upshots being two very cool if showboaty tricks.

Firstly, during big articulation off-roading, the ride height of individual wheels can be adjusted and controlled by the driver in-cabin (using sliders in the infotainment screen) to ensure every wheel makes contact with the surface below. ’Benz demonstrated the system’s prowess at the launch with a dancing GLE, old-school ‘lowrider’ style, choreographed to a music soundtrack.

Secondly, there’s Free Driving – or ‘rocking’ – mode. In off-roading drive mode at speeds below 15km/h, the GLE literally bounces along on its wheels, effectively helping the SUV regain traction if bogged in sand. Activating it in traffic or stopped at lights, as we had to try numerous times, is utterly hilarious.

Aside from dancing tricks, E-Active Body Control has more (if less conspicuous) functionality. There’s a Curve function that, in milder settings, keeps the body seated flat when cornering and can, in its maximum setting, actually slightly tilt the body into a corner, motorcycle style. The active springs and dampers are also tied to a Road Surface Scan function that, using stereo forward-facing cameras, monitors undulations in the road ahead and then adjusts the suspension to keep the body flat in transition.

The latter two features are very useful, if extremely subtle by the seat of the pants, and not helped by the smooth Texan byways. And, again, with no off-road testing offered during the launch program, it’s tough to gauge if the former two party tricks are merely that or actually noticeably advantageous off the beaten track. The jury is well and truly out for now about the collective practice, but we sure do like the amalgamated functionalities in theory.

The various functions are tied to various drive mode settings (and sub settings), and if our test drive was any true indicator, two conclusions surface. One is that if you primarily use your GLE as an on-road family hauler and off-roading challenges are unlikely, the potential pricey EABC could be a superfluous splurge. The other is that in regular Comfort mode, the GLE is still ever-so-slightly hamstrung by typical air suspension traits when compared with the (300d’s) steel sprung set-up: the body still wobbles a little, and the body control isn’t quite as tied down in general at around-town speeds.

Up the pace, if a little quicker than the Texan constabulary might approve of, and the air suspension’s goodness really starts to shine brightly. How it settles its heft over lumps and bumps, retains remarkable ride compliance, and maintains an assertive hold on chassis dynamics, is very impressive indeed. The quicker you go, the more tangible the EABC benefits seem to become.

From its solid suite of active safety tech to the smart windscreen wipers (that adjust to prevailing conditions) and the so-called Energising seats (that make minute cushion and backrest adjustments on the fly to help reduce fatigue), the all-new GLE really piles on the goodies thick. But it remains to be seen how much of the global specification will make it to Oz and at what cost, standardised or optional, to the buyer.

The question of value will remain just that until localised examples are assessed around the range’s Q2 2019 Aussie launch.

Right now, though, the GLE is looking good indeed. As a fresher, more practical and absolutely tech-loaded proposition, Mercedes-Benz seems to have evolved its large SUV significantly enough in all the right places.

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