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Mercedes-Benz has long had the wood over nemesis BMW in Australia’s sales race, but the battle between their GLE and X5 large SUVs has long been an exception. The Bimmer has outsold its GLE competitor by 40 per cent since the start of 2016.
Luckily it's quite clear this new-generation GLE will give far stronger competition to its Bavarian competitor, as well as the Audi Q7, Range Rover Sport, and Porsche Cayenne. It’s bigger, brasher, and better-equipped to lure its (stated) target audience of wealthy 35-45 year olds with kids.
This generation is a significant 105mm longer than the outgoing car (4924mm), making it the same size as said BMW X5 (4922mm). It’s 12mm wider and 24mm lower, and sits on a wheelbase that has been stretched by 80mm, improving occupant space and enabling the return of an optional third seating row for the first time in years.
Mercedes-Benz’s Australian division has taken a different approach to specifying the GLE. All three launch variants all have the same features and options, with the only differences are their powertrains. The GLE 300d diesel kicks off at $99,900 before on-road costs, the GLE450 petrol from $111,341, and the flagship GLE400d diesel from $118,142.
The AMG 53 and 63 performance models are scheduled to arrive next year.
The only variant available for us to test at the recent press launch (which came some time after the public launch, interestingly enough) was the base GLE300d entry car, which uses a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine making 180kW of peak power and 500Nm of torque 1600-2400rpm. It rivals the soon-to-arrive BMW X5 xDrive25d.
This highly refined powertrain is matched to a permanent 50:50 AWD system and nine-speed automatic transmission controlled by a column shifter where a right-side indicator stalk would live. Mercedes-Benz claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.9L/100km, though on our drive we were averaging 10.2L/100km with more spirited driving.
While a 2.0-litre engine seems small for a car weighing nearly 2.2-tonnes, the GLE300d’s 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.2 seconds (1.4s faster than the old GLE250d base car) is certainly sprightly enough, and you’ll rarely get the gearbox to use its top gear until you’re travelling well above Australia’s unusually low speed limits. If you buy the $1900 Towbar Package you also get an uprated 3.5-tonne braked towing capacity on this engine, and the other pair.
The GLE400d’s diesel option is a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder making 243kW and 700Nm, slashing the 0-100km/h time to 5.8 seconds while worsening fuel economy by 10 per cent over the GLE300d. It comfortably outmatches the $5000 cheaper BMW X5 30d’s 195kW/620Nm 3.0-litre engine, getting to 100km/h 0.7 seconds faster. But $18,000 is a lot to pay for an extra 63kW/200Nm over the base GLE with the same spec.
The other engine is the petrol-fired GLE450, projected to make up 50 per cent of sales. It pairs a 270kW/500Nm 3.0-litre inline-six with a 48V electrical system and Mercedes’ EQ Boost tech that can recuperate wasted brake energy, and redeploy up to 16kW/250Nm to fill in any turbo lag and power the car from launch, making the start/stop system seamlessly smooth.
Mercedes claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 5.7 seconds and fuel use of 9.1L/100km, which is impressive for a lumbering petrol SUV. While not a conventional hybrid, our experiences with such 48V systems suggest this unit will be smoother than the other GLE variants, and particularly good for those doing inner-city commuting. It’s also slightly cheaper and more efficient than BMW’s X5 xDrive40i petrol-six equivalent.
Underneath the GLE300d we drove first was the ‘base’ suspension, comprising steel springs and adjustable dampers that make the ride a little stiffer in sport mode (activated by rocket switch) or softer in comfort.
However you can shell out $3400 for the Airmatic adaptive air suspension for a smoother ride, or a whopping $13,000 for the E-Active Body Control system from the S-Class limo, which uses cameras to scan the road ahead and change the suspension settings preemptively, and which also changes the outside damper settings to ‘lean into’ corners.
The important factor is wheel size. The entry models use 20-inch alloy wheels on 275/50 aspect tyres, whereas you can option stiffer-sidewall run-flat safety tyres (on the seven-seater) or larger diameter 21/22-inch wheels on slimmer-sidewall tyres. The best case setup if ride comfort is your priority would be the smallest wheel size, fattest tyres, and air suspension. Otherwise you’ll find the ride quality a little harsher and stiffer than ideal.
What did impress us though was the quietude on-board. Mercedes has made a lot of effort to reduce in-cabin noise from tyres or from wind rushing over the A-pillars and mirrors, and it shows.
As we flagged up top, all three engine grades get the same features list. And as you’d expect for the price it’s as long as your arm. You get Artico (man-made leather) trim with heating, an enormous head-up display (HUD), climate control, floor mats, 20-inch wheels, LED headlights with adaptive highbeam, aluminium roof rails, electric tailgate, proximity key, rain-sensing wipers, two 12.3-inch screens, satellite navigation, DAB+, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a 360-degree parking camera.
Standard driver-assist and safety tech includes nine airbags, parking assist, radar-guided active cruise control, lane-keeping assist that deftly steers the car between highway road lines until telling you to return your hands to the wheel via the HUD, blind-spot monitoring, cross-traffic alert, traffic-sign assist, and autonomous emergency braking.
The de rigeur five-star Euro NCAP crash rating it has achieved should surprise nobody.
Moreover, the GLE will be among the first Mercedes-Benz vehicles to arrive in Australia with ‘Mercedes me Connect’ as standard. Via the Mercedes me Connect app, the vehicle can be warmed up via remote start, the doors can be locked or unlocked, the vehicle can be tracked or geofenced, an address can be sent to the vehicle navigation system, and the owner will also be automatically notified of upcoming maintenance requirements.
There’s a hefty options list, as you’d expect. Some of the juicier packages include the $4200 Vision package (a massive panoramic glass sunroof, 13-speaker/590W Burmester audio system and the should-be-standard Qi standard wireless phone charger), the $2300 Comfort Package (electric rear sunblinds, heated/cooled cup holders and soft-closing power doors), and the $3700 Luxury Seat package (massagers, softer headrest and also-should-be-standard ventilated seats).
But surely charging $850 for a tyre-pressure monitoring system is a bit rich!
The interior design up front looks and feels two generations ahead of the old model’s button-heavy layout. All grades feature two side-by-side 12.3-inch screens running the feted MBUX operating system, controlled by inputs to the trackpad along the transmission tunnel, by touchscreen, steering wheel trackpad, or voice recognition.
From the driver's seat you see a configurable digital instrument cluster which can display all manner of functions including maps, all controlled by the touchpad on the right-side spoke of the steering wheel. Above this sits the big projecting HUD showing your speed, the speed limit, and navigation instructions.
The centre screen has a simpler interface than before, comprising horizontally scrolling icons taking you to sub-menus for media, navigation, vehicle data etcetera. The maps on this big screen are crisp, and the processing power sufficient for hastily required complex tasks.
The MBUX voice recognition system responds to you simply saying ‘Hey Mercedes’, at which point it asks how it can help. If you’re simply saying the word ‘Mercedes’ in conversation then prepare to be interrupted by this rude AI party guest until you switch it off. But the breadth of its functions are impressive.
You can ask the car to call someone, or take you to a destination, or change the radio station. But you can also use voice instructions to close the sunroof cover, turn on the seat heating, or change the cabin temperature. Most functions that aren’t related to actual driving (vehicle modes, cruise control speed and such) are voice-changeable.
The textures and materials are quite nice. Our tester had open-pore oak wood trim along the dash and doors, though lighter walnut or modern brushed aluminium are available at no cost. You can also option ‘rough leather’ trims in various colours for $3000. The car also comes with changeable ambient cabin lights with 64 optional colours.
The back seats are notably more spacious than before, and rear occupants get a USB-C point and vents, though if you want four-zone climate control you’ll need to shell out for an options pack. The electric tailgate reveals a 630L boot which is actually 60L smaller than before, expanding out to 2055L with the middle seat row folded flat.
Our test car came with the $3900 '7 Seat' package, which adds a pair of seats in the third row covered by the curtain airbags, which can be folded into the boot floor when not in use. This option pack also adds electric seat adjustment for the middle seat row controlled by the same style of door-mounted switches as found up front. While high-tech, it’s far slower to move the middle seats forward and downwards than with a cheaper manual system.
As a side bonus this system means you can move the middle row forwards and up the boot capacity to 825L.
The third-row seats are apparently designed to accommodate people up to 1.8m tall, however, as we've come to expect from this class, they are more suited to kids or diminutive adults. We’d suggest waiting for the new GLS if you want to regularly carry seven adult occupants. You could, also, easily make an argument that the third seating row shouldn’t cost you a cent extra, but that’s not how any luxury brand works.
From an ownership perspective, Mercedes offers a 'pay upfront' servicing plan for $2600 covering three visits, done at intervals of 12 months or 25,000km. You also get warranty cover for three years, in line with Audi and BMW. However, given every mainstream brand now has a five-year warranty, this three-year term is rapidly looking stingy.
Nevertheless, the new Mercedes-Benz GLE is clearly a step up from its predecessor. We have slotted a direct comparison test against the BMW X5 into our calendar, which we're counting down to...
Granted, the bigger optional wheels hurt ride quality , the GLE400d’s six-pot engine is a big step up in cost over the fine 300d, and features such as ventilated seats, a wireless phone charger, and a tyre pressure monitor should really come standard on a $100k-plus vehicle. Moreover, that third seating row is priced at a level that makes it hard to recommend.
However, the imposing design outside, gorgeous and high-tech cabin, big back seats, impressive powertrains and quietude all make it an enticing prospect. Given luxury SUV buyers often want the newest thing out there, it’ll lure many people to the Pointed Star brand, not to mention giving existing GLE owners something fresh to hop into.