A family SUV doesn't make a great sports car, and vice-versa. These two bulked-up family freighters buck the trend, with one in particular doing a very convincing job of being both things.
The performance arms of Mercedes-Benz and BMW need little introduction. If you’re familiar with either Euro prestige marque, you’ll no doubt be aware of their respective AMG and M in-house tuning divisions.
Once tasked with turning out relentlessly high-spec versions of more humble mainstream models, both now also supply a ‘middle step’. Cars that ease back a little on the maximum attack and come across as more liveable day-to-day options.
That’s certainly the case with the BMW X5 M50i xDrive and Mercedes-AMG GLE53 4Matic+ seen here. Above each sit utterly mad examples of engineering, the X5 M Competition and GLE63 S, which take family-friendly SUVs and give them near track-ready levels of performance and handling.
Impressive, sure, but not for everyone. In the case of the two cars tested here, there’s a little less aggression applied with some socially acceptable tact thrown in. Both still wear the mark of sporting beasts, but do so in a way that is easier, more comfortable, and more practical to live with.
Pricing and Spec
There’s a fairly significant difference between these two SUVs, and it lies under the bonnet. While most closely huddled competitors follow formulaic rules regarding engine size and performance, BMW and Benz have (seemingly) gone free-form.
Check Drivelines, below, for more details, but the standout here is the 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 of the X5 and its 390kW and 750Nm outputs, which leaves the 3.0-litre twin-turbo six of the Benz, and its 320kW/520Nm outputs, looking somewhat malnourished.
The difference is exaggerated further when you consider the X5 M50i starts from $155,900 before options and on road-costs, alongside the AMG GLE53’s $166,700 sticker price. If you were to judge based on dollars per kilowatt, or per Newton-metre, alone.
In terms of size, the differences are much less significant. At 4937mm, the GLE is just 15mm longer than the X5, and the 2015mm width is 11mm more. Wheelbase, which often reflects on interior space, also favours the Benz at 2995mm or 20mm more than the X5.
It seems incredibly unlikely that either of these two SUV would venture off-road, and neither is fully equipped with a low-range transfer case to do so, but if you did encounter a kerb to climb, the X5’s 214mm ground clearance claim provides a little extra clearance compared to the 188mm AMG.
If you plan on hooking up your weekend leisure craft, both carry the same 2700kg maximum braked towing capacity.
The safety and driver assist lists for both are incredibly long. There are seven airbags in the BMW and nine in the Mercedes, common features like high- and low-speed autonomous emergency braking, distance-keeping cruise control, driver-attention monitoring, front and rear cross-traffic warning, lane-keep assist with steering capabilities, surround-view cameras, front and rear park sensors, self-park ability, and traffic sign recognition features in both.
BMW’s party trick is Reversing Assistant, which remembers your last 50m of travel as you pull into a car park and can play those moves in reverse to get you out, while also monitoring for changes in surroundings or moving objects.
Mercedes flexes its tech muscle with Active Lane Change assist on highways and as part of the cruise control and lane-centring suite. A tap of the indicator will allow the car to check for clear space and change lanes by itself – with the driver’s hands on the wheel.
Both are impressive party tricks, but if I had to pick only one, Reversing Assistant feels like the more useful, especially with the ever-shrinking dimensions of underground carpark bays and the labyrinthine access to them.
Tech and Infotainment
Without going too deep-dive, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are really neck-and-neck in the race to infotainment supremacy. Although there are many similarities between the two, these are independently developed systems specific to each brand.
Immediately, Mercedes-Benz looks the more cutting-edge of the two thanks to the huge plank of data set within the dash, covering both instrument displays ahead of the driver, and infotainment on the second screen in the middle of the dash.
BMW takes a slightly more traditional approach, with a tombstone centre display crowning the centre stack and instruments (still on a digital display) set into a recessed binnacle ahead of the driver.
In both cases, systems can be interacted with via any combination of touchscreen, voice input, or satellite controls on the centre console. Benz uses a touchpad, while BMW prefers a rotary clickwheel.
Both systems also cover regular radio, digital radio, satellite navigation, wireless phone charging, and smartphone mirroring for Apple CarPlay. BMW does so wirelessly, but Benz requires a physical connection and adds Android Auto compatibility, too.
There’s onboard hard drive storage in both, and a range of online services that allow functions like real-time traffic, weather, news, petrol prices, parking and dining options, plus remote services. Both display on a pair of 12.3-inch screens.
You can control more without taking your hands off the wheel in the Mercedes, with additional thumb toggles on the steering wheel to control each of the screens, plus you get a wider selection of driver display layouts.
Huge head-up displays are par for the course. Mercedes runs one that’s bigger and brighter than the BMW's with more display options. They all look a little comical, the info is at-a-glance legible, but jumbo-sized and maybe a little over the top.
There’s more useful info and additional pop-ups for things like audio adjustments in the BMW, in a display that doesn't quite eat up as much of the driver’s field of vision.
Mercedes has what feels like a simpler to navigate menu format, and a more natural way of interacting with its system. BMW’s iDrive is far from counterintuitive, but Benz's MBUX system just feels more familiar with obvious user-interface lessons learned from iPads and smartphones.
Tech goes further in the Mercedes with features like seat kinetics, which helps stave off fatigue by shuffling the front seats a degree or two every couple of seconds to promote alertness. Mercedes goes for a more modern touch with three USB-C charge points up front to BMW’s single C and single A options.
Touch panels on the Benz steering wheel allow control of drive mode and key drivetrain settings. BMW sticks to a more traditional console layout and a steering wheel with a more ‘old-fashioned’ audio and cruise-control button bank.
Rather hilariously, both feature a version of mood training, linking bespoke musical scores, cabin lighting and climate control to calm or energise the driver. Both feel like being trapped inside a new-age infomercial. BMW’s full fan/no fan cycling is particularly awful.
As big SUVs, it’s highly unlikely any dimension within the cabin of either the X5 or GLE is going to fall short, but there are some differences between the two.
BMW takes a much more staid approach to décor, so you get a much simpler layout to controls, less decorative stitching, less backlighting, and what can only be described as a more traditional approach to dashboard design.
Mercedes-Benz uses a much more vibrant design direction with a more expressive use of materials and finishes. Everything from the intricate seat stitching to the 64-colour animated ambient lighting goes above and beyond BMW’s six-colour efforts.
Despite being physically large, there’s a much more hemmed-in feeling behind the wheel of the GLE53. The high centre console and the grab handles that rise from it make front-seat occupants feel more cocooned inside.
A lower console and more open-plan centre stack give the X5 a more airy feel. There’s also more space in the BMW’s front footwells, and the freedom to move makes a big difference on the impression of roominess.
If you’re counting features, it looks like Mercedes-Benz romps off with the prize at first, with a few extra bells, whistles and buttons for the front seats, but explore the cabin and BMW tips in more wow factor.
Both feature powered front seats with heating, driver’s seat memory, and a range of power adjustments for seat slide, height, angle, backrest recline, and headrest height.
BMW lets you tweak the grip from the seat bolsters whereas AMG doesn’t, but the Benz gets powered cushion length adjustment to BMW’s manual thigh support, there’s memory for the front passenger, and the ability to control the left seat from the right bank of buttons, plus seat cooling.
You’ll find leather trim in the BMW, but a more sporty-looking nappa leather and Alcantara combo in the Mercedes. The BMW comes with soft-close doors, front cupholders that can be heated and cooled, four climate zones instead of two, and possibly the most novel of cargo covers that can be electrically retracted and even stows itself under the floor at the touch of a button.
The second row of seats in both is abundantly roomy, there’s plenty of width if you need to load three across, and a healthy amount of head room and leg room. That makes both cars suitable for use by passengers in kids' seats to fully grown lanky adults, and everyone in between.
Into the boot and BMW pips Mercedes-Benz with 650L of boot space in the X5 compared to 630L in the GLE. Lower-spec versions of both are available with optional third-row seating, but BMW removes this option for the M50i, steering you toward the larger X7 instead, while Mercedes-Benz will allow you to tick the third-row option on the GLE53.
Both come with a powered tailgate, but BMW’s split gate adds in a degree of versatility, requiring less space to open or giving the option of opening the upper section only, leaving the lower to hold anything that might have tipped over in transit.
Both are fitted with a pair of bag hooks, a 12-volt power socket, and a dedicated space beneath the floor to stow the cargo blind. Mercedes provides four tie-down hooks in the floor. BMW adds two more in the boot walls, along with seat-fold levers to drop the second row from the rear of the vehicle.
Things start to get the most interesting as you poke around under the bonnet. Sure, there are differences in interior design and exterior styling that might attract you to one or the other, but it’s the battle under the bonnet that’s hardest to ignore.
As brands downsize to meet internationally mandated efficiency and consumption targets, engines like Mercedes-AMG’s 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder, and its associated 48-volt mild hybrid system, will be more widely deployed.
Benz isn’t alone, as 48V tech has made its way into Audis, Renaults, Hyundais – in fact, most brands, though the rollout to Australia lags behind the rest of the world in many cases. But globally, if a brand hasn’t got a mild hybrid on sale already, it will have probably announced that one is on the way.
So in stark contrast, BMW’s M50i engine, for the moment at least, sticks to a version of the old ‘no replacement for displacement’ mantra. Two extra cylinders, 1.4 litres larger capacity, and ‘regular’ engine start-stop in place of the more upscaled 48V system.
On the road, the differences are stark: night and day, chalk and cheese. One of these muscled-up SUVs feels subdued, restrained and politically correct, while the other is into heavy metal and likes to show its wild side.
No prizes for guessing which is which.
Actually, it’s really more a case of the BMW feeling more direct. Plant the foot, revs rise, the lovely V8 burble builds, and the car will swiftly follow the orders given it.
In the Mercedes, there’s always a feeling of insulation. Accelerate from a stop and it’s not just the petrol engine doing the work, but at times there's some electric assistance from the mild hybrid system. The responses are always a little tempered, less direct, and the system’s complexity hides behind a veil of detachment.
Mercedes-AMG’s version of Mercedes-Benz’s 3.0-litre inline six from the GLE450 is decently powered up by 50kW but only 20Nm. The base petrol can already accomplish a 5.7-second 0–100km/h sprint, but at 5.3 seconds the AMG is demonstrably quicker.
BMW’s M50i 4.4-litre V8 isn’t used on lower grades of the X5, instead you’d step down to the X5 40i and its 3.0-litre six, which is distanced by a substantial 140kW and 300Nm. A 40i will make it to 100km/h in 5.5 seconds, the M50i slaps down bragging rights with a 4.3-second claim.
In case you needed reminding, the BMW X5 M50i goes big with 390kW and 750Nm, while the Mercedes-AMG GLE53 is hardly underpowered, yet at 320kW and 520Nm it’s certainly the more conservative of the two, down 70kW but really missing 230Nm.
The impact from behind the wheel is immediate. The BMW gives everything from a meaty soundtrack to a more prodigious shove every time you sink the accelerator pedal. The AMG tends to whisper an apology and shuffle about its electric and petrol power in a way that certainly builds speed rapidly, but without any visceral involvement.
One step back from the engine, both cars use a conventional torque converter automatic. BMW’s is an eight-speed built by component supplier ZF, and used in a number of different cars, though the programming is BMW’s own. Mercedes-Benz has a nine-speed automatic developed in-house.
BMW takes the lead here, too. While it may be one ratio down on gear count, the need to only have to deal with a petrol engine makes the X5’s automatic smoother and more decisive at very low speeds. The GLE is equally as refined on the go, but as you accelerate from a stop it can catch and surge. Not dangerously or alarmingly, but enough to rob the big Benz of the refined edge expected at this pricepoint.
Both cars are underpinned by constant all-wheel-drive systems, and both are successfully able to distribute torque from corner to corner seamlessly in damp or low-grip conditions.
On the Road
While it’s perhaps a little less likely that either of these cars will be purchased with a view to exploring the limits of their handling, it’s nice to know that a big SUV can also channel a little grand-tourer energy when required.
Step through the different drive modes of both, and the X5 and GLE can adjust their attitudes from all-encompassing comfort to firmer responses and sharper reflexes.
Around town or on the open road, the M50i and 53 are hard to pick apart from regular editions of their respective ranges. Both are a touch stiffer, but neither threatens to rattle occupants to the point of discomfort.
When it comes to ride comfort, Mercedes has an edge that the BMW can’t match. Of the two cars tested, the X5 was riding on its standard steel springs and adaptive dampers, the GLE on air suspension with optional AMG Adaptive Ride Control ($5700) that can read the road ahead and react accordingly.
Although the difference between the two isn’t as night and day as it might sound, the AMG is just a little more relaxed over the kinds of surface imperfections that litter city streets.
Both can accommodate the run from the office to the school pick-up without breaking a sweat. Both will happily sit on the open road and tick off the kilometres with natural-born ease.
Conversely, on a winding strip of rural tarmac, the X5’s suspension stayed steady and level, keeping everything in check and cornering speeds above what I might have expected. The AMG, meanwhile, felt completely out of its depth, bucking and see-sawing on its suspension, skipping wheels across the tarmac, and leaning precariously in tight bends.
Pair that with a much more measured stability-control response with a little bit of rear-end play, but not enough to get out of shape, and the X5 may as well have been an M5 for its handling graces. The AMG behaved in a much more panicked way, grabbing corners of the car, stability control frantically busy, with steering sending back an inconsistent feel.
Given the performance badge with a respected back-catalogue of products, Mercedes-AMG feels to have gone very light-handed with its makeover of the GLE. BMW hasn’t gone full X5 M-spec with its ride and handling tune. That's no bad thing, either, given how stiff the full-fledged M-car is, but at least it pulls a convincing imitation when properly engaged with.
At the time of writing, Mercedes-Benz wins the warranty war with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre standard warranty, and five years' roadside assist. BMW keeps to the old way of thinking in the prestige market with three years' warranty and roadside assist, but again with no warranty cap.
Both brands offer pre-paid service packages with a range of plans starting with three years' scheduled maintenance. In BMW’s case, the X5 M50i Service Inclusive plans start from $2150, while the Mercedes-AMG GLE53 is a little more expensive at $2600.
On the flip-side, Mercedes wins the consumption comparison thanks to its smaller engine and smart fuel-saving tech. Against a claim of 9.4 litres per 100km, the GLE53 returned 11.5L/100km on test. Back-to-back on the same roads, the M50i recorded 15.5L/100km and wears an official 11.5L/100km label.
For a pair of SUVs positioned as the ideal prestige family car with some sporting aspiration thrown in, it’s pretty clear BMW has been doing the most to ensure both briefs have been met. Mercedes-Benz certainly delivers a compelling family car, but the GLE53 doesn’t feel swift, doesn’t sound sporty, and doesn’t drive with the kind of nimbleness you'd expect.
Having driven the regular GLE450 just a few weeks ahead of this particular car, in the same white paint with a remarkably similar design of alloy wheel, it’s all the more difficult to justify AMG up-spend when the base car has so much, and the GLE53 adds so little.
Not to say the GLE53 is a bad car, far from it. It’s a superb, comfortable and subtle family ride – perfect for dissolving into the background.
The BMW, on the other hand, feels distinctly different to a regular SUV. It has muscle to flex, and it is markedly more imposing and impressive, both for a quick jaunt to the shops or a dedicated mountain-road blast.
With sharper value, greater performance, better handling, and a laundry list of additional interior features, the BMW X5 M50i takes a narrow points win over the almost as accomplished AMG GLE53, with performance, handling and value key to its win.
Take the numbers out of the game, though, and voting with heart not head, the X5 M50i displays a passionate conviction missing from the uninvolving GLE53. As models that fall under the label of dedicated performance divisions, only one truly performs.