WHAT IS IT?
Here is Mercedes-Benz’s original – G-Class excluded – and best-selling SUV, now in its fourth-generation. What began as the M-Class in 1997 is now laden with more technology than ever before, and set to land in Oz by mid-2019 in a three-tier line-up of all-wheel-drive seven-seaters.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
The outgoing GLE has been struggling to keep its head above water against premium large SUV competition, but this generation aims to blow those rivals out of the pool. An early preview in Texas, not too far from where the GLE is built, gave us a chance to sample Merc’s remarkable reworking of its family all-rounder, including a first-of-its-kind active suspension set-up.
THE WHEELS REVIEW
SELLING large SUVs has been a difficult business for Mercedes-Benz in recent times. Year to date, the ageing third-gen GLE wagon has been overshadowed on local sales charts by an X5 in its death throes and awaiting replacement. An overhaul for Stuttgart’s big family transporter couldn’t come too soon, and the brand hasn’t taken to the challenge meekly.
The all-new, fourth-gen model is a boon for Merc’s big SUV stock, with an array of technological innovations including ground-breaking active suspension that advances the game significantly. It also carries over its predecessor’s badge for the first time in this model’s history. The first-gen M-Class of more than 20 years ago met opposition from BMW, who already had M-badged models. That saw it change to ML-Class in 2005, then again to GLE with the third-gen in 2011.
It’s easier to follow the lineage by looking at each iteration, all of which are linked by a distinctive ‘shark fin’ C-pillar shape. Designer Achim-Dietrich Badstubner says he fought hard to keep that element for the new car, which is lower, slightly wider in the body and significantly longer than before. Nose to tail the GLE has gained 105mm, with 80mm added to the wheelbase to open up almost 70mm of additional rear legroom. The body structure uses a mixture of materials and construction methods to improve passive safety characteristics along with torsional rigidity (up 30 percent), and cabin comfort by reducing acoustic intrusion to a serene level.
Australia has a three-tier GLE range arriving from Merc’s Alabama plant around the middle of 2019. A sole petrol variant sits sandwiched between entry-level and range-topping diesels, all three with Stuttgart’s proven 9-speed auto and 4Matic all-wheel drive. The GLE300d opens with a 185kW/500Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel, followed by the GLE450 with a 270kW/500Nm 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder petrol, plus a 48v mild-hybrid system that adds up to 16kW/250Nm at take-off. But the most popular choice initially is expected to be the GLE400d with a strong 243kW/700Nm 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder diesel. Two future AMG variants (namely GLE53 and GLE63) are slated.
Read next: 2019 Mercedes-Benz GLE revealed
In a blind test the oilers are hard to pick from the lone petrol-powered GLE, such is the slickness and refinement of Merc’s latest generation diesels, and there’s no penalty for shopping at the lower end of the range. The torquey 300d shifts the base car’s hulking frame with ease, even though it’s now 90kg heavier than before at 2165kg in total. Performance of the 450 and 400d is tremendous, both reaching 100km/h from rest in under 6.0-sec.
But this is a segment where stopwatches and ultimate dynamics take a back seat to practical considerations such as cargo space, third-row utility and ride quality. For Oz, every GLE will feature seven berths as standard, though the rearmost pew can be deleted at no cost. Massive rear doors make access to the back half easy.
Electric adjustment for the sliding second-row opens up generous space for passengers, and varies boot space between 630L and 825L, or 2055L with all seats stowed. Clever packaging of the folding third row means cargo capacity is the same as the five-seater when tucked away, and a storage compartment for the cargo blind keeps it hidden when all seats are deployed. Kids in the third row get USB ports and cup holders, though an absence of vents means making do with airflow from face-level B-pillar outlets is as good as it gets.
Elsewhere the GLE’s premium cabin is an attractive and comfortable place to spend time. Advanced driver assistance and Benz’s latest MBUX infotainment are standard, presented on a beautiful dual-pane widescreen display. Thoughtful touches are littered throughout, especially with Merc’s Interior Assistant package optioned in. This brings a huge head-up display, augmented reality for clearer navigation and additional intuitive functionality including gesture control that buyers might actually use.
Air suspension is standard in all variants, and adjustable for height and firmness via drive modes depending on driving style and terrain. On broad Texan roads around San Antonio where the GLE was tested its ride comfort was impressive, with only a hint of terseness over the few choppy surfaces we encountered. But the party trick, for those who option it, is a new suspension system called E-Active Body Control.
Mercedes has been playing with active suspension since the 1970s to minimise the impact of bumps on cabins, but this 48v system is a first. It’s available on GLE450 and 400d, with the latter gaining the 450’s 48v battery and alternator when E-ABC is fitted. The hardware offers variable ride heights for each wheel for off-roading, and a rocking-free mode for getting out of soft sand. Integration with the GLE’s radar and camera hardware scans the road surface to pre-emptively react to potholes, and a function called Curve allows the GLE to lean into corners like a motorcycle, which works better on fast, flowing tarmac than tight, twisty terrain. The struts can even recuperate kinetic energy to recharge the 48v system.
Benz has taken an all-encompassing approach to the development of this GLE and delivered a thoroughly well-rounded family car. How much of its cutting-edge tech will be standard in Oz remains to be seen, but the GLE is set to take the fight to a new generation of BMW X5 with more weapons in its arsenal than ever.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The latest generation of big Mercedes-Benz SUV is a compelling offering for buyers with large families. Considerate packaging has markedly improved practicality, and a range of excellent engines makes it worth considering at every tier of the line-up.
PLUS: Superb powertrains, premium cabin environment, up-to-the-minute technology
MINUS: No third-row air vents, intimidating size and weight
Model: Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 4Matic
Engine: 2999cc, inline 6cyl, dohc, 24v, mild hybrid, turbo
Max power: 270kW @ 5500-6100rpm
Max torque: 500Nm @ 1600-4500rpm (750Nm system torque w/e-motor)
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Economy: 8.3-9.4L/100km (claimed)
Price: $120,000 (est)
On sale: Q2 2019