Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

From Stuttgart via Alabama, Mercís all-new all-rounder is a technological livewire

RYAN LEWIS

FIRSTDRIVES

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

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 Stuttgartís big family transporter couldnít come too soon, and the brand hasnít taken to the challenge meekly.

The all-new, fourth-gen model is a boon for Mercís big SUV stock, with an array of technological innovations including groundbreaking active suspension that advances the game significantly. It also carries over its predecessorís badge for the first time in this modelís 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.

Itís easier to follow the lineage by looking at each iteration, all of which are linked by a distinctive Ďshark finí C-pillar shape. Designer Achim-Dietrich Badstubner says he fought hard to keep that element for the new car, which is lower, slightly wider 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 can expect a threetier GLE range arriving from Mercís Tuscaloosa plant around the middle of 2019. A sole petrol variant sits sandwiched between entry-level and range-topping diesels, all three with Stuttgartís nine-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 and a plug-in hybrid are slated.

In a blind test, the oilers are hard to pick from the lone petrol GLE, such is the slickness and refinement of Mercís latest diesels, and there are no penalties at the lower end of the range. The torquey 300d shifts the base carís hulking frame with ease, even though itís 90kg heavier than before at 2165kg. The 450 and 400d variants are tremendous, both able to reach 100km/h from rest in under 6.0 seconds.

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.

The Curve function allows the GLE to lean into corners like a motorcycle

Action, not reaction

Active suspension was first shown by Benz under the W126 S-Class of 1978. Various concepts furthered the technology over decades until it reached series production as Magic Body Control in the W222 S-Class of 2013. That car read surface imperfections up to 15m in front and adapted its suspension to reduce sprung mass vibrations. A tilt function called Curve arrived in 2014 with the C217 S-Class Coupe. Todayís GLE executes all this and more using a superior 48v system for greater comfort and agility. Individual wheel control can counteract not only bodyroll, but also pitch and squat.

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 with the rear pair tucked away, and a storage compartment for the cargo blind gives it somewhere to hide 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 GLEís premium cabin is an attractive and comfortable place to spend time. Advanced driver assistance and Benzís latest MBUX infotainment are standard, presented on a beautiful dual-pane widescreen display. Thoughtful touches are littered throughout, especially with Mercís Interior Assistant package optioned in. This brings a huge head-up display, augmented reality for clearer navigation and gesture control that buyers might actually use.

Superb powertrains; premium cabin; up-to-the-minute technology

PLUS & MINUS

No third-row air vents, intimidating size and weight

Air suspension is standard on 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 we drove the GLE, 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 (see sidebar, left), but this 48v system is a first. Itís available on GLE450 and 400d, with the latter gaining the 450ís 48v battery and alternator when E-ABC is fitted. The hardware can vary the ride height of each wheel for off-roading, and has a rocking-free mode for getting out of soft sand. Integration with the GLEís radar and cameras can scan the road surface to preemptively 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 even recuperate kinetic energy to charge the 48v system.

Seven or five?

Aussie-delivered GLEs will come with seven seats as standard, and a fully electrically adjustable second row in a first for the segment. The middle bench is wide enough to fit a trio of child seats side-by-side, and with the 40/20/40 backrest folded (which can be done from the cargo area) thereís 2055L of storage space and no step in the floor. Buyers who choose to delete the third row (a no-cost option) gain an additional 138L of underfloor storage.

OR TRY THESE...

BMW X5 $112,990

New X5 arrived in Oz this month to pre-emptively defend its turf. A step up in cabin presentation, dazzling in-car tech and monstrous quad-turbo M50d will make for an interesting contest when GLE lands.

Audi Q7 $96,855

Q7 trails outgoing X5 and GLE wagons in sales, and deserves to do better. What could be Audiís best family car represents decent value with restained option-ticking. Still worth a look despite its relative age.

Benz has taken an allencompassing approach to the development of this GLE and delivered a thoroughly wellrounded 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.

RYAN LEWIS