By Phil Bradley
The SUV market is a crowded one, with cars on offer from the likes of Porsche, BMW, Audi and now Lamborghini too. Even Aston Martin and Ferrari are working on their models. Mercedes-Benz have just launched their updated GLE model, and it really ticks all the boxes.
The launch of the new GLE took place in Texas, and I was lucky enough to be flown out by Mercedes-Benz to try it out for myself. The event took place in Lajitas, a small community in South West Texas near the Mexican border. Lajitas is Spanish for 'small flat rocks', and the town is just a stone's throw away from Texas' Big Bend National Park, so it didn't take much imagination to guess what kind of terrain we were going to be driving on!
The line up of cars the stood before us on the first day were a mix of different colours and specifications. I got behind the wheel of a Black, AMG Line GLE 450, a 3.0L petrol hybrid, with 362BHP and a 0-60MPH time of 5.7 seconds. This is one of two models being launched initially by Mercedes, the other being a GLE 300d, a 2.0L diesel model, with 242BHP and a slightly slower 0-60MPH time of 7.2 seconds. More models will come in 2019, with the AMG models joining the line up slightly later, in 2020. The new GLE looks the same size as the previous model, but is actually slightly bigger. The car sits on an 80mm longer wheelbase, with the rear seats gaining most of the benefit, more on that shortly. It's slightly wider too, being 16mm wider than it's predecessor.
Mercedes have really hit the spot when it comes to the looks on the GLE, particularly with the AMG front bumper and diamond radiator grille. The headlights have been updated to match the current E-Class, with the twin LED lines above the headlamps on either side of the car. They have managed to make the car look more muscular, using clever lines along the sides, bonnet and wheel arches, which really improve the look of the car from the previous model. The model I drove sat on 20" option wheels. 19" are standard but the GLE can be optioned with up to 22" rims, which really complete the car. The C-pillar is retained form the previous model, sweeping down from the roof to the rear wheel arch, leaving the illusion that the rear window wraps around the rear of the car.
Speaking of which, the car's rear looks like it's been pumped full of steroids too. The big rear lights have disappeared, replaced with slim, angular tail lights with a chrome strip pairing them together. The rear bumper gets intakes, which allow the bottom of the car to be slightly wider than the top, falling down to two exhausts on either side of the rear of the Mercedes.
The GLE still has that SUV feel inside with grab handles installed either side of the centre console. The dashboard has been brought into the 21st century, with Mercedes-Benz installing two 12.3" screens, meaning that the speedometer and rev counter are now completely digital. You can customise the look of these, whether you want the sat nav showing instead of the rev counter, or g-force meter, or something more simplistic.
Switch the car into sport mode, and the gauges all change to yellow too. This feature really brings Mercedes up to the same level as it's competitors. The screens can be operated by touch, or from the steering wheel, thanks to two touch pads, one from either screen. This means you can customise anything on the dashboard, input a sat nav destination or change the track playing through the radio without even taking your hands off the wheel.
Another option to the driver is to use the voice operated control 'Hey Mercedes' to change tracks or sat nav destinations. Although a useful feature, I found this very sensitive. Having other journalists in the car meant that the word 'Mercedes' was used frequently, and no matter how quietly it was said, the car always picked up the word and awaited a command!
Although it was presented very well, I felt the satellite navigation let the car down a little bit. We were given planned routes on the sat nav throughout the trip, and I found when using the planned route, if I stopped the car and turned off the engine, before starting it up again, the sat nav would restart the route from the beginning. I had to manually tell the car to instead start from my current position. I felt like this should have been picked up automatically using the car's location? This would be frustrating for owners using the sat nav, and stopping to get petrol. Ignoring this frustration though, the sat nav also uses augmented reality to show exactly where the driver needs to make a turn. I found this a very clever feature, making roads easier to navigate in the Mercedes.
What really frustrated me about the interior, and possibly my biggest disappointment with the car, was the USB ports in the centre console. The GLE has wireless charging technology for the latest smartphones, but if you're a bit old school like me, you'll need a USB port to charge your phone. The GLE only has USB Type-C ports to charge from. Most smartphones, tablets and other devices just use a standard USB, meaning owners will need to purchase an adaptor to be able to charge their devices in the car. Many new devices are being released with USB-C ports, so in the future, this may be useful. For now though, I think this was a step too far.
In the driver's seat, the first feature I noticed was the head up display. This was clear and displayed all the information the driver needed, and could also be customised to show exactly what I wanted. The display was at the right distance for me, meaning my eyes didn't have to keep focusing on the road then refocus on the much closer display. The HUD was a good size and displayed just the right amount of information without being a distraction, a feature I really liked in this car.
The inside of the car gave me a real premium feel. For starters, both front and rear seats were not only heated, but all electrically adjustable too. Electric rear seats is something you'd expect to find in an S-Class, not in the GLE. Each grab handle has a light that illuminates not only when a door opens, but also recognises hand movements. If I were to reach over to the passenger side from the driver's seat, the Mercedes would recognise this, and illuminate the grab handle on the passenger side.
In the front, the heating function not only heats your seat, but heats both arm rests either side of you too, a nifty little feature! The wheelbase being 80mm longer has greatly helped rear legroom too. Rear passengers now have over 1m of legroom, an increase of 69mm from the previous generation GLE. Headroom has been increased in the rear too, by 35mm, which made sitting in the back of the car feel like I was being chauffeured around in a limousine. Within the glove compartment in the front of the car, Mercedes-Benz offer different fragrances that can be integrated into the air-conditioning system to project different smells into the car. It saves the owner having to buy an air freshener, but also means Mercedes can add something else onto your service bill!
The GLE was incredibly smooth when driving. I had to double check that i'd actually started the engine, as it was so quiet on pressing the start button. I guess you could put this down to the hybrid power. Heading out on the Texan roads, the GLE gave very little road noise. It had a good presence on the road too, even amongst the big pickups that are popular in the state, the GLE was turning heads everywhere I drove. It wasn't lacking power either, as putting your foot to the floor in a given situation would result in 500NM of torque being put to the tarmac, and the 9-speed automatic gearbox kicking down to allow acceleration. The petrol engine in the GLE 450 even made a nice noise when you were harsher with your right foot. Switch it into Sport+ mode, and the GLE will rev all the way to 8,000 RPM before changing up.
The car felt right at home on the roads through the Big Bend National Park, however I was slightly concerned when the tarmac ended and the route was taking me to a dirt track for the next few miles. Switching the car into off road mode and raising the suspension, I very hesitantly moved the GLE into the dirt track. I needn't have been concerned though, as the GLE was perfectly at home off the road as it was on the road. Granted, I wasn't doing hardcore off-roading in the SUV, but the short overhangs and ground clearance meant that the GLE could navigate over the uneven terrain, and even move off the track to allow other drivers through. The GLE was as capable as some of the big pickup trucks using the track alongside it.
Having navigated the dirt track, the route then took me away from the National Park and over to a local town, where it was busier, with smaller roads. Here, the Mercedes felt just as at home as it did driving on the open roads and off the roads too. The 360 degree parking camera made it easy to manoeuvre in the smaller roads and park at the side of them.
The GLE 450 was a pleasure to drive in some very different terrains and settings. Whether being on the road or off it, the ride was comfortable and smooth. There was power available when it was required, but the hybrid power meant that the car was sleek when it needed to be too. The driving position was excellent and the technology inside the SUV really brought the it up to date with it's competitors. With all this said, the Mercedes GLE would be worthy of a 5* review, however I can't ignore the imperfections, albeit small ones. The sat nav routing system could be easier to use, and the USB-C charging points are just a bit too advanced for my liking, where most people still operate using standard USB ports.
In spite of these points, would I consider owning a GLE? Absolutely. The sheer premium feel from the added room in the rear, the automatic interior lighting and electric powered seating made the car feel very luxurious, rounding it off well. A job well done Mercedes-Benz.