The craze for SUVs may be reaching its zenith. Every automaker sells them, and new models face an uphill battle to try and gain customers from the vehicles that have enjoyed years of success — models like this one: the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class. It started life in 1998 as the original luxury crossover, the ML-Class, made here in America and the trigger for an onslaught of tall-roofed, off-roadable, all-wheel-drive luxury wagons that have surpassed the traditional sedans as the most popular models in the luxury categories.
An Excellent Driving Experience
What makes it so good? It’s a confluence of things, starting first with how it drives. There will be two GLE-Class models to start — the GLE350, equipped with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine good for 255 horsepower and 273 pounds-feet of torque, and the GLE450 that uses a turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine with a mild-hybrid system, producing 362 hp and 369 pounds-feet of torque. Both engines are mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel drive is standard on the GLE350; all-wheel drive is an option here and standard on the GLE450. I drove both models in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio at Mercedes’ media introduction and came away impressed with both powertrains. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its airfare and lodging at such automaker-sponsored events.)
The four-cylinder has plenty of usable around-town power, accelerating smartly once rolling but not providing that much oomph from a standing start. Most drivers will find it perfectly adequate, but for anyone requiring a little more confidence in their daily drive or hauling around a full load of passengers regularly, the six-cylinder GLE450 is the one to get. The EQ Boost 48-volt mild-hybrid system is seamlessly integrated, offering up quicker acceleration in all conditions but also boosting the efficiency of the GLE450 versus its competitors, according to Mercedes-Benz. In both powertrains, the nine-speed automatic transmission is smooth to the point of near invisibility, shifting gears with such unobtrusive operation as to make you forget it has any gears at all. Power comes on in a rush regardless of how you’re driving — there’s never any hunting, never finding yourself in the wrong gear, never any clunky operation at all. Both of these powertrains are beautifully tuned but decidedly geared more toward stately cruising than sporty demeanor.
Curvy, But Not the Styling
The GLE’s ride and handling characteristics are essentially a technology showcase. Three suspension options are available — a standard, non-adjustable steel-spring one, an adjustable air-spring suspension and the top-of-the-line option, a fully active electronic suspension that combines the air springs with adaptive dampers. The air suspension option on the GLE350 provides a smooth, comfortable ride with excellent road isolation and confident body motion control, but the real gem is the new E-Active Body Control fully active suspension, available only on the GLE450 due to its requirement of the 48-volt vehicle architecture. It uses the car’s forward-scanning cameras and mapping data to tilt the car into corners by adjusting the electric dampers at each corner independently. The effect is to counteract centrifugal force by leaning the GLE into a corner, much like a high-speed train or a motorcycle does, resulting in an astonishing effect for the vehicle’s occupants. In addition to a glass-smooth ride over some truly awful road conditions, you’ll notice that you sweep through corners faster as you’re not being thrown opposite the direction of travel. It counters the inertia the passengers feel when a car enters a bend, and it is one of the most amazing driving sensations I’ve had in any SUV.
This active suspension feature is activated in three of the GLE450’s several drive modes. In Comfort mode, it’s switched off — and it’s fun to switch between Comfort and the others (Curve, Sport and Sport Plus) to feel the difference the active suspension makes. The GLE450 also features an Eco mode to maximize fuel economy and an Off-Road mode that changes the system’s responses and raises the body to its maximum ride height. E-Active Body Control can also do something unique — a special feature called Free Driving mode can get you unstuck from deep sand, should you find yourself driving through a desert or onto a beach, by “jumping” the body up and down while applying the traction control. No word yet on whether or not this works in deep snow, but we suspect it doesn’t due to the different friction qualities of snow and sand.
The only low point of the GLE’s driving experience is that the brake-pedal feel is less than inspiring, with a mushy initial bite and a greater effort than expected to bleed off speed. The GLE350 feels a little bit better than the 450 in this area, which I suspect may be due to the 350’s lower weight. This is the only blemish on what is otherwise a superbly luxurious driving experience — but note that I do not say a sporty or entertaining one. The GLE is decidedly geared toward comfort and isolation, but it never embarrasses itself in the twisty bits. It’s competent, confident and satisfying to drive but never gets to be entertaining. For that, you’ll have to visit a BMW showroom and sample the all-new X5.