Mercedes-Benz’s best-selling SUV in India has been given a facelift and in the process, a name change as well. The M-class now renamed the GLE, is the first model to be launched with Mercedes-Benz’s new nomenclature. From now on, all utility vehicles will be badged GL suffixed with letter of the Merc sedan of similar size and spec. So is the GLE is the SUV equivalent of the E-class? Has it now become a sedan on stilts? Not quite.
The GLE’s basic shape remains unaltered from the M-class and the underpinnings are the same, but the nose and tail are a bit reworked. The front gets a new double-slatted grille with the three-pointed star emblazoned at the centre, the bonnet is new with the two power domes, the headlights are slightly altered and carry the familiar LED brow. The front fenders are more sculpted, but other than that the side view is unchanged and still wears the trademark, raked C-pillar that has been a part of the car since 1997. The rear gets a bit of an update with tail-lights that look more contemporary with the LED treatment. Redesigned tail pipes round off the exterior changes.
These styling updates are now in line with the latest Mercedes family look developed by chief designer Gordon Wagener and his design team. In fact, the GLE has a strong resemblance to the newly launched GLC and even the baby GLA.
On the inside too there’s an improvement, with a cabin that’s classier with better materials and finishes. The air vents get an upmarket ring of chrome whilst the audio system has flatter buttons, which feel more tactile to operate. The dashboard is less cluttered too with a simplified centre console that’s dominated by a seven-inch floating screen that sits above it. There are lots of elements from Merc’s newer models like the infotainment system interface, which is similar to the latest C-class and the COMAND controller which now comes with a touchpad. There’s an additional knob for the dynamic select modes, which is likely to be standard on GLE 350 for the Indian market. The three-spoke steering wheel looks far more sportier than the four-spoke design of the previous
Cabin space is identical to the outgoing M-class, which is good because you get the same, high level of comfort. The high-set front seats are very supportive and give you a great outside view whilst the wide rear seats, with a relatively flat floor accommodates three passengers in reasonable comfort. The boot is again quite generous and the folding rear seats add to its versatility. The GLE is a strict five-seater with no seven-seat option.
What’s it like to drive?
The new GLE has been launched internationally with a wide range of engines which includes, for the first time, the GLE 500e — a plug-in hybrid which mates a 3-litre turbo V6 petrol to an electric motor. The combined powertrain develops a hefty 435bhp, but you can drive in the non-polluting, pure-electric mode for 30km. A short drive revealed that the GLE 500e, like most hybrids, is quick of the line, refined and deceptively fast. It whisks you quickly past any speed limit with a strong, seamless tug. The electric and petrol motors are well synched but you can feel the V6 engine cut in and out. Sadly, there are no plans to launch the hybrid in India, mainly because the asking price nudging
Rs. 1 crore would find it very few takers. The harsh truth is that no one really wants to pay to save our planet.
It’s the base GLE 250d 4Matic (with all-wheel-drive) that will form the bulk of sales in India and it’s this variant that I concentrated on. This twin-turbo, two-litre motor which develops 204bhp and 51kgm of torque is the same engine from the ML 250 CDI. The big news however is the introduction of an all-new 9-speed G-Tronic automatic. This new transmission is a conventional torque converter and will be common to all future cars on Mercedes’ MRA platform, which has the engine placed longitudinally.
The twin-turbo version of the 2-litre diesel is not the quietest of engines around and nowhere near as silkily hushed as the V6 diesel in the E350d. However, it’s refined enough and it’s only at high revs that you can tell there’s a diesel under the hood. During regular cruising on the autobahn, the engine could barely be heard and more audible in fact was a bit of wind noise rushing about the A-pillar. The 9-speed gearbox with its ridiculously tall 9th gear made for effortless cruising. In fact, the last three ratios of this transmission are all overdrive to meet ever-tightening CO2 and emission targets.
The good thing is that this gearbox is pretty quick to react and will leap from 9th to 4th gear with a sharp prod of the right pedal, even with the Dynamic Select Control clicked to ‘Comfort’ — the most relaxed mode. Rotate the selector to the most extreme or enthusiastic ‘Sport +’ setting and the big GLE takes on a sense of urgency. Most impressive is how sportily the gearbox behaves downshifting on its own quite readily and holding on to revs before upshifting. It virtually like driving in manual and you really don’t need to intervene by pulling on the paddle shifters.
The strength of this twin-turbo engine is its strong surge of boost, which gives it a very effective low-end punch and a strong mid-range. However, for an SUV weighing over 2 tonnes the GLE 250d is modestly powered and it won’t exactly get your pulse racing. The handling is in the same vein too and on challenging roads, you could feel the mass of the SUV which had a fair bit of body roll. Though there is good grip from the 255/55 tyres, the GLE isn’t particularly agile and doesn’t like to dart into corners, but prefers to gently ease into them. The electro-mechanical steering isn’t very sharp or responsive either, but has lots of feel and weighs up with a nice consistency which gives the driver a lot of confidence, especially at high speeds. Straight-line stability is superb and the GLE’s ability to cruise all-day long without demanding too much from the driver is one of its strengths.
Ride quality is a big plus too. Our test car was fitted with the optional AirMatic suspension (the India car is likely to get conventional steel springs), capable of tackling most surfaces. Of course on German roads, it’s hard to judge the true ride quality from an Indian perspective, but the generous amount of wheel travel indicates that the GLE, like the M-Class will be quite adept at swallowing potholes.
The GLE 350d will naturally be the better equipped of the two with items like a panoramic sunroof, Dynamic Select Control and the Airmatic suspension as standard. There is an off-road package with a low ratio for the transmission, which transforms the GLE into a mountain goat. Any doubts of its off-road capabilities were quickly dispelled in a ten-minute demo around a seriously challenging track which saw the GLE slithering up and down near vertical slopes like a mountain goat. Mercedes India are unlikely to offer the off-road package for the Indian market, which is understandable. For all its off-road prowess, most GLE owners are unlikely to venture far beyond tarmac.
Should I buy one?
Mercedes will launch both the GLE 250d and 350d by October this year and prices are likely to be around Rs 2-3 lakh more than the outgoing M-class of similar spec. Hence, expect the base 250d to cost around Rs 59 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), up to Rs 70 lakh for the 350d. At this price point, the GLE which was within striking of the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 will move further upmarket. Let’s not forget that it has to make way for an all-new sibling, the GLC, that’s coming after a year.
In terms of style, the upright GLE isn’t really a head-turner and it won’t tempt enthusiastic drivers either. But for the average SUV owner, it ticks all the right boxes. It’s spacious, easy to drive and is of top-notch quality. It has more equipment and the 9-speed gearbox makes it a more compelling buy. As an all-round luxury SUV, the GLE, like the M-class before it, is hard to beat. That is if you don’t need an extra two seats.