What is it?
The GLE badge on its tail may be all new but this SUV isn’t. Well, not entirely new. This is actually the facelifted ML which, under Mercedes-Benz’s new SUV naming system, has been re-christened the GLE. Things to tell this GLE from the older ML include curvier new LED headlights, a larger, protruding two-slat grille and a more stylized front bumper; all elements that bring this SUV in line with Merc’s swoopier new design language. The tail has been given a nip and tuck too, but it’s really the re-profiled lights that's your best pointer to this being the GLE. The rest of the body carries on unchanged from the ML, which is no bad thing.
The GLE’s cabin isn’t vastly different to the ML’s either but the changes are notable. Most prominent
of course is the new floating centre screen atop the dash. Top-spec GLE 350ds, like our test car, get a high-res 8.0-inch unit that is not only much larger than the one in the ML but also offers far more by way of features. You can use the screen to browse websites, connect to pre-loaded apps and select internet radio stations to stream music from. How well these functions work though is dependent on the paired phone’s connectivity. The screen also doubles as the display for viewing car settings, navigation maps, slope, tilt and steering angles (useful off-road) as well as feed from a 360-degree camera. The system has been made a lot easier to use too. There’s a rotary dial between the front seats to navigate through the menus, a keypad on the centre console to feed in letters and numbers and, for the dexterous, a touch panel that can read basic handwritten inputs.
Screen apart, there are softer-looking central air-con vents, a sporty new three-spoke steering wheel and also the tasteful use of un-lacquered wood on the dash and doors. Quality is expectantly top rate throughout the cabin. Seat comfort is also very impressive. The large front seats offer loads of adjustability while the rear seat scores for space. The chauffeur-driven will be happy to know rear seat cushioning is well judged, back and thigh support are really good and the large windows offer a good view out. As before, the GLE remains a strict five-seater. There’s no seven-seat option as available on the BMW X5, which is the GLE’s closest competitor.
What is it like to drive?
Just like the ML, the GLE will be sold in India with two diesels and eventually a fire-breathing petrol AMG version. Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel-drive system remains standard fit too. The range-starting GLE 250d features a 201bhp, 2.1-litre, twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel engine while the GLE 350d here comes powered by a 255bhp, 3-litre, V6. Peak power and torque see no change on either engine but both now come with Merc’s latest nine-speed torque converter automatic gearbox.
In average driving, you won’t find the GLE 350d to be any different from the ML 350 CDI. The engine feels flexible as ever with good power available through the rev range. It doesn’t rev as hard as a comparable unit from BMW or take off with the same gusto when you floor the throttle, but given the beautifully linear manner in which the engine builds power, you won’t really mind. The velvety smooth engine also goes about its business in a quiet manner making the GLE 350d a very relaxing car to be in. More so on long highway excursions where you can experience the full benefit of the nine-speed gearbox. At 100kph and with the gearbox in ninth, the engine spins at just about 1,150rpm! In comparison, the ML’s seven-speed unit would do the same speed in seventh at 1,800rpm. When you do need to make a quick overtake, the new gearbox also feels a lot more alert than the old one ever did. It will automatically shift down four gears at a go when needed and is generally more responsive to throttle inputs and tugs at the steering-mounted paddles. This reflects in the GLE’s quicker in-gear timings vis-à-vis the ML. However, flat-out performance is about the same.
You can also alter the character of the GLE to your liking via a new dial that lets you choose between five driving modes – Sport, Comfort, Individual, Slippery and Off-Road. It goes without saying, ‘Sport’ makes the engine and gearbox feel most eager and responsive. But on the flip side the dampers also firm up to the point that the ride becomes jarring. In all probability though, owners will stick to ‘Comfort’ as the default setting where the air suspension (only on the GLE 350d) and chunky 255/50 R19 tyres iron out surface imperfections with ease. ‘Individual’ lets you personalise how the engine, steering and suspension should behave – engine and steering set to 'Sport' and suspension in 'Comfort' is a good compromise for a bout of spirited driving. In general, there’s a lovely fluid feel to the steering and direction changes are smooth, but this is no sports SUV.
The ‘Slippery’ setting primes the car’s system for low friction surfaces like ice while ‘Off-Road’ is what you’d want to keep the GLE in on mild terrains – it keeps the suspension raised to its fullest, and adjusts the all-wheel-drive system for max traction. Internationally, GLEs can also be had with a low range gearbox and differential locks but the majority of Indian buyers are unlikely to miss the absence of these hardcore off-road bits.
Should I buy one?
Clearly, we were not alone in our appreciation of the earlier M-class because it had been a strong seller for Mercedes in India for a long time. The new GLE makes an even more compelling case because it adds contemporary Merc styling, the latest in in-car entertainment and connectivity and a modern nine-speed gearbox to an already likeable package; one that stood out for its high-quality cabin, relaxing demeanour and general feeling of solidity.
Priced at Rs 69.9 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the GLE 350d costs about Rs 2 lakh more than the old
ML 350 CDI; a fair hike considering the additional kit you get. Refined, powerful and feature-packed, the GLE 350d is the version we’d recommend for self-drive buyers. However, if you’ll be relegating driving duties to someone else, it makes sense to check out the GLE 250d. It isn’t as well equipped and won’t be as quiet or fast as the larger-hearted GLE diesel. But factor in the Rs 11 lakh lower price tag than the 350d and you’ll probably live with the compromises.