23 years later, Mercedes Benz’s newest GLE captures the magic of the pioneering ML320
Words by: Adam Allen
Looks like we’re in for trip down memory lane.
History is fun! You might recall that back in 1997 when Mercedes Benz introduced the world to its groundbreaking ML-Class, SUV’s were not new. At that point the nascent luxury SUV was only just starting to become a thing- anyone remember the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer or the Jeep Grand Cherokee Orvis? Still, when Mercedes company brass unveiled the ML 320 to the public it was instantly a Big Deal and met with universal acclaim. The ML-Class has since evolved to the GLE, and while the 2nd and 3rd generations quietly performed well Mercedes decided to capture some of that stop-you-in-your-tracks magic from the model’s debut. Luxury SUVs don’t make headlines like they used to, but when you build one as exquisite as the GLE 450 we tested recently, it’s an entirely different story.
They’ve made the GLE handsome, haven’t they?
We would never describe the outgoing GLE as ugly, but it did look a bit dowdy and uninspiring. Not anymore. Our tester was painted in a dignified shade of Canvansite Blue Metallic paint which was enough to make us circle the truck a couple of times to take it all in. Needless to say, with the 21” AMG Multi Spoke Bicolour wheels and all-ate-up-with-tire rear 315-section steamrollers (we’d gladly part with the $1,000 Mercedes asks for this option) it has become, to our eyes, the best looking SUV throughout the brand’s portfolio. Mercedes is one of the best at drawing an unmistakable link from a design perspective throughout their model range, and they excel at applying the language to work admirably no matter the model it is being applied to.
Move over, Audi. The best interiors in the business are coming out of Stuttgart, not Ingolstadt.
Audi can still pull of a well-executed interior, but compared to the sumptuousness of recent Mercedes products from the A-Class all the way up they look like they’re trying too hard next to the effortlessly luxurious offerings of recent Benz’s. Every touchpoint is rich and substantial and the attention to detail is incredible. The amount of switchgear and menus are daunting at first, but the learning curve isn’t steep and before you know it you find yourself breezing easily through any menu or command. You settle into seats that are very nearly as comfortable as the thrones in the Volvo XC90 we flogged not long ago and you’re surrounded by an expanse of screens, open pore wood trim and knurled metallic switches that elicit delight with all who encounter them. It was unanimously agreed that the GLE’s interior was vastly nicer than any of our homes, and while it might not be the best place to binge watch Netflix, we gave it a try and let’s put it this way- you could do a lot worse.
Mercedes Benz have always been innovators in automotive tech. Say hello to the world’s first twerking SUV!
A little clarification is in order here- no one wakes up one morning and wishes their SUV could bump and grind its way into a hip hop video. And yet, when equipped with the E-Active Body Control and the AIRMATIC air suspension (a must have in our books), you’ll be able to do just that, or at least have a cool trick to show your guests at your next dinner party. If you have ever needed freeing from the clutches of deep sand or snow in the middle of nowhere, you will be seriously grateful for this feature. E-Active Body Control also boasts a Curve mode, wherein the GLE reads the road and leans in the opposite direction you turn the steering wheel towards. It feels a little strange at first, but it does effectively eliminate body roll and adds to what is already a serene driving experience. There are other tidbits that deserve mention too, including Mercedes’ latest MBUX on board assistant that works in tandem with a duo of pleasingly executed screens. Say “Hey Mercedes, I’m a little but cold” and the car responds by adjusting the temperature accordingly. Our GLE also had what Mercedes calls EQ Boost which sandwiches an electronic motor between the engine and transmission to help smooth out the gaps in the velvety inline six’s torque delivery and can shut the engine down when coasting on the highway. Perhaps the best part of the EQ Boost is that it gifts the GLE with the most transparent stop/start system on any vehicle we have ever driven. We normally deactivate this feature immediately, but not in the GLE. Lastly, we must acknowledge the lighting systems fore and aft on our tester. Lighting normally doesn’t get much attention but we couldn’t get over how insanely good the headlights and taillights are. They are full LED systems, and when we activated the high beams on a lonely, pitch dark two lane road and were awestruck by how much they illuminate. They do a kind of cool trick once activated- think of a curtain being opened at the beginning of a play and you’re bang on. If you often travel at night in areas that aren’t particularly well lit, you will nevertheless appreciate them every time you rely on them as a visibility enhancing safety feature- so, always.
It’s got all the toys…but does it still drive like a Benz?
That unmistakably solid, bank-vault-on-wheels feeling? Yep, it’s still there. Like any brand you can think of, Mercedes has had its share of ups and downs, but unflappable poise on the road has never wavered. The GLE certainly has those qualities in spades, but there are a few near misses. The 3.0 inline six is a fantastic engine- it’s so smooth on startup and idle that you almost don’t believe its running- but it can’t match BMW’s sonorous and more powerful engine found in the X5. Our GLE 450 wasn’t particularly sporty either, and we got the sense while playing around with its sportier drive modes that it doesn’t like to be rushed. As of this writing, Mercedes has announced that a fire-breathing AMG version is on its way which will alleviate the sense of urgency from those who demand. A couple of things stood out to us during the GLE’s residency in the Carpages Garage. The drivetrain is like a carafe of the finest single malt scotch and every bit as satisfying. While we might give the edge to BMW as for which of the two engines from these Germans brands is best, the Benz exhibits refinement and smoothness that is truly next level. We told you earlier about that the AIRMATIC air suspension option ($2,450) is a must have, and should you experience a GLE thusly equipped you will no doubt agree. Even without all the tricks of the E-Active Body Control it provides a ride that might be the best we have encountered in any SUV we have ever driven. It’s so good that it prompted some of our staff to wonder if the roads beneath us had been resurfaced in carpet (they hadn’t, of course.) It can raise itself up to skip over obstacles or hunker down for easier entry and better highway fuel economy. The GLE raises the bar over its predecessors in many ways, but the driving experience has been made significantly better.
What might go wrong?
Here we are gushing about the GLE and how awesome it is and you’re thinking, it can’t be perfect, and you’d be right. Outward sightlines could be better and you will silently thank some of the driver assistance technologies when it saves your bacon either from an ill-conceived lane change or when parking in a narrow stall. Our tester was equipped with running boards which we’d recommend you skip-they are too small to be useful and can jab your shins when climbing aboard, and the air suspension can kneel to help ingress anyhow. The only other complaint we have is directed at the column shifter that kind of reminded us of a contemporary version of Mom’s 1995 Chevy Blazer. We understand that it frees up valuable real estate on the console, but we’ve never warmed to Benz’s way and it feels a little flimsy as well. None of these are deal breakers, but it does show that even cars so thoughtfully engineered still have room for improvement. Oh, and it isn’t cheap, either, but then you probably guessed that already.
Should I buy a GLE 450 MATIC?
Well, we can start by telling you to forget about an Audi Q5- while it isn’t a bad car by any stretch it simply cannot come close to challenging the GLE for luxury and refinement. As far as we can tell, only BMW’s X5 is able to be mentioned as an alternative, but you should drive it and the GLE both when making your choice- on paper they are relatively similar but are far different from a driving perspective. If you found yourself captivated as the ML320 emerged on stages inside auto shows across that word back in 1997, you must take the GLE for a drive.
- Price as tested: $107,040
- Body Type: 5-door, 5 passenger SUV
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
- Transmission: 9-speed automatic
- Engine: 3.0 litre twin-turbo V6 with EQ Boost, DOHC, 24 valves
- Horsepower: 362 @ 5,000 rpm
- Torque (lbs-ft.): 369 @ 1,600 rpm
- Curb weight: 2,265 kg (4,993 lbs)
- Observed Fuel Consumption: 12.3L/100km (19 mpg)