The Mercedes-Benz GLE is ready with its fourth generation offering. Well technically the M-Class was renamed the GLE-Class in September 2015, so you can call it the second if you must! But what began as the ML, is now the GLE and has cumulatively sold over 2 million units worldwide since 1997. With the new generation, Mercedes-Benz has an altogether more desirable, more exciting, more dynamic and more capable car. Unlike some of its recently revealed rivals (read BMW X5), it is also not about trying to prove off-road prowess. It does have the capability and the goods to deliver some of that - don't get me wrong. But instead its entire product pitch seems to cater very firmly to its core constituency - the owner who wants good dynamic performance, great on-board tech, and most off all luxurious comfort. And that in a sentence is the new Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class for you ladies and gentlemen. As is customary I shall begin by talking about the car's looks.
Styling at Mercedes-Benz has taken a generous turn towards aggressive, young, fresh and attractive, over the past 4 years. The GLE was the one car in the portfolio missing most of that design oomph and styling chutzpah. That has changed. The face is the best feature - diamond finish grille, large three-pointed star, an angry snout, plenty of muscle in the hood and haunches - all giving you a good looking, read to pounce kind of fascade. The sides match in terms of tautness and yet in the C-pillar with its wraparound rear windscreen glass is where you see the homage to the past ML/GLEs. The rear is underwhelming by comparison. The slimmer lights are nice, but perhaps too simplistic, and the rear hatch door is also a bit bare. On the whole the rear also makes the car look shorter and smaller than it really is. On the plus side though, on the whole the car tends to look very taut and more compact than before, even though it has actually grown in dimension terms. The wheels are 18-22 inchers depending on the spec and option you choose.
Inside the cabin there are plenty of options to choose from in terms of finishes and materials. But the thing that is standard and will grab you is that new dominant twin 12.3 inch screens that each make up the instrument cluster and infotainment touchscreen respectively. The cluster is akin to that seen on the upgraded S-Class, and offers similar animation and options that can be controlled by the touchpads at either side of the steering wheel. The screen housing stretches across over the dash to also hold the second screen as I mentioned. Here you get the new MBUX interface that is miles head of (and way prettier) the erstwhile Comand system.
While offering most new functions and features, there was something very dated about Comand always, when compared to JLR's TouchPro, BMW's iDrive, or Audi's MMI. It gives you a whole host of new features, and also has a cool new touchpad (that sits where a gear lever typically would be) to let you swipe and select without having to touch the screen itself - of course you can still do that! There are shortcut keys around the touchpad so you can quickly get to music or the navigation screen if needed. The navigation and all the graphics are very slick - and yes you get the S-Class borrowed ambient lighting with over 60 colours, and also the themed multi-colour pattern option. This is further enhanced by the themes that add mood-inducing colour, music and fragrance to your cabin.
Advanced massage options for the front two seats with various programmes for hot and cold treatments, and a massive (almost distractingly large) new colour head-up display rounds things off up front. The stalks behind the wheel are sexy and well finished, as are the AC vents, dash surfaces and the metal bits. The 4 AC vents in the centre of the dash are lovely - adding a bit of a retro flavour to the cabin.
The section of plastic slats just behind the screen housing are possibly a bid to match the AC vents at the driver end of the screen, but will be a dust magnet in India, and best left out if possible for our kind of conditions I would think. At the rear you get a better sense of space than before. The GLE adds its first-ever optional third row of seats. The second-row also now gets electric reclining and sliding forward or back functions. The models we drove without the electrically adjustable second row may not be that comfortable in a chauffeur-heavy market like ours. So note to Mercedes-Benz India to get us the reclining seats as standard!
Speaking of the various models we drove, let me tell you some good news. Of the many available options, India will get the range-topping petrol GLE 450 4MATIC and two of the diesels - the 300d 4MATIC and the 400d 4MATIC. I have had a chance to drive all three extensively, through city traffic, fast highways and some country roads. A minor sampling of some dirt tracks on a Texan ranch was the best I could manage as far as off-roading goes! Yes I am in San Antonio to drive these cars - the historic heart of Texas culture, famous for its legendary Alamo and Mexican market. The drive routes on the first day were not the best as I encountered way too much traffic (including two massive jams) to really flex the car's muscles. But day two would give us the gorgeous vistas and rolling Texan countryside I had indeed hoped to encounter.
The GLE 450 is a beast, and the fact that its styling already looks AMG ready is only boosted by its very athletic, responsive and powerful new 3-litre inline 6 engine, with 360 bhp of max power and 500 Nm of torque. What is especially new is the addition of an 'EQ boost' which sees the addition of an on-board mild-hybrid system, where a lithium-ion battery provides you an additional 21 horses and a massive 250 Nm of torque when the need arises. This gives the car a performance edge over the rivals, which is still green and progressive. And all while sounding great! The GLE 450 4 MATIC also drives very well. The character is altogether sporty and the engine as well as gearbox respond immediately. The all wheel drive is also equally responsive, especially in conjunction with the new suspension.
The GLE 450 also gets the optional new E-Active Body Control coupled with the Mercedes staple air suspension. This hydro pneumatic system puts individual spring and damping control at each wheel, and allows the suspension to literally adjust itself to the minutest undulation. A damper is mounted on the axle at each wheel, and is connected to an engine pump unit powered by a 48-volt electrical system. This helps counteract pitch and body roll. You get a massive 120 mm of wheel travel and you can control that individually on each wheel. That also allows you something called the 'Rocking function'. So if you are stuck in sand, in slush or in snow, you can 'rock' the car gangster style, and get it out. And it can be used when slowly on the move for a few metres to ensure you get enough traction to get yourself moving.
The system also allows for a new drive mode setting that comes with it - Curve. So along with the usual settings like Sport, Comfort and Eco you also get Curve. The S-Class and Maybach had it, but on those stately saloons it was easy to understand why it was offered. On the GLE, it took some getting used to, since unlike a sedan an SUV sits much higher off the ground. So Curve basically tried to enhance comfort by constantly scanning the road surface, any turns or corners, and adjust the car's incline or dip in suspension typically experienced around a corner. This means the chassis remains as straight and stable as possible, and while that is great for the passengers, especially at the rear, I found it disconcerting. That is because the car does not really do what you expect in a dynamic situation, and as a driver, I found my reactions and anticipation being thrown. I guess it's a matter of getting used, but as someone who loves driving, this is not for me. For the chauffeur types this may be a Godsend.
The car also gets a new Alexa/Siri like voice command activated assistant. So you simply have to say 'Hi Mercedes' and the car will ask you what you need You can then set destinations on the nav, find a coffee place or a specific restaurant, call your sister, turn on ambient lighting or massage, adjust the climate control, and so on. It's a handy little thing and goes beyond the usual voice command or touchscreen prompts you have so far been used to in cars. Pretty neat. And the others are quickly following up with their own versions of this too. So look out for another German brand doing this very soon in its latest model. Pretty cool, though its not clear of the India spec will have this function.
I had the chance to also test the GLE 400d and 300d. The 2-litre 300d makes 240 bhp and 500 Nm of torque, while the 400d has a larger 3-litre in-line 6 cylinder heart that makes 324 bhp and 700 Nm. Driving the 300d is a pleasant experience, and the car does the job, It is by no means electric and certainly does not give you a sense of immediate agility or alacrity, That is exactly the case though with the 400d. The car surges forward, and you get a good sense of all that torque. It also kicks in nice and low at 1200 rpm and goes up all the way to 3000 rpm. That gives you a great curve to be able to really push the car, get up to quicker speeds, and also do some heavy lifting on steep inclines, and around sharp corners.
While the 450 petrol is the obvious performer, the 400d is my pick for all its grunt and power. Its also the right blend of sophisticated and smooth with brawny and brave. All while also giving you the higher spec interior trim and all the gadgets or creature comforts your greedy little heart desires. Of course you needn't take my word for which one is best for you, since the good news is that we will have all three.
This also means that we can expect an aggressive entry price closer to Rs 65 lakh, with a wide band going all the way up to Rs 85 lakh. But this is an early estimate at best since the car is only coming around July or August 2019.