More presence and power for latest Mercedes GLE
The luxury SUV is more hi-tech than ever, though gesture control causes some confusion
Back in 1997, before the X5 or Cayenne were a twinkle in BMW’s and Porsche’s eyes, Mercedes-Benz invented the luxury SUV segment with its M-Class and spawned a legion of copycats.
Today there is barely a luxury brand without a contender in a class; having an SUV in the line up is as obligatory as having a chasing-to-the-airport scene in a romantic comedy.
The Benz — which has subsequently been renamed the GLE as part of the brand’s new naming convention — has gone through three iterations and been a great success for the brand by selling more than 2-million units.
The fourth-generation car arrives wearing natty new robes that exude more presence and power. It’s also reimagined with a host of driver assistance systems that further increase safety, and a roomier cabin that’s available with a third seat row as an option.
The infotainment system introduces gesture control which detects hand and arm movements to assist with control functions. Clearly I required some training in this regard, as my random gestures sometimes accidentally changed the radio station.
I preferred using the car’s voice control to quick-access some of the labyrinthine functions as Mercedes’ speech recognition is pretty good — although ironically the one radio station it couldn’t find by spoken word was the very one that it kept selecting by accidental hand gestures.
AI is getting better, but it’s clearly not quite ready to pass the Turing test yet.
I do admire the luxury-meets-hi-tech cabin atmosphere though, with its large digital screens, brushed metal, and ambient lighting which can be personalised to 64 colours. Even to a cynical car journalist the interior has a real “wow” factor that puts it at the cutting edge of modern cabin design.
It’s impressively spacious too. Thanks to a stretched wheelbase the new GLE’s rear legroom has increased by a substantial 69mm, making for a real family-sized cabin. Boot space has grown to a very sizeable 825l, expanding to a cavernous 2,055l with the rer seats flipped down.
The optional folding third seat row provides two extra seats and an easy-entry function.
The local GLE line up comprises two diesel derivatives and one petrol model, all offered in 4Matic all-wheel drive. On test here is the petrol version, the GLE 450, which is hustled along by an inline six-cylinder 3.0l engine packing 270kW and 500Nm, with a further 250Nm and 16kW available via EQ Boost over short periods.
The EQ boost is part of the electrified 48V technology which uses an integrated starter/alternator that also recuperates energy. Despite this fuel-saving system our test vehicle wasn’t particularly thrifty, guzzling a thirsty 13.5l /100km, and the diesel GLE versions will make a better choice in terms of parsimony.
The powertrain does a great job of shifting this big SUV at pace however. The GLE 450 feels enjoyably punchy, as attested to by the hot-hatch-like 5.7 second 0-100km/h sprint. While not being quite AMG-type power, this effortless performer’s very unlikely to leave anyone with unsatisfied power cravings.
It’s a smooth punch, with the 9G-Tronic auto firing through its many gears with finesse. The engine’s mellow drawl adds to the overall refinement without being totally sanitised; it’s underlaid by a hint of sporting six-cylinder hoarseness.
All-wheel drive provides great all-weather grip. It’s an intelligent system with an electronically controlled multidisc clutch that can instantly vary the amount of drive to each axle depending on conditions.
The test vehicle was fitted with optional air suspension which at a switch can be set to wafting comfort or roll-resisting stiffness. In sports mode Benz churns through turns with respectable agility for its size and also stays level under hard acceleration or braking, although one’s always aware it’s a heavy piece of hardware.
As an option, E-Active body control independently regulates the suspension at each wheel, and when driving offroad is able to “bounce” the vehicle out of sand or mud. Dirt-driving prowess can be further enhanced with an optional off-road transfer case with low range and an automatic locking effect.
As a stepping stone to an autonomous-car future the new GLE offers driver-assist tech that keeps you at a safe following distance, in your lane, and checks your blind spots. New in the safety repertoire is a system that automatically applies the brakes if you intend to turn across oncoming traffic that was unsighted.
With its smart safety, combined with its roominess and sci-fi-inspired cabin, the latest iteration of this SUV pioneer looks set to continue the GLE success story.
Type: Six-cylinder petrol turbo
Type: Nine-speed automatic
Type: 4Matic all-wheel drive
Top speed: 250km/h
0-100km/h: 5.7 seconds
Fuel Consumption: 9.4l/100km (claimed); 13.5l/100km (as tested)
ABS brakes, stability control, active brake assist, nine airbags, tyre pressure monitoring, MBUX multimedia system, navigation, ambient lighting 64 colours, active parking assist with 360 degree camera, leather upholstery, climate control, LED headlights, digital instrument cluster.
Warranty: Two years/unlimited km
Maintenance plan: Five years/100,000km
Lease*: R28,593 per month
* at 10% interest over 60 months no deposit
Lexus RX 450h SE, 230kW/335Nm — R1,315,800
Porsche Cayenne, 250kW/450Nm — R1,174,000
Volvo XC90 T6 AWD Inscription, 235kW/400Nm — R970,600
Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 4Matic
Styling, performance, technology
High fuel consumption
Smart and spacious luxury SUV
****Value For Money