Bigger than Texas: our first drive of the Mercedes GLE
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There’s one iconic exterior design feature of Mercedes-Benz’s medium SUV that nearly didn’t make it to the fourth-generation model that has just been launched globally.
Since its reveal in 1997 under the badge M-Class, Mercedes-Benz has sold more than two million of its medium SUVs worldwide. In 2015, it was rebadged GLE and has been the company’s best-selling SUV.
The all-new GLE is being built at Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and production started last month.
New Zealand will get the GLE 300d and 400d, with prices announced closer to launch date. We will get the seven-seater as standard, with a five-seater available at no extra cost.
Both models get 4Matic all-wheel drive with Torque on Demand as standard, while 48-volt E-Active body control suspension and road surface scan and curve are available at a cost option.
The 300d has the new 2-litre diesel engine producing 180kW of power and 500Nm of torque. The 400d gets the 3-litre diesel producing 243kW of power and 700Nm of torque.
“Since its introduction in 1998, the GLE range has been one of the best-selling Mercedes-Benz SUVs,” said Mercedes-Benz New Zealand general manager, Ben Giffin.
“It combines all the luxury and safety aspects of our luxury sedans with the off-road prowess and functionality of an SUV. Twenty years ago it was an innovative concept, and one that customers instantly associated with.
“With the introduction of the all new model, the GLE now brings with it the latest in Mercedes-Benz technology, including the innovative MBUX system with ‘Hey Mercedes’, plus a host of all new inline 6-cylinder diesel engines.
“We are confident this new model will build on the reputation and success the GLE has had over the past 20 years.”
To celebrate its 21st, the GLE has new engines, new technology and new looks inside and out.
The SUV was revealed the global media at San Antonio, Texas, last month, where there were three models available, including the 300d, 400d and 450 petrol — that New Zealand won’t get.
The two-day drive programme headed out of San Antonio on highways, straight roads, winding routes and over waterways.
Day one included a workshop where experts explained the new safety features, engines, and design aspects.
But the exterior designer of the GLE, Achim-Dietrich Badstubner, told Driven at the workshop that there was one iconic aspect of the GLE that nearly didn’t make it to the fourth-generation model.
“The first task was we wanted to make sure that we stick to our future design. We want to maintain it and just want to make it better by changing things. So the first task is that you see it as a GLE, if we remove the badges and you just put it in a shopping mall or something, people pass by, they say, ‘oh, it's a GLE’,” said Badstubner.
“One iconic part of the GLE [and generation one ML] is the C-pillar’s reverse shark-fin shape. But at one stage there was talk to have it straight, but I said we have it in the first generation, which makes it unique to us.
“It has the fin, and wraparound glass. We wanted to keep it, that's the reason we did the aerodynamic panels in black. So it always looks wrap around.”
He moved away from the previous generations’ oval style front lights, and instead incorporated the styling from the sedans. Like the E-Class, the GLE gets two LED lines in the headlights, with the GLC mimicking the C-Class one LED line and GLS with three lines, like the big luxury S-Class.
Badstubner told Driven that the shape of the lights also gives it a shark-like appearance, to tie in with the shark fin C-pillar.
The bonnet is larger and more prominent than the previous model, while overall it is larger than before with an increase of 105mm in length and a longer wheelbase, with that showing the wheelbase of a SUV is important to factor in when designing.
“For technical reasons, for more comfort for the rear seats and knee clearance, you have a longer wheel base. And because of the longer wheel-base, the car can look like a dachshund because they are very long, so wheels are very important.”
Another important aspect to factor in when designing a vehicle, said Badstubner, was taking into account safety features.
“We take safety features into account 100 per cent. We have to basically follow the rules. We can’t question anything. We do question a lot and we try to optimise.
“Most of the time we are waiting for simulation but they talk about a millimetre or something, they give us a figure like 60 millimetres offset and we talk about maybe one or two mils. In the end we have to respect that."
Is it the same with aerodynamics?
“In aerodynamics, it’s more of a play off. In safety, it’s a non-play off. In aerodynamics we can basically bargain or negotiate ... but in the end we can’t afford to lose a point or two [of drag co-efficient].”
The GLE gets the latest Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) and “Hey Mercedes”, the company’s amazing Siri-like system, that I love since it’s introduction in the A-Class.
As a side note, “My Mercedes” has an update that includes you asking for jokes (“Sorry, I’m German, I don’t have a sense of humour”) to being sassy.
When it was confused with my instruction, I told “My Mercedes” to shut up, and it replied, “you first”.
The navigation system from the A-Class is foolproof and the head up display is intuitive
When it comes to the two models destined for our market, the 300d is a product that Mercedes-Benz NZ thinks will be a big seller, and it has reason.
The 300d is a solid performer with such a quiet engine you’d mistake it for being a petrol. Despite it being 90kg heavier than the outgoing model at now 2165kg, the torquey 300d is a great performer.
When it comes to engines, the 400d is the star of the lineup. It has an amazing “drag” co-efficiency of zero to 80km/h in seconds when driving off a traffic lights during the drive route.
The competition is the BMW X5 and Audi Q7 but Mercedes GLE wins with the interior and exterior design, driver-friendly features and the engines.
The press vehicles were equipped with extra features, such as the amazing curve factor that helps you level out when cornering, and fun additions such as the “bounce” factor that helps you in four-wheel-drive “jump” out of sand if you are stuck.
In non-sand situations it is cool with the SUV jumping along “gangsta” style. I joked at the launch that school pick-ups and driving through supermarket car parks will never be the same again in the GLE.