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2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE First Drive: Ahead by a Length

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Toronto, ON – Known as the ML on its birth in 1997, the model we know today as the GLE began life under much more modest circumstances. It was the first Mercedes vehicle manufactured in the United States. Now, the 2020 version represents the 4th generation of the midsize utility vehicle. While it was difficult to qualify the ML as a luxury product in its infancy, the German automaker has certainly refined its product since then.

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE uses the same platform as the brand’s recent GLS model, which translates into a wheelbase longer by 80 mm. Of those, 64 mm are used to provide more space to the rear seats and offer for the first time a third row of seats (optional).

A more-classic look
While the GLE coupe is just now debuting  in Europe, the North American market currently is only entitled to the regular GLE. Larger than its predecessor, the 2020 edition is the first generation to offer that optional third row.

Photo: B.Charette

The styling is timelessly beautiful. The rather imposing front end confers on the model a greater stature, and buyers have a choice of standard 20-inch wheels that add to this presence and give the vehicle a more-rugged character. Also noteworthy, the rear section is better designed than the last generation with sportier styling. A chrome-plated skid plate underneath the vehicle provides another nice touch.

Luxury interior
For starters, that platform borrowed from the larger GLS means occupants enjoy a bigger interior space. Beyond that, like the most recent creations of the brand, the GLE comes with a pair of side-by-side 12.3 inch screens with the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) multimedia system. This system, which debuted in the A Class, has been improved for the GLE with better voice recognition.

The driver’s environment is both sporty and elegant. Depending on how much you’re willing to fork over, you have the choice of several finishes and colour contrasts. All surfaces are lined with leather and the visuals of the controls have been updated. The new standard steering wheel further enhances the impressive appearance of the SUV’s interior.

Photo: B.Charette

The extra 64 mm at the rear means legroom is so ample passengers can just about sit with their legs crossed. Headroom at the rear with the standard fixed bench with 40/20/40 split backrest has increased 33 mm to 1025 mm.

Cargo volume has increased to 825 litres behind the rear seats and climbs to 2,055 litres when the second row of seats is folded down. The optional third row of folding seats provides increased flexibility, and thanks to the Easy Entry function of the second row of fully electric seats, the two rear-seat passengers can easily access their seats. Note however that this is a space strictly for smaller children.

Two engine choices… for now
The entry-level model for the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE is the GLE 350 that comes with a 4-cylinder, 2.0L turbo engine delivering 255 hp. All GLE are equipped with the standard 4Matic AWD system. The other model is the electrically powered inline six GLE 450 with 48-volt technology, producing 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque.

EQ Boost technology improves performance over short periods of time by providing 21 hp and 184 lb-ft more. The integrated starter-alternator is responsible for hybrid functions such as EQ Boost or energy recovery, while allowing fuel savings. This same technology will be part of the GLE 53 model, which will arrive a little later this year at dealerships. It will offer the same inline 6-cylinder turbo but with 429 hp instead of 362.

Photo: B.Charette

Mercedes is also preparing a 63 AMG model and an EQ model in the form of plug-in hybrid that promises to enable 75 to 80 km of range in electric mode. All models come with a 9-speed automatic transmission.

On (and off) the road
Our day of testing the new GLE started on the road and ended in the woods. Note that the four-wheel-drive system doesn’t work the same way with the 4-cylinder engine as with the 6-cylinder engine. In the case of 4-cylinder models, the 4MATIC all-wheel drive uses a transfer case that transmits engine torque to the axles at a fixed 50/50 ratio. Spinning wheels are braked individually by targeted braking.

In contrast, a transfer case with an electronically controlled multi-disc clutch is used for the GLE 450. This allows for variable Torque on Demand distribution ranging from 0 to 100% between the axles.

The 4-cylinder is surprisingly good, considering the size and weight of the model, and does a good job. The 6-cylinder with the EQ-Boost is as efficient as the old-generation V8 with much more reasonable fuel consumption.

Photo: B.Charette

Designed and engineered to offer an exceedingly quiet ride, the GLE also displays very good road grip. Mercedes offers the optional E active body control that combines the air suspension with the 48-volt technology of the GLE 450 for even greater ride comfort. This system can individually regulate the suspension and damping characteristics at each wheel. This means that it counteracts not only roll, but also pitching and leaning. In combination with the road surface scan function and the cornering feature, you have the impression that the car anticipates your movements.

Although very few people will go off road with this expensive thing, Mercedes-Benz has put a lot of effort into its capabilities in that environment. The angle of attack and exit is very good to tackle quite difficult terrain. By being able to read the pavement, the suspension adapts to the surface and will soften the suspension to better absorb bumps. Alas, there’s no technology included to lessen the effect of a pothole.

In off-road mode, you also have the release mode on the option list. If the GLE gets bogged down in a sand dune or snow, using a simple button (the free driving mode) with the off-road feature on the dashboard, you'll have the truck hopping up and down with swaying motions to help free the vehicle. You can also adjust the level of each wheel via the touchscreen of the multimedia display and, in doing so, improve traction in rough terrain, for example when one of the wheels is stuck in a ditch or when a wheel spring is completely compressed.

Photo: B.Charette

Keep in mind though that all of these features keep the final tally climbing, so be sure you'll use a feature before you OK it, because all told it will cost you up to $20,000 more.

With a starting price of $64,000 for a 350 4-cylinder version, it will take $75,000 to jump to a basic 450 version. The price of the upcoming 53 model has not been announced yet, but expect a price of around $85,000.

To give you an idea of how fast options can drive up the price, the 450 model we drove with the majority of off-road and comfort options included was tagged at $107,000. As we mentioned, be judicious about which of these options you go for.

Overall, the GLE pushes innovation and bold automotive avant-gardism to yet another level, particularly in terms of comfort and technologies. Clearly Mercedes-Benz wants to maintain its industry-leading position in this area.

We like

E-active body control
Flawless finish

We like less

Options are expensive
Complexity of the technology
MBUX still needs improvement; it notably gets wobbly when you’re engaging with it in French

Photo: B.Charette
Photo: B.Charette
Photo: B.Charette
Photo: B.Charette