Mercedes-Benz knows better than to fuss with a formula that works. Launched in 2012, the outgoing M-Class was the most successful version of Benz’s SUV to date, with 46,726 sold in the U.S. last year. That means Mercedes wants to avoid rocking the boat and distancing any of those buyers with an update — even as it renames its popular SUV from ML to GLE — so there are no sweeping changes to Mercedes’ luxury-and-comfort-based strategy. Instead, a mild refresh for the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class delivers a new name, some freshened looks, and a renewed commitment to fuel efficiency.
Increased pressure from governments and customers for fuel efficiency is driving automakers to turn to more complex automatic transmissions, turbocharging, and hybrid systems, and Mercedes-Benz is on board with the trend. New for this year is the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE550e plug-in hybrid, while the turbocharged V-6-powered GLE400 will get a nine-speed automatic transmission next year to replace the current seven-speed unit. With these new models in the lineup, including the turbodiesel GLE300d and the volume-driving GLE350, the GLE is more efficient across the board than the M-Class it replaces.
The sound of silence
Cruising through the tree-dotted grandeur of the Austrian mountain country in the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE550e, all we can hear is the rush of the wind cutting through the misty silence. There’s no rumble from the 329-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 engine, which is inactive as we pass quaint village after quaint village, fighting the urge to stop for a golden-fried schnitzel. At speeds up to 81 mph, the GLE550e’s plug-in hybrid system can operate exclusively on electric power from its 114-hp electric motor and 8.7-kwh lithium-ion battery pack. (The system is effectively identical to the hybrid setup used in the S550e, offering a similar all-electric range of 18.6 miles.) Not only is the GLE550e quiet in all-electric E-Mode, but it’s also confident getting up to speed. That’s impressive considering the SUV’s beefy curb weight of 5,401 pounds.
As the battery starts to run low, we swap into Charge mode to recover some energy. It takes about 40 minutes of driving to fully recharge the battery, making full use of the 3.0-liter V-6 gas engine. There is also a battery-preserving E-Save mode that relies only on the gasoline mill. For people who commute to work on the highway but don’t have consistent access to a charging station away from home, the ability to recharge the battery while en route is a major advantage. The EPA still hasn’t rated the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, but all indications are that the GLE550e will have an impressive range that could be well over 600 miles.
Despite all of these dizzying choices, the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE550e drives best in regular old hybrid mode. Transitions between the V-6 and the electric motor are practically undetectable, the regenerative braking isn’t overly aggressive and, particularly from a stop, there’s satisfying thrust from the total system’s 479 lb-ft of torque delivered to all four wheels via a seven-speed automatic. Mercedes promises the efficiency of a three-cylinder but the power of a V-8, with acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in an estimated 5.2 seconds. While EPA ratings aren’t yet available to confirm efficiency estimates, Mercedes has definitely achieved a V-8-like thrust, without upsetting the car’s comfortable ride. The downside of the GLE550e is its significantly compromised rear trunk capacity. Exact measurements aren’t yet available for the plug-in (non-hybrid models have 38.2 cu ft of trunk space), but figure you’ll be able to fit at least one fewer suitcase with the space occupied by the battery.
Still a crowd-pleaser
GLE customers are interested in better fuel economy, but they still want a big, spacious, well-appointed luxury SUV with a smooth ride and lots of power. None of that has changed since last year’s ML400, and the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE400 remains an SUV you’d be happy to take on a multi-state road trip with the whole family. The 3.0-liter V-6 engine provides just the right amount of power whenever you need it, and fuel economy will only improve when the nine-speed automatic becomes available for the 2017 model year.
There is an available off-road package that, as we experienced firsthand on a treacherous mountainside off-road course, turns the GLE into a capable rock-crawler instead of just a dirt-road champion. Only about 10 percent of customers actually select this option, and even fewer end up scratching the surface of its capabilities. Mercedes acknowledges this, but reminds us that there are some people who want the peace of mind knowing the GLE has what it takes to get them out of any potentially sticky situations.
While the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE400 doesn’t receive any significant mechanical changes compared to the last ML400, it does get a restyled interior and exterior refresh along with the rest of the GLE lineup. The larger grille, reshaped headlights and front fascia, and revised taillights keep the GLE looking stylish but considerably more conservative than the new GLE Coupe. While the GLE Coupe is after a niche market interested in something a little wilder than the SUV norm, the standard GLE is about sticking with what works for the luxury-buying masses. Soft leather, supportive seats, loads of available active safety technology, and a wider infotainment screen are sure to keep these people happy.
Playing its own game
If the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE is missing something, it’s excitement and emotion. We can’t find much fault in how Mercedes has engineered the GLE to meet the needs of well-to-do families in need of both utility and efficiency, and it’s hard to blame the company for meeting every expectation without fuss or fanfare. While the rival BMW X5 has a bit more flair for sportiness, Mercedes says it intentionally positioned the GLE on the more comfort-oriented side of the spectrum.
“The X5 and the X6 are already rather sporty for the segment,” says Mercedes-Benz vice president of SUVs and sports cars Wolf-Dieter Kurz. “We put a bit more distance between our sporty model, the GLE Coupe, and the standard GLE.”
With this strategy in place, Mercedes has put itself in position to not only grow its consumer base with the GLE Coupe, but also maintain and sustain the following it has already cultivated for the standard GLE. Between plug-in hybrid, diesel, turbocharged, and the always-impressive AMG variants, the GLE occupies a huge range of powertrains and prices to reach lots of different buyers.
No doubt there is success ahead for the gas-powered variants, but it’s tough to predict demand for the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE550e. Kurz says that plug-ins tend to do better in areas where there are government incentives, while diesel popularity fluctuates based on the price of fuel. (When gasoline costs were above $4 a gallon in the U.S., the diesel take rate was almost 20 percent.)
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE has done well to stick to its proven formula of quality, luxury, and comfort. Improving the core variants while also adding a plug-in hybrid model represents a strong effort to stay competitive and even a bit ahead of the curve.
2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE550e 4Matic; 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE400 Specifications
- On Sale: September 2015; August 2015
- Price: TBD; $65,525
- Engine: 3.0-liter turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/329 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 354 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,000 rpm, 114-hp electric motor with 251 lb-ft torque, 436 total system hp, 479 lb-ft total system torque; 3.0-liter turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/329 hp @5,500 rpm, 354 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,000 rpm
- Transmission: 7-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
- EPA Mileage: TBD
- Suspension F/R: Strut-type, optional air springs
- Brakes F/R: Vented discs
- Tires F/R: 265/45R-20; 255/50R-19 Continental SportContact
- L x W x H: 189.7 x 76.0 x 70.7 in
- Wheelbase: 114.8 in
- Headroom: N/A
- Legroom F/R: N/A
- Shoulder Room F/R: N/A
- Cargo Room (F/R2): TBD; 38.2 cu ft/80.3 cu ft
- Towing: 7,700 lbs
- Weight: 5,401 lbs; 4,850 lbs
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 5.2 sec (est); 6.5 sec
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: 152 mph; 130 mph