Gas is cheap, and the auto industry is booming again. We’re back to 2006 numbers for the first time since Wall Street pulled off the biggest pyramid scheme in history. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this return to bubble-inducing growth spurts? The SUV. But what if you want to sell SUVs to people who might want SUVs but don’t really want SUVs that look like SUVs? You build SUV-like objects in as many flavors as possible.
Objects like the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe, a swollen, bulbous appendage to the Mercedes lineup, built off the new E-sized range (until recently known as the ML-Class) but with swoopier lines and cartoon-huge wheels. It comes in just two flavors for America: the GLE450 AMG 4Matic and the GLE63 S 4Matic.
I recently spent a day wheeling the GLE450 AMG Sport version on and around the famed 11-mile, 300-plus-turn Tail of the Dragon. While I can’t in good conscience say I loved it, I can see why people would.
The GLE is, after all, a new-generation Mercedes-Benz, which means it can practically drive itself in some situations. Its interior is among the best ever assembled for a volume production car, and it has a feel of quality that justifies the shark bite your wallet will take to get one (base price $66,025, but more like $85,000 nicely configured). So, no matter what options you check off, you won’t go wrong with the new GLE Coupe — except perhaps wishing you’d ponied up for the additional power and more aggressive face of the GLE63, which sadly wasn’t available during our drive.
As a mode of transport for four people, the GLE450 works just fine. It’s comfortable, and it even drives relatively well, with a nine-speed automatic transmission that’s quick and affirmative in its shifts, backing up Benz’s 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 with 362 horsepower that issues a hushed rumble from ahead of the hermetic cabin when provoked. The exhaust note is likewise muted, but if you use the Dynamic Select knob and choose Sport+, each downshift (whether automatic or paddle-induced) brings a “controlled misfire” program that sounds something like the AMG GT S’s glorious eight-pot overrun heard through an Instagram filter named “Bobby Digital.”
It’s not especially efficient at 17/23 mpg city/highway, but it’s quick. Top speed is 155 mph, 0-60 mph comes in 5.6 seconds, and its torque plateau of 384 lb-ft is available from 1,800 to 4,000 rpm. But there is one other number that leaps off the stat sheet: the GLE’s 4,894-pound curb weight. Despite the best efforts of AMG engineers to mitigate its heft with a 40/60 front/rear 4Matic torque bias, Airmatic adaptive damping, and active roll stabilization, it can’t escape being big, heavy, and sluggish in spots. It’s a crossover in the end.
For a vehicle bearing the AMG logo, even if adulterated with the “Sport” appendix, the GLE Coupe may seem like an oddball. It is, in a way, but on the other hand, it’s a natural chimera, a vehicular portmanteau for AMG’s two most iconic vehicle lines: Put the head of a sports car like the GT S on a G-Wagen, and this is what you get.
Like the other German ur-Coupe-UV, the BMW X6, it’s an answer to a question no one asked. Instead, it’s a marketing decision designed to fractalize the booming sales of “trucks” — crossovers and SUVs in luxury speak. The more models you can build the more incremental sales you add. The decision fits perfectly with both the new Mercedes-Benz philosophy for itself and for its image of what AMG Sport should be.
The gap between standard Mercedes-Benz products and the true AMG lineup has traditionally left considerable room in terms of performance and price for some intermediary models. That’s where AMG Sport comes in. If you aren’t ready to make the leap from the C300 to the C63, where do you turn? Why, the new C450 AMG Sport, of course. In the case of the GLE, Mercedes-Benz USA skipped right over the base offering, but the theory still holds.
Mercedes-Benz USA chief Steve Cannon put it in even plainer terms, telling dealers to “treat [AMG] like a Porsche franchise” inside their Mercedes-Benz dealerships. And that, in a nutshell, explains the GLE.
No, Porsche hasn’t built a rather large coupe-crossover (yet), but it has been expanding its army of sports cars off its SUV profits for a decade already. With the Cayenne and now the Macan, Porsche has found a mix that lets it build a business case around the whole brand, including the iconic models that would likely wither and die if left on their own.
Would I recommend the GLE Coupe in AMG Sport guise to a friend? No, not really. But if AMG can finance more cars like the GT S with a few more humpbacked behemoths like the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe, hand me the binoculars, and let’s go whale watching.
2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE450 AMG 4Matic Coupe Specifications
- On Sale: Now
- Base Price: $66,025
- Engine: 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/362 hp @ 5,500-6,000 rpm, 384 lb-ft @ 1,800-4,000 rpm
- Transmission: 9-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
- EPA Mileage: 17/23 mpg (city/hwy)
- L x W x H: 192.6 x 67.7 x 78.9 in
- Wheelbase: 114.8 in
- Weight: 4,894 lb
- 5.6 sec
- Top Speed: 155 mph