First Drive: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE Class
A crossover for the whole family, just maybe hold off on that second helping of options
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Brands like Automobile cater to enthusiasts like you, but enthusiasts have families, and those people need to drive, too. Chances are they care less about cornering grip or steering feel than you do; they just want something roomy and comfortable and reliable. But you care.
So we have some good news for you, loyal readers: The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE is a crossover that you and your family can live with.
The new GLE is about as complex as the Talmud, and there are close to a billion things we need to tell you about it, but here's the CliffsNotes version first: As mid-size luxury SUVs go, this is about as good as it gets. The GLE is roomy and comfortable, chic and upscale, and reasonably rewarding to drive. It's a techno-geek's dream, with options ranging from an active suspension that can bounce the GLE free if it gets stuck to a voice assistant that will explain naughty sex terms (more on that in a tick). And while pricing hadn't been announced at the time of our early test drive, we expect it won't be too expensive if you lay off the options, and there's good reason to do just that.
So let's dive right in: The GLE is all-new for 2020, with updated styling inside and out, new powertrains, and a host of new technology. The sheetmetal has been updated to look more like the bigger GLS, though it retains the sharp-looking body-color C-pillar from the old-shape GLE. The new version looks bigger because it is bigger, with a 3.1-inch wheelbase stretch to provide more back seat room. We're very happy with the styling changes; the old GLE looked a bit milquetoast, the new one has some much-needed presence.
The changes to the interior are even more radical. The instrument and infotainment panel setup, versions of which Mercedes has been rolling out to newer models like the E- and A -Class, comprises of two side-by-side widescreen displays that are designed to look like a stand-alone panel. But the integration into the GLE's dashboard is much smoother and its styling is markedly different—and better, if you ask us. Materials quality is top-notch; there's no cost-cutting here. Everything you touch feels expensive.
Open a back door and you'll be struck by the amount of rear-seat legroom. Unfortunately, it's something of an illusion. Mercedes has cut the rear-seat cushion short, which makes the back seat look more spacious than it actually is. Back-seat legroom is good—not spectacular, just good—but we'd happily trade the appearance of space for more thigh support. The GLE now offers an optional third-row seat, and while we didn't get a chance to sample it, from the space allotted we guess it's a kids-only affair. Configured as a five-seater, though, the GLE has a lot of cargo space as befits a family truckster.
We sampled both of the new-to-the-GLE engines. The GLE 350 gets a 2.0-liter turbocharged four that produces 255 horsepower. One of the things we expect from an upscale SUV is strong acceleration, and the 2.0T makes the cut, but just barely. If the GLE weighed say 250 pounds more, the engine would be overtaxed. The GLE 450's turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six, with 362 hp on tap and a 48-volt "mild hybrid" system that adds a short 21-horsepower boost, delivers a more suitable pace, though it's hardly an adrenaline-generator. (We'll wait on the inevitable AMG versions to provide that.) Both engines utilize a new nine-speed automatic transmission, and 4Matic all-wheel-drive is standard with the six-cylinder powertrains and optional with the four. Beware, Rust Belters: Base-model GLE 350s are rear-wheel drive.
The GLE can be had with three suspensions. The first GLE 350 we sampled had good ol' steel springs, which provide a nice balance: The ride is firmer than we expected (a nod, we assume, to BMW drivers who find traditional Mercedes SUVs too softly sprung) but nowhere near punishing. Grip was impressive and likely aided by the wider tires fitted to our test cars. In the curves, the steel-sprung GLE 350 we drove felt more responsive and eager than Mercedes SUVs of yore, though calling it fun-to-drive might be stretching the truth.
Next, we drove a GLE 450 with the Airmatic suspension, which reminded us of why we're so fond of air springs. The ride is glass-smooth with excellent body control in the curves. It's the perfect setup that should please enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike.
New for the 2020 GLE is the E-Active air suspension, which has a bunch of cool tricks up its sleeve. Mercedes showed off E-Active with a demonstration of a GLE dancing to a techno-beat. There's a mode that allows you to individually raise and lower each corner using the center touchscreen, and the response is surprisingly quick. If the GLE gets stuck in deep snow or sand—maybe you made a wrong turn at the golf course and wound up in a sand trap—E-Active can literally bounce the car up and down to get it free. (If you're thinking of the last low rider show you attended, yep, it works like that.) And then there's Curve mode: Turn it on, and rather than keep the body flat, the GLE can actually lean into curves like a motorcycle.
That said, for all the things E-Active can do, we're not sure it's worth the upcharge (which, though not announced, is sure to be steep), especially considering how well plain ol' Airmatic works. Of course, we drove the GLE on fairly smooth pavement outside of San Antonio. Driving a GLE on the curvy roads north of Los Angeles or the lunar surface of Detroit might change our minds.
Also new is a voice-response system similar to Siri or Alexa with "Hey Mercedes" as the wake-word. (Discussing the merits of the car caused it to continually interrupt our conversations.) The system is connected to the internet, which is a mixed blessing. Ask it to find the closest sushi joint or post office, and it will. But, as several of our colleagues attending the press preview with us discovered, if you ask it to describe, say, a particular sexual position, it will eagerly provide a detailed and stunningly accurate explanation. (No, it wasn't us who tried this, and frankly we're a little ashamed we didn't think of it first.) We imagine Mercedes reviewed the list of searches that evening, because the feature was mysteriously disabled on all of the cars the next day. Parents of small children might want to consider doing the same.
The vehicles we drove had traffic-sign recognition, with an adaptive cruise control system that automatically adjusts to posted speed limits. If you're adaptively cruising along on a 55 mph road and pass a sign that says 45 mph, the GLE slows down. We can't decide if this is awesome or annoying. It's annoying if you like to drive 5 or 8 mph above the limit, but awesome if you're on a two-laner and don't notice that the speed limit has suddenly dropped from 55 to 25—the GLE might save you from a speeding ticket.
Our day-and-a-half test drive (rather long by press-junket standards) meant we were able to try out a lot of the GLE's new tech—but we also gained enough familiarity to breed a little contempt. Some examples of the annoyances: The GLE's optional full-color head-up display, which Mercedes happily touts as the industry's largest, is so big that it gets distracting. The rectangular instrument panel displays are so big and so rectangular that information at the corners is blocked by the steering wheel. And in the 32-year history of this magazine, we can't recall testing a vehicle in which it was more difficult to adjust seat lumbar. (The adjustment is buried in the touchscreen menu system. Why not just put a button on the seat?)
None of this precludes a recommendation to buy the GLE. While it may not be quite as sporty as the BMW X5 or as user-friendly as the Audi Q5, it's a fantastic vehicle nonetheless, one that is luxurious, spacious, and well-engineered. We'd recommend forgoing some of the higher-end high-tech gadgets; they're fun for showing off but complicate life with the car, which may please you but is bound to grind on the nerves of your significant other. Pick your GLE carefully, and we suspect everyone in the family will be very happy with it.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class Specifications
|ON SALE||Spring 2019|
|PRICE||$34,000/$45,000 (base/as tested) (est)|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/255 hp @ 5,800-6,100 rpm, 273 lb-ft @ 1,800-4,000 rpm; 3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve I-6, 362 hp @ 5,500-6,100 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,000 rpm plus electric starter/generator motor/21 hp|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD sedan|
|L x W x H||194.3 x 76.7 x 70.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.0 sec (GLE 350), 7.1 sec (GLE 350 4MATIC), 5.5 sec (GLE 450 4MATIC)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|