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2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S First Drive

Who doesn’t love a good hot hatch?

Nelson IresonWriterManufacturerPhotographer

MALIBU, California—We live in absolutely crazy times—and no, I'm not talking about the coronavirus, politics, or the global economy. The craziness I'm talking about is the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S. It's a 603-horsepower tarmac-seeking missile packaged in a form that might get mistaken for a good chunk of the local Little League team on its way to post-game pizza; then again, you could thrash a canyon in the morning and have your baseball-brat time that afternoon, all in the GLE 63 S. It's an incongruity that verges on cognitive dissonance.

With the AMG GLE 63 S, or any super-performance SUV, words like feel and handling are mostly out the window, but words like thrust and grip are front and center. There's very little nuance here (although the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive is impressive in S+ and Race modes), but there's more pace than most will know what to do with.

How can I say there's not much feel or handling and then turn right around and talk about its brisk pace? Perhaps I'm being pedantic, but the distinction matters. In the GLE 63 S, you don't get the purity of the sports car experience typically associated with performance driving. There's no telepathic connection between the four tires' contact patches and your hands, feet, or seat. What there is, however, is steering that's consistent and precise despite the lack of feel, unnaturally good damping and roll control courtesy of active roll stabilization, and more grip than anyone should have nerve to use in public. That translates to immense pace—the true heart of the performance driving experience—but without the feedback connoisseurs seek in a sporty vehicle. But more on that later.

What, exactly, is the Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S? It's (nominally) a crossover SUV, with all-wheel drive, a nine-speed automatic transmission, a hand-assembled 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 good for 603 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque, a new EQ Boost integrated electric motor system good for up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, and AMG Active Ride Control dynamic active suspension. It can hit 60 mph from a standstill in a manufacturer-estimated 3.7 seconds, and carry on to 174 mph, its electronically limited top speed.  Layered on that backdrop is Mercedes' AMG Dynamic Select performance mode system, which alters the vehicle's throttle, transmission, suspension, and stability control systems to span a broad range of mild off-road, comfortable city or highway driving, and performance driving.

During my 36-hour stint in the Malibu hills and Topanga canyons with the GLE 63 S, I drove two examples of this dapper beast. The first, clad in Selenite Grey Metallic paint, was priced at $131,935, or $16,990 above its $114,945 sticker price (including $995 destination and delivery fee). The extra dosh adds a carbon-fiber engine cover, other carbon-fiber trim, AMG performance steering wheel in carbon fiber, 22-inch cross-spoke wheels, rear side airbags, panoramic power sunroof, four-zone climate control, a black microfiber suede roof liner, and the MBUX Interior Assistant gesture control system. The second GLE 63 S was a Designo White Metallic example, priced at $133,660. This one received most of the options of the first, but with the addition of the MBUX Technology Package, the Driver Assistance Package Plus, which brings Mercedes' full semi-autonomous driving package to the table, the Acoustic Comfort package for quieter cruising, massaging seats, and the AMG Night Package, which replaces much of the brightwork with gloss black trim.

But how does Mercedes-AMG's brilliant super-sized hot hatch really drive? Wait, hot hatch? Yes, hot hatch. That's the closest analog to the driving experience of the GLE 63 S. Like a hot hatch, it tends toward understeer when pushed beyond its limits, and like a hot hatch, it's the performance take on an otherwise utilitarian vehicle. This is just a hot hatch for giants. Wealthy giants.

You may be dwelling on my reference to understeer; fear not. While there is some tendency, whether of the chassis or of the stability control program, to make the car under-rotate rather than over-rotate, that's exactly the dynamic balance you should want in a vehicle 70 inches tall. Getting unexpectedly sideways, or at least more sideways than you'd planned, is a good way to start cartwheeling, and that's never a good time in a car. Moreover, if you drive the GLE 63 S well, rather than stuffing it as far into a corner as it'll go to see which end breaks traction first, you'll never even catch a whiff of understeer. In fact, thanks to the rather brilliant torque vectoring all-wheel drive system, you may even feel the GLE 63 S helping you to turn. The all-wheel drive system can send up to 50 percent of its power to the front axle, but it can send 100 percent of it to the rear, improving dynamics.

Despite the size of it—and the weight, which hasn't been released yet but is likely somewhere in the 5,500-pound range—one of the most surprising aspects of the GLE 63 S's performance, aside from just how much of it there is, is how easy it is to access and use. You might think driving a big, powerful SUV would be a lot of work, especially as the pace increases, but you'd be wrong, at least in this case. The steering is well-weighted but never heavy, the brakes are light but easy to modulate, and the active roll stabilization system does a remarkable job of keeping the vehicle flat even when cornering hard, requiring less core strength and allowing the comfy seats to cut down a bit on the bolsters it might otherwise need. Even after several hours of fun in Angeles Forest, I felt none of the fatigue that's usually attendant with hustling 600 hp—a testament to the comfort of the seats and the quietness of the cabin, too.

Bottom line on the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S's performance: Equipped with a good driver, there are very few cars with four doors, let alone five, that can keep up, and even fewer that could outrun it.

For those wondering: yes, it does all the other SUV stuff the regular GLE does, too. It's comfy to cruise in, it's easy to see out of, and it holds plenty of people and things. For more details on how well the GLE nails the basics, check out our first drive of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 and 450.

The 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLE 63 S goes on sale in mid-2020, to be joined shortly after by the 2021 GLE 63 S Coupe. Look for more details, including gas mileage, as it nears production.

If the GLE seems a bit small, well, Mercedes has you covered: check out the new 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLS 63, which gets many of the same performance upgrades, plus seating for seven.

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S Quick Facts

  • 603 hp
  • 627 lb-ft of torque
  • 7 seconds 0-60 mph (est)
  • On-sale mid-2020
  • Base price: $114,945 (including destination fee)
2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S Specifications
ON SALE  Mid-2020
PRICE $114,945
ENGINE 4.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/603 hp @ 5,750-6,500 rpm, 627 lb-ft @ 2,500-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
L x W x H 195 x 79.4 x 70.2 in
WHEELBASE 117.9 in
WEIGHT 3,657 lb
0-60 MPH 6.2 sec
TOP SPEED 155 mph