2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE-class

2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE-class 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE-class
First Drive Review

When the Mercedes-Benz M-class was launched back in 1997, luxury SUVs were more of a “wait, what?” kind of thing than an idea whose time had come. Lincoln had just introduced the Navigator, while the Cadillac Escalade and the BMW X5 were still incubating. Range Rovers had been around, but here in the U.S., they were known less for their swagger than for their dismal reliability record. Luxury was a sedan thing. Who would want a luxury SUV?

Clearly, the Alabama-built M-class has proved a worthwhile endeavor, Mercedes-Benz boasting of some 1.6 million sold during the last 18 years. Now, the Mercedes SUV family has grown to include three more models, not to mention the long-serving and iconic G-class, prompting a new naming strategy to cut the acronym clutter. Hence, the M-class has become the GLE-class, the better to align it to a known sedan counterpart, the E-class. The swap coincides with the crossover’s midcycle refresh, which also sees it add a new plug-in hybrid and even a “coupe” counterpart (covered separately) to take on the BMW X6.

The exterior update is subtle yet effective. The edges have been sanded off most of the front-end elements, and the taillamps have been redesigned, bringing the whole vehicle more in line with the rest of the Benz family. The interior upgrade is rather more significant, primarily because the updated COMAND system places the control dial under a touch pad, à la 2015 C-class, while a large display screen stands prominently between two giant air vents. The rest of the dash and the door panels are unchanged, but between the new upper-dash components and the sumptuous materials, the cabin looks and feels more upscale than any M-class model’s ever did.

The GLE will be sold in no fewer than five versions in the U.S.—the gas-powered GLE350 and GLE400 models, the GLE300d, the new GLE550e plug-in hybrid (ZEV states only), and the stonkin’ 550- and 577-hp GLE63 AMG models. Unfortunately, our brief drive time through the Austrian mountains was limited to the GLE250d diesel (the name of the GLE300d in other markets) and the GLE550e plug-in hybrid.

A Familiar Diesel

Our initial impressions suggest that, as far as the diesel-powered GLE is concerned, everything we experienced when we tested the ML250 Bluetec a few months ago carries over. The torquey four-cylinder, which produces 201 horsepower and 369 lb-ft, feels quicker than the specs suggest—we saw an 8.3-second zero-to-60-mph time in our testing. All GLE models use a seven-speed automatic transmission, although a new nine-speed unit is available in the coupe.

The ride remains as pillowy as ever with the optional air suspension in comfort mode. Sport mode brings tidier body motions and a bit more communication from the chassis, although the steering remains slow off-center and aloof regardless of the setting. Relaxed as it is, we expect it will be perfectly aligned with most GLE buyers’ expectations; anyone in search of a more sporty luxury-ute experience will probably not even look at a GLE-class unless it wears “GLE63 AMG” badges on the back—that is, if they get past the Porsche store without driving off in a Cayenne.

The M-class always did surprisingly well off-road. But today’s model is even more capable, especially when equipped with knobby off-road tires and the optional On/Off-Road package (which in the U.S. will be offered only on the GLE400). It includes low-range gearing, locking differentials, added underbody protection, and a vehicle-raising function that adds more than an inch of ground clearance. The 360-degree parking cameras also come in rather handy when cresting a ridge without the aid of a spotter. Of course, the typical GLE-class will never see dirt beneath it, but it’s nice to know that, just in case Armageddon falls upon us, or a stalled truck blocks the entrance to Barneys, one can hop a curb and trample the impatiens with aplomb.


At roughly 5400 pounds, the GLE550e 4MATIC plug-in hybrid is a lot porkier than the GLE300d, but with 436 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque from its combo of a 329-hp V-6 and 114-hp electric motor, it’s much faster. Mercedes estimates a zero-to-62-mph time of 5.3 seconds, which compares rather favorably to Porsche’s 5.4-second estimate of its 416-hp Cayenne S E-Hybrid’s zero-to-60 sprint. Rather more to the point is the hybrid’s ability to travel some 19 miles at speeds up to 81 mph purely on electrons. When left in its default hybrid mode—one of four powertrain settings that also include E-Save, Charge, and electric-only modes—we found that the vehicle cruises along using battery power nearly all of the time, with the gas engine slipping into and out of the picture with the subtlety of a jewel thief. Insofar as silent speed is consistent with luxury—and Tesla has certainly proved that it is—the GLE550e feels pretty spot-on. Consider this a preemptive strike against the Model X.

The bulk of the GLE-class lineup arrives in showrooms in August, at prices ranging from $52,025 to $65,525 for non-AMG versions. (AMG models ring in at $100,875 for the GLE63 AMG and $108,025 for the S model; more pricing info for the lineup can be found here.) We’re still awaiting prices for the plug-in hybrid, which arrives in September, but we’ve been advised, “It won’t be cheap.”

Despite the new name, Mercedes is not really blazing a new trail with the GLE-class, but with an improved interior and a broader model range, it is better able to cover the wide spectrum of the segment it helped create.