2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class First Drive: Optional Tech Is Amazing, But So Is the Base Model
Benz's new GLE-Class is so good in entry-level form, the fanciest high-tech options and strong engines seem unnecessary.
If you’re in the market for a new 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, you’re probably going to feel pressure to go for the fanciest one possible. Maybe it’s due to your spouse; maybe it’s because of the salesperson; maybe it’s just that damn Bob Henderson three doors down the cul-de-sac and that little smirk on his face every time he draws out the word “tuuuurbo” when talking about his Macan. Regardless of why, however, you'll probably feel compelled to opt for the top-flight GLE450, and then tack on a used Mitsubishi worth of options onto it.
But I’m here to tell you a secret: You really don’t need to. The base GLE350 version of Benz’s new midsize crossover is great...and the fancier versions don’t add much more than bragging rights and digits to your monthly payment.
Granted, it might not be easy. For one thing, any Mercedes salesman worth his three-pointed star tie pin is going to do his damnedest to press you into the top-shelf GLE450 with a demonstration of the optional E-Active Body Control suspension. If he has time to kill, he might show off how the system, which offers independent ride height control for each of the four wheels through a networked hydropneumatic computer-controlled suspension, can elevate or lower each corner of the car separate from the others, letting it pull off automotive yogic poses like Downward Diff and The Hanging Wheel. Should he be in a hurry to move on to the 60-year-old Botoxed bottle blonde standing around looking for all the world like she's ready to pay full sticker to take that SL65 off the dealership's hands at full sticker price, however, he might well just move on to the main event: "free-driving mode," which synchronizes all four active dampers and forces them up and down in increasingly rapid motion, until the car is hopping like Jerry Seinfeld's van with the Costanzas in mid-coitus.
Its practical purpose is to help free the GLE if it becomes stuck in deep, intractable surfaces such as sand, mud, or snow; however, considering the average Mercedes crossover buyer is more likely to be caught drinking Natty Ice than doing any serious off-roading, the system seems more likely to see service as the ultimate party trick, as well as encourage a spate of "If This Benz Is a Rockin', Don't Come a-Knockin'" bumper stickers.
Buyers who opt for the E-Active suspension are more likely to notice the setup's on-road functions, such as its ability to actively counter pitch and body roll and effectively erase speed bumps. By scanning the road ahead and preparing each corner of the car to deal with it, GLEs with the fancy suspension setup can actually lean into turns to effectively flatten them out, allowing the car to stay flat as it glides on through. It's brilliant, in principle; in practice, however, it proved a little disconcerting, as while the car may be actively working to counteract inertia, your torso doesn't, leaving your upper body flopping around in the seat more than expected. After a few dozen miles of winding back roads in the passenger's seat, I found myself on the verge of asking my driving partner to pull over so I could take a few deep breaths and stare at the horizon for a minute.
Even if you have Chuck Yeager's iron stomach, the E-Active setup's astoundingly impressive technology isn't enough to justify the beefy $8,100 price tag for the system—not when the basic Airmatic air suspension setup adds just $1,600 to the bottom line and delivers a ride that felt almost every bit as smooth on the winding Texas hill country roads, with none of the discomfort caused by the E-Active body's subtle, unexpected movements. From a driver's perspective, the more conventional suspension simply felt more intuitive. So equipped, the GLE felt legitimately fun to drive, with a nimble, almost tossable character. It never feels too large, the way an X5 or Q7 can from time to time; instead, it seems to wrap around you like a a good driver's car ought to.
That magic suspension exists thanks to the power of the 48-volt electrical system snaking throughout every GLE450, which comes part and parcel with the turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six engine found beneath the hood. The system, which is all but identical to the one found in the new CLS450, also enables the car to provide seamless stop-start functionality, and lets the car forego a traditional starter thanks to the added jolt of the small electric motor Mercedes calls the "integrated starter generator." Turn the drive mode selector to Eco mode, and it also lets the gas engine go idle when coasting under certain conditions as a way to save fuel, a state some Christopher Cross-loving German has formally dubbed "sailing" in the Mercedes-Benz literature. It's not an idle boast, either; while I'm usually one to stick with the more aggressive drive modes in any car that gives me the choice, I wound up using Eco on both San Antonio's neighborhood streets and wide-open freeways in order to enjoy watching the tach drop to zero when I lifted. (It also helped me rack up almost 23 miles per gallon over the course of roughly 100 miles of city stop-and-go, highway hauling, and open road cruising...though I did most of the latter in Sport mode.)
Yet while the 3.0-liter six's power delivery is smooth, rich, and immediate, thanks to both the balanced design and the torque-filling electric motor, it also doesn't feel particularly fast. Admittedly, that's more the duty of the AMG models these days (and you can be as sure that GLE53 and GLE63 models will arrive as you are that the sun will rise tomorrow), but its 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque on draft (plus a jolt of up to 21 hp from the electric motor) don't yank this Benz forward with the expected verve. Perhaps the remarkable smoothness simply makes it feel slower than it is; perhaps the horses are just stuck lugging around all the baggage of the 48-volt electrical system.
On the flip side, the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four that's standard issue in the base-model GLE350, on the other side, may be down more than 110 horses on paper—Benz ranks it at 255 hp and 273 lb-ft—but it feels stronger, as though it were pounding protein shakes with every gallon of premium gas. The carmaker claims a low seven-second 0-60 run, which seems about right; thanks to the nine-speed automatic’s programming and the throttle’s responsiveness, it’ll leap to command as needed for passing maneuvers, too, so long as you’re not tepid with the gas pedal. Driving the 2.0 requires a heavier foot than in the inline-six, and as a result, the observed fuel economy of the smaller-engined GLE was pretty much in line with what we saw in the more powerful model. Still, unlike many four-cylinder-powered crossovers, the GLE350 never once felt wanting for grunt, with the nine-speed automatic always shuffling into the best gear for the job at the flex of a right ankle.
Another reason the base version of this Benz is a better buy than its pricier bro: No matter whether you buy the cheapest version of the GLE-Class or the most expensive one you possibly can, they all come with the new MBUX infotainment system, which builds on the previous Comand setup by swapping the clickwheel for a swipe-pad and integrates touchscreen functionality into the 12.3-inch screen mounted directly to starboard of the instrument cluster. The new MBUX setup reveals itself to be one of the best infotainment systems available in a new car today...once you take a minute or 60 to get accustomed to it, as the learning curve is a bit steep if you're used to the old Benz setup. Still, once you get the swing of things, you'll be swiping between screens and tapping your way through radio stations as easily as you manipulate your iPhone.
And like a modern smartphone, it has features and abilities you many never stumble upon unless you go looking for them. Like themes, which are a sort of supercharged version of drive modes; you can link together your driving mode, your dashboard layout, even your radio station into different collections, then switch between them as conditions demand. Or, another example: should you need to adjust the lumbar support on fancier versions, no more fiddling with an arbitrary switch next to the seat-shaped door-mounted controls; instead, swipe to the correct screen, and you can adjust both intensity and position on a single graph by dragging a line around. It sound odd, but in person, it works freakishly well.
In case you're all swiped out after getting sucked into a Tinder trance, MBUX also makes use of an Alexa-like virtual assistant that, like Amazon's handy digital voice, is always patiently listening in the background, waiting on its cue to come to life with the magic words and perform handy tasks like adjusting the cabin temperature, changing the radio station, orb looking up topics and reading off their Wikipedia entries. (This works for all kinds of facts, as two journalists discovered when they asked it to look up a sex position. It complied quite graphically.) In this case, the key phrase is "Hey Mercedes," though leaving off the exclamation at the front will still elicit a response from the system. As our own Eric Adams pointed out after his first experience with it in the new A-Class, drivers are way less likely to be talking about their car than reviewers discussing the car in the front seats are, so owners probably won't be as bothered with it as we journalists are. That said, God help any GLE owners with daughters named "Mercedes."
That new infotainment system may be the centerpiece of the interior, but it's hardly the sole highlight. The GLE's guts have been redesigned to fit in with Mercedes's newer models like the E-, C-, and facelifted S-Class, with the same button-laced steering wheel, flowing lines, and color-shifting LED mood lighting. (One feature you won't see in those sedans, coupes, and cabrios: the GLE's beefy grab handles, mounted on either side of the center console as though it were a tiny pommel horse.) Opt for one of the designo interior packages, which bring higher-end trims and richer leathers, and it approaches the opulence levels you'd see in the aforementioned S-Class. But again, if you can't swing the tony version, don't sweat; even the base version's synthetic leather and low-end wood still looked and felt expensive enough for a midsized Mercedes, and the driver's seat was no less comfortable once my butt was parked in it.
While the new GLE isn't appreciably bigger than the previous version (which, in case you recall, started life as the last of the M-Classes) on the outside, it does have enough room for an optional third row of seats, last seen in the model in 2005. I didn't have a chance to "Tall Will" the third row, but I can report that the second row provided more than enough room for my long legs, even with a German who described himself as "almost one-ninety" sitting in the driver's seat. Assuming he was referring to his height in centimeters and not his weight in pounds, that's pretty impressive.
The exterior makes no attempt to hide its roots; the GLE-Class clearly draws its design from the same language as the new CLS- and A-Classes, while still maintaining plenty of M-Class DNA. Some details don't scale up as well as others; while the sweeping, fastback-ian rear and the inwardly-canted cabin over beefy flanks certainly look good, the headlights seem too small for the tall front fascia, especially on versions with the sporty AMG Line appearance package. But overall, it's a fine looking vehicle, sure to draw the occasional appreciative nod from the other parents waiting in the Montessori school pickup line.
And once again, when it comes to appearances, going cheap doesn't incur a penalty. The only visual difference between four- and six-cylinder GLE-Classes is the numbers on the chrome badge mounted on the rear hatch...unless, of course, it happens to be bouncing up and down.
If the GLE350 were truly a stripper model, it might be hard to endorse it. but Benz has loaded even the cheapest version of its midsized crossover up with plenty of content. In addition to the aforementioned MBUX infotainment system, every GLE comes with a pair of 12.3-inch screens (one for the IP, the other for the infotainment), LED headlights, Apple CarPlay (and, for the lame, Android Auto), a power-opening liftgate, a car-to-car and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication system, five USB ports—interestingly enough, all USB-C, although Mercedes product planners say the car should come with adapters for older USB-A cords—and a flock of safety features, including blind spot warning, pushbutton start, and the Pre-Safe system that effectively clenches up the car around you to protect the occupants in an accident, including by emitting a specific sound that braces the ears for the shattering sound of a crash.
Granted, Mercedes-Benz USA hadn't released the final prices as of this story's publication; without knowing the delta between the four- and six-cylinder models, or the price of all the options on the sheet, it's hard to definitely say that the GLE350 is the best bet. (The outgoing GLE-Class only offers a single non-AMG trim level as of November 2018, making a year-over-year comparison impossible.) But after a couple days of tooling around in both versions of the crossover that'll be available when the car launches in spring of next year...the four-cylinder version of this Benz is the one I'd drive home. And believe me, nobody's more surprised about that than I am.