2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S Review: Do We Even Need Sports Sedans Anymore?

A heretical question—until you get behind the wheel of the righteous AMG GLE.

Jonathon Klein

Earlier this month, my wife’s uncle called me up with a question I’m asked all the time: “Which car should I buy?” He wants a sports sedan, something that can handle tarmac and a bit of snow, under a healthy budget cap. The candidates aren't surprising: Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrafolgio, Mercedes-AMG C63 S, or a BMW M3. Knowing he's not a masochist, I advised he skip the Alfa. The new BMW M3 isn't here yet. That leaves the throaty snarl, good looks, and superb available Burmester audio of the AMG—obviously, get the C63 S.

Looking back, though, I need to change my answer. The real pick is still an AMG, but a slightly bigger one the lords and ladies of Affalterbacht have only just cooked up. The next time a Snowpocalypse hits and he needs to get going in a hurry, he's going to want a 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S to brave the storm. Heresy? No. Just the truth about how good AMG's getting at making fast SUVs.

Mercedes-Benz

The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $113,950
  • Powertrain: 4.0-liter Twin-turbocharged V8 | 9-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower(EQ-Boost): 603 horsepower @ 5,750-6,500 rpm (624 hp)
  • Torque(EQ-Boost): 627 pound-feet of torque @ 2,500-4,500 rpm (811 lb-ft)
  • 0-60 MPH: 3.7-seconds
  • Passenger Capacity: 5
  • The Promise: You don’t need a sports sedan anymore.
  • The Delivery: You don’t need a sports sedan anymore.
Jonathon Klein

A Mercedes-AMG is Still a Mercedes-Benz

In Mercedes-Benz’s world, the GLE replaced the ML SUV in 2015 and features a roughly similar exterior to that of its predecessor, though updated with a more modern look. The GLE 63 S heats the formula up with more aggression and bulges. Got it? Good, moving on. 

Inside the 4-door, 5-passenger SUV, it’s everything you’d want from a $100,000 Mercedes-AMG. Gorgeously upholstered, the leather seats—both front and rear—are Oberweis creamy. Up front, the sport seats are well-bolstered, if a little on the tight side for everyday jaunts into town. And due to the SUV’s large upright greenhouse, there’s plenty of room for full-size adults in the rear in both the leg and headroom departments. 

Jonathon Klein

Carried over from the standard GLE is the MBUX infotainment center, which can be controlled either by touch, a host of physical buttons that sprawl across the dash and steering wheel, or the trackpad that replaces Mercedes’ old rotary controller. The system isn’t as seamless as I’d like, as the controller is sensitive and often skips around when you’re searching for something. Neither are the headlining categories intuitive to what they control, but after a few hours behind the wheel, I got used to it. You can also just save yourself the headache and plug in your phone for CarPlay or Auto. 

Mercedes says the GLE 63 S also gets a new steering wheel design, but it’s little more than two extra strakes angled toward the base of the wheel—Porsche likely recognizes the pattern... 

As I hinted above, the optional 3D Burmester system is a must-buy. Few audio systems sound as crisp, clear, or as close to a track’s master as the Burmester. Even difficult, heavily produced songs that routinely show the failings of lesser systems, such as Justice’s Canon, sound impeccable. I could’ve listened to it all day.   

Jonathon Klein

The Nub, Part Deux

One interior issue that plagues the GLE 63 S, which also plagued the 2020 Cadillac CT5-V I recently reviewed, is a small, nubby protuberance on lower dash next to the steering column, located at the perfect height to dig into my right knee-cap. In the Mercedes, it houses the SUV’s starter button and my undying despise toward whoever thought its placement was fine. What, I ask you, was wrong with the starter button at a normal height on the dash? My complaints end there, though. 

And while the interior and exterior remain committed to Mercedes-Benz’s heritage of luxury, its powertrain looks to the future—even if it's still rocking a V8. 

Jonathon Klein

Cyberpunk 2021

The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S is propelled by Mercedes-AMG’s now-ubiquitous twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 engine—it’s in everything from AMG GT Rs to SUVs and even Aston Martins—making a healthy 603 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque here. Sixty is breached in 3.7 seconds and an electronic governor pegs the top speed to just 174—how slow. 

Like its more pedestrian GLE stablemates, the AMG runs on the Modular High Architecture (MHA) chassis, the first Mercedes-Benz to do so. Light (for its class) and adaptable, the sharp driving dynamics it helps produce make it an engineering accomplishment in its own right. But what really left me in awe is the futuristic 48V mild-hybrid technology baked into every facet of the GLE 63 S.

Other manufacturers are content with marrying internal combustion engines with electric systems to either decrease fuel consumption or increase power. Mercedes figured it could have its cake and eat it too. The result is a 48-volt hybrid system that increases power and efficiency and removes the need for a starter motor and runs the company's hugely impressive E-Active Body Control system—bringing active air shocks, electronic dampers and sway bars, four-wheel steer, and active engine mounts.

Jonathon Klein

The resulting EQ-Boost ability momentarily increases the GLE 63 S’s numbers to 624 horsepower and a Mein Gott! 811 pound-feet of torque. As for E-Active Body Control, what can't it do? Mercedes-AMG’s dynamics wizards have been able to kill all unwanted squat, pitch, roll, and yaw movements through a complicated dance between the variable chassis and suspension system. E-Active Body Control dampers can stiffen or slack individual wheels upon corner entry, loosen springs for rough rutted roads, couple and decouple its sway bars automatically with imperceptible speed depending on the forces detected, enable the all-wheel steer to increase grip and cornering, keep the motor happy and positioned perfectly through the active engine mounts, and lean the entire car toward the apex of a turn, just like a motorcyclist would. 

Reduced to a single sentence, E-Active Body Control ensures the GLE 63 S corners as flat as the C63 S, but does so carrying an additional thousand or so pounds—official curb weight numbers are still being validated. In practice, it’s utterly eerie to push an SUV to its perceived limits only to be informed that you’re a chicken, you’re nowhere close, put your foot back into the gas, and there’s so, so much more to eke out from the GLE 63 S. Its prowess in an unlikely form is almost enough to make you wonder whether our planet’s immutable physical laws can actually be changed. 

Mercedes-Benz

Faster and Faster

To present the GLE 63 S’s case for revolutionary science, Mercedes chose a very specific road in Malibu, California. Some of you may have heard of Latigo Canyon Road: 9.2 miles of twisting, writhing, coiled-cobra pavement climbing over 1,981 feet from its base at the Pacific Coast Highway to its terminus over the Santa Monica Mountains. There are 166 turns, many of which are hairpins, others off-camber high-speed wailers, and some strewn with gravel and debris from the crumbling rock face. There’s also zero runoff. Latigo is a road built for the minuscule Mazda Miata, not a GLE 63 S. Or so I thought.

Jonathon Klein

Magical Totems 

Dropped into Sport+, the second most aggressive setting in the SUV’s repertoire, just behind Race, the steering firms up, the engine and transmission goes into attack mode, and the E-Active Body Control is primed for full agro attack. Ten seconds into Latigo, I want to change Mercedes-Benz’s corporate motto, “The Best or Nothing.” My proposition? Hunter S. Thompson’s line “Faster and Faster Until the Thrill of Speed Overcomes the Fear of Death.” 

I’m in this hulking great blue SUV, confined to what feels like the world’s tightest road. I have over 600 horsepower underneath my right foot and even more torque. It weighs at least two metric tons and has a center of gravity located on my fourth-floor apartment. This should be the preface to my obituary, yet once the turns start flowing, the GLE 63 S falls into an unmissable rhythm with the road.

However fast your eyes can process a curve is the speed at which it can corner. Turn-in is immediate and violent. I’d like more communication through the wheel as to what exactly the Yokohama Advan Sport A/S+ tires are doing (via a little more resistance, maybe), but it isn’t as numb as some electric power steering systems. And through it all, there’s barely an iota of body roll, dive, or heave which is actually kind of unnerving to behold in a vehicle that large. Mercedes-AMG deserves a standing ovation.

Jonathon Klein

And don’t get me wrong, the twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 is a devourer of worlds. Point, shoot, turn, repeat. You’ll floor it so much that even with the hybrid system working to counter your lead foot, the GLE 63 S will still run out of fuel long before you'll want to peel your right foot off the pinned throttle.

Thankfully, the brakes are more than enough to bring you back to your senses and legal speeds. Like other AMGs, the GLE 63 S’s brakes can either be stood on late for those brave of heart, or finessed for trail-braking deep toward a turn’s apex. A combination of both seems to be the best way to push it, though that might be the GLE 63 S’s all-wheel steering keeping everything sorted and making me, and everyone else who buys it, look like a hero.

Being such a razor’s edge sports car, however, is only half of the equation. It still needs to be a Mercedes-Benz SUV, a keeper of luxury and class. As such, equally impressive is how the GLE 63 S works just pootling along. And I hate to sound like a broken record here, but again that’s largely thanks to the E-Active Body Control. The suspension constantly adapts to the road ahead, while with the sway bars able to uncouple themselves, the ride quality is staggeringly good along rough and pothole-scattered pavement, especially considering how firm and flat it feels in a fast bend.

Even the raging hybrid drivetrain calms down enough to burble around town without the obviously repressed anger of some performance cars. Like other GLEs, the 63 S can switch to Sand, Snow, Eco, and Normal modes to better adapt to all situations, changing ride heights, engine characteristics, suspension softness, engine sound, etc. It’s really the whole package. 

Jonathon Klein

Do We Need Sports Sedans Anymore?

Recently, I tested Audi’s 2020 RS Q8 on comparatively sketchy roads. In my review, I said Audi’s go-fast RS department was making the best of a bad situation, i.e. building a fast SUV for the consumer-driven SUV craze. But Mercedes-AMG isn’t doing that. It isn’t building something to make the best of a bad situation, biding its time until it can make more E63s. Rather, it’s built an AMG that just so happens to be an SUV; by comparison, the GLE 63 S makes the Audi look like a soapbox racer. 

Starting at $113,950, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S is not what most humans would call cheap, affordable, or even pretty expensive. It’s really expensive. But for the segment it plays in (Audi RS Q8, BMW X5M, Aston Martin DBX, Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus), it’s priced to sell and is the second-best deal, only being beaten out by the marginally cheaper $105,100 BMW X5M—stay tuned, though, our review of the 2020 BMW X5M hits next week. 

Not long ago, I’d have laughed in derision toward super SUVs. In a world that delivered the Lotus Exige, why would anyone want a three-ton behemoth to play on winding canyon roads? But now, after feeling first-hand what is possible when some of the best engineers on the planet put their racing knowledge toward making an SUV awesome, maybe we don’t need sports sedans anymore? Oh God, what have I said?

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