First Drive: 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE and GLE Coupe

Thick fog blankets the distant mountain peaks, gentle rain glistens on the rounded rumps of the beast before me. Its rear section cuts down early, rounding off under the tail for an unusual and athletic stance. The subtle grey paint seems to both blend with the overcast backdrop and stand apart from it. You might miss it the first time, but not the second. The overwhelming atmosphere is one of intrigue – so this is the GLE Coupe then?

This style-first fastback design is sweeping the auto industry lately, and while there is a large and loud fleet of detractors, the things keep selling. BMW has almost had those buyers to itself with the X4 and X6, Acura barely making a dent with its short-lived ZDX, but now Mercedes-Benz has very much arrived on the scene.

The 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE is the replacement for the ML, and the GLE Coupe has been added to diversify the options. Big on style and now with a sportier focus than ever, the GLE still promises to deliver on the comfort front as well. There is a host of engines – diesel, gasoline and – if we’re really, really lucky in Canada – a plug-in hybrid too.

There’s a new gearbox with more gears – nine in total now – to cope with more power and more torque. The new coupe body profiles will share three of the available engines with the “regular” GLE: a diesel, a hyped-up gas engine and the raucous AMG 63 S powerplant.

The regular Mercedes-Benz trappings are all apparent. Things like rich, luxurious interior materials with plenty of dark, porous wood available, brushed aluminum and heavy-feeling switch gear. The large 8.0-inch infotainment screen has vibrant graphics and the instrument cluster is similarly detailed and elegant with a large TFT providing full-colour graphics in between the attractive conventional gauges.

The seats are beautifully quilted leather and look fantastic in white on black. All-black editions begin to look a little sombre until you open the panoramic sunroof cover. The stitched-leather steering wheel is thick and comfortable in your hands and the driving position high and commanding.

Out on the road there are Alpine-retreat levels of quiet and calm with the bare minimum intrusion of road noise, wind noise or engine noise. Touring the lush-green countryside, the grey mountains penetrating thick clouds in the distance, one finds oneself growing calm, peaceful even. This is my type of relaxation.

As I think those thoughts, I’m at the wheel of a 350d 4Matic, the diesel trim most Canadian GLEs will arrive in. There was a more raucous, aggressive 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE AMG 63 S underneath me earlier, scoffing as I toyed with the pedal that connected me to its 561 lb-ft, 585-hp 5.5L biturbo V8 - but more on that another day.

The diesel fitted here is a 3.0L V6 turbodiesel with 258 hp and 457 lb-ft of torque. It’s the least potent of the lineup but feels the nicest mated to the nine-speed 9G-Tronic transmission. This is an all-new transmission from Mercedes-Benz and feels a little poorly matched to the 400 4Matic I drove earlier in the day. Not to worry, that 333 hp/354 lb-ft twin-turbo V6 will be short-lived in Canada, replaced by the 450 AMG 4Matic, a 367 and 384 lb-ft tweak of the same engine.

We’ll also get the 550 4Matic, a 435 hp/516 lb-ft 4.6L bi-turbo V8 which wasn’t available to test on the launch event, and the AMG 63 S engine I spoke of earlier and will cover in greater detail later.

Those four engines will be available in the GLE, while the GLE Coupe will get just three of them, the 350d, 450 AMG 4Matic and Mercedes-AMG 63 S.

The plug-in hybrid I mentioned is a sensational drive train, but has not been confirmed for Canada yet – I say yet, because I expect it might makes its way down now that the Germans have grafted it to a 4Matic drive train.

Not one of those engines is underpowered. All have “sufficient” power for even the mountain climbs we’d be taking them on. The engines are smooth and refined, though in comparison to the 400 and the 63, the diesel felt a little sluggish waking up from the automatic stop/start at stop signs and traffic lights.

The 500e gets a combined output of 442 hp and 480 lb-ft from a V6 and electric motor with an electric-only range of 30 km and top speed of 130 km/h – and here’s where it gets exciting: Program a work or home destination into the GPS and the car’s computers use the GPS to optimize electric range and make sure you arrive at near-empty battery so you can plug it in and recharge through the work day or overnight. This maximizes your EV mode running time and makes the most of the battery power.

You can also control this manually with the Hybrid, Charge, Save or EV modes selected from a button on the centre stack. Hybrid mode operates like any other hybrid drive train, with the electric motor kicking in alongside the fuel engine as required.

Charge Mode will prevent the electric motor from coming on and will instead charge the battery, allowing you to save it for later in the drive if you know you’ll encounter hills or traffic.

Save Mode will maintain the current state of charge in the battery, using the fuel engine to recharge the battery any time the electric motor is called upon.

Electric mode will use the battery power only, no fuel engine. There is up to 30 km of range in EV mode and a top speed of 130 km/h. The accelerator pedal has a haptic feedback moment low in the pedal to help you identify when you're about to exceed EV mode's acceleration limits. If you push past this haptic feedback detent, the gas engine will kick into life. I was surprised by how much power I had available in pure EV mode.

I also enjoyed knowing exactly how much throttle was too much when I was trying to stay in EV mode. The drive information display is gorgeous too. I really, really hope Canada gets this drive train as it’s spectacular. The one caveat? The plug-in hybrid battery packs take about a foot and a half of height out of the cargo area, slashing cargo volume from 690 L (or 2,010 with the seats folded flat) to 480 and 1,800 L.

The Coupe roofline has a much smaller impact, dropping cargo space to 650 L and a maximum of 1,720 L.

At 5’6" I had no problem in the back seat, and even when raising myself up to walk across the back row to take photos found ample room; all but the tallest of passengers should be comfortable back there.

On the road the GLE rides best with the upgraded suspension. The 400 4Matic we sampled had the standard shocks and felt a little under-damped, particularly when on a twisty road. Jumping into the diesel edition with the optional multi-chamber Airmatic air suspension with ADS Plus adaptive damping system was a whole other story.

The upgraded suspension turns the GLE into an unflappable swan, gliding across the road surface without the slightest idea of bothering the occupants. The handling feels more compliant and the wheel provides just a little extra confidence in the hands – it’s a must-have upgrade for the car, especially in the Coupe form. The sportier look demands a sportier platform after all.

The 9G-Tronic transmission is a new addition and predictably requires a little fettling to make it perform quite to Mercedes-Benz's usual standards. These were pre-production models and we noticed a little hesitation and confusion from the box, particularly when connected to the 400.

More than once I experienced a hesitation changing between drive and reverse, including one occasion when I needed to do a three-point turn on a narrow road. All was clear as I started the turn, but by the time the GLE figured out I wanted reverse, the situation became suddenly less clear. With traffic approaching I stood on the gas – only for the gearbox to go into self-preservation mode and limit my ability to put the power to the ground. My calm was very much damaged.

Hiccups like that are frustrating in a car of this stature and take away from what is otherwise a calm, effortless and powerful driving experience, but not nearly as much as the Mercedes-Benz shift lever. The space-saving benefits of moving the gear selector to the steering column are lost on me. I find the effect aesthetically irritating – the shift lever simply looks cheap, and flimsy. This is one of the crucial controls for the whole car, it should have gravitas. The shift wand has no gravitas. Elsewhere in the Mercedes-Benz lineup, AMG models get a proper gear selector on the console, but not so here. Even the GLE 63 AMG has the limp-feeling stalk on the column.

Not only that, but as we frolicked over hill and dale we were confronted with ever-changing conditions. Not content to rely on the automatic wipers, I’d regularly move to turn them to a higher setting: only to put the car in neutral. This is disconcerting to say the least. It took me a full half day to break the habit. I know most owners will get used to it quickly, but let’s say you have multiple cars, or have family who borrow this one from time to time – it could become problematic.

The shift wand is nothing next to the Distronic Plus wand. It is completely impossible to understand what the functions of the wand are from the driver’s seat, it’s also too close to the steering-wheel position adjuster and the indicator stalk. I brushed it with my arm and accidentally put the car into Distronic mode as I turned on the fog lights, then spent the next three minutes wondering why the car would slow so dramatically every time I wanted to coast.

The system controlled by that little wand is excellent, however. It will steer the car within its lane and maintain a distance to the car in front all the way down to a full stop but won’t drive the car for you. In fact, after about 30 seconds of zero input from the driver warnings flash, beeps go off and the system stops working. You can bring it back online with just a light tap of the steering wheel. Or so I hear.

Driving aids include blind-spot assist, active lane-keeping assist and the usual host of safety warning aids. AMG models get Sport+, Sport, Comfort, Slippery and Individual drive modes, while non-AMG units get Sport, Comfort, Slippery and Individual. When fitted with the optional air suspension Sport+ will lower AMG models by 25 mm.

Off-road types can purchase the optional Off-Road Engineering Package, which adds a differential lock, some underbody protection and additional ground clearance courtesy of the Airmatic suspension and automatic damping system. It also adds additional displays in the dash which show the incline and bank angle of the car – as well as views on all four sides of the car courtesy of 360-degrees worth of camera.

The off-road package gives you the option to select two different stages of off-road readiness, including a simulated low-range transfer case and a differential lock.

I scoffed at the concept of taking a GLE off road in a serious way, which made my German hosts angry. I know this, because within minutes I was dangling perilously over the edge of a cliff I had no real desire to attempt to drive down. As I peered over the bonnet into an abyss of blue sky my co-driver must have heard me whimper. Because he pressed a button and suddenly the world below me was unveiled in the camera screen on the dashboard. There, in high-definition glory was the wet, muddy ramp I was about to drive down.

We saw numbers as high as 67 percent on the incline meter on the way down – but the German driving instructor told me the car could easily do 80 percent. On this day though, the rain, mud and about 100 unskilled and ego-driven journalists conspired to make that endeavour a folly. I supported his decision.

I could have handled them also taking out the bank angle test too. I saw 31 percent on the dial before I wussed out and turn back down off the sand bank – my amused passenger said it wouldn’t have rolled until about 37 or 38. Small comfort that.

Needless to say, the experience gave me a newfound respect for the capability of this GLE. If I had a cabin at the end of a large, rutted cliff I could confidently get there in one I think. I wouldn’t, of course, because I’d be too scared, but I could. And that’s what counts.

Not only for its camera, I enjoyed the large infotainment screen for its excellent graphics and it is positioned perfectly for the driver to view quickly when on the move. Some of the menus are a little convoluted but the large puck-style controller fitted to the GLE is well-sized and heavy enough to makes its operation easy. Above that puck-style dial and partially obscuring it, a touchpad with some pseudo buttons, similar to the three buttons at the bottom of your Android phone , which bring up audio menu options in a little fly out in the bottom fifth of the main screen. This, plus the regular hard buttons around the centre stack and console make for a system that is easy to use on the fly.

The standard eight-speaker audio system is rich, full and powerful but true audiophiles may want to upgrade to the Bang & Olufsen system, complete with high-art inspired tweeters in the A-pillar. You can also add rear-seat entertainment screens and a DVD player.

And that’s a good example of how versatile this GLE range is. On the one hand, you can have an aggressive, track-ready animal that feels like you’re driving a roid-raging bull and entertains the driver with seat-pinning acceleration. On the other, you can have an ultra-smooth, hyper-modern luxury cruise ship for the highway, complete with on-board entertainment, powered by either efficient diesel combustion or free-flowing electrons in hybrid guise.

The GLE-Class is also hitting the coupe segment hot on the heels of BMW’s success with its diverse portfolio of SUVs and unsurprisingly is taking a similar approach.

It traverses a gauntlet of form and function with its conventional and boxy GLE version and the ultra-stylized coupe version all the while flirting with just about every type of powertrain imaginable.

It’s like Mercedes-Benz threw up a deck of cards labelled Size, Power, Comfort, Style and Economy and said “pick any four”.

The GLE-Class is expected to land in fourth quarter of 2015. Pricing is yet to be announced but is rumoured to be on par with the outgoing ML class.

GLE SUV
GLE 350d 4MATIC
GLE 400 4MATIC (Will be replaced by the GLE 450 AMG Sport 4MATIC starting February)
GLE 550 4MATIC
Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S 4MATIC
 
GLE COUPE
GLE 350d 4MATIC Coupe
GLE 450 AMG Sport 4MATIC Coupe
Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S 4MATIC Coupe
Thick fog blankets the distant mountain peaks, gentle rain glistens on the rounded rumps of the beast before me. 7/23/2015 10:26:35 AM