First Drive: 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe

You don't need to talk with many of the roughly 2,500 people who live on Fogo Island to find someone who has spent time away from this tiny piece of rock off the northeast corner of Newfoundland. It seems to be a rite of passage here: go elsewhere to "find yourself," discover you actually left most of yourself behind, and move back to get reacquainted.

That's what Zita Cobb did. After growing up one of seven kids in a house with no electricity or running water, she left to get a business degree at Ottawa's Carleton University and later made millions as an executive in that city's high-tech scene. Like so many Islanders before her, she came home, using her wealth to establish both the Shorefast Foundation, which runs a micro-lending program to help local business initiatives, and the Fogo Island Arts Corporation.

The most visible part of the Foundation (and its biggest moneymaker, we'd guess) is the Fogo Island Inn, a five-star, high-end hotel whose modern architecture stands in stark contrast to the rocky landscape, simple homes, and fishing stages that dot the shoreline. Since 2012, the hotel has catered to wealthy tourists who can afford nightly rates that start at $875 – likely the same people Mercedes-Benz hopes will spend seventy grand and change on its new GLE Coupe, a rakish design that competes in the oxymoronically-named sport utility coupe segment. This slice of the new-vehicle marketplace now claims a population as sparse as Fogo Island: this Benz, and a forthcoming compact GLC Coupe, the BMW X4 and X6, and Infiniti's QX70. The X6 and QX70 are the cars against which Mercedes says the GLE Coupe will compete for buyers.

Just as the hotel stands out on its tiny island home, so do high-end vehicles like this new Mercedes.

Just as the hotel stands out on its tiny island home, so do high-end vehicles like this new Mercedes. One local resident we spoke to said people on Fogo tend to live simply, evinced by the predominance of pickup trucks, compact cars and small crossovers. So an upscale crossover is a bit of a sight here, especially when its visuals are dominated by a massive three-pointed star up front and the GLE's significant bustle at the rear.

Mercedes-Benz Canada offers the GLE Coupe (which is on sale now) in three trims: the diesel-powered GLE 350d is the base model ($72,300); a GLE 450 AMG, using a turbocharged 3.0L gasoline V6, is the next step up, priced at $77,600; and topping the range at $116,500 is the AMG GLE 63 S, powered by a 5.5L turbocharged V8 good for 577 hp and 561 lb-ft of torque. The former two share Benz's new nine-speed automatic transmission, while the AMG version uses a seven-speed dual-clutch auto; all three engine/transmission combos get 4MATIC all-wheel drive, but the AMG version's default torque split is 40:60 (front:rear), while the others do it 50:50. (Some AMG-related notes: other markets get a less-potent, non-S AMG 63 version, but Mercedes-Benz Canada decided to keep it simple; and the 450 AMG is not a true AMG model.)

While we normally feel a diesel is ideal in a heavy SUV, it feels out of place in the GLE Coupe. There's a wall of torque down low (its 457 lb-ft peaks at 1,600 rpm), but its 249 hp doesn't feel like much at higher engine speeds. The GLE 450's power – 362 hp and 384 lb-ft – is more evenly distributed throughout its speed range and that, plus the V8-esque exhaust note, give the GLE Coupe's performance the attitude to match its extroverted looks.

Benz didn't bring any AMG models to Fogo, which is just as well: the island's two-lane roads would have been no place for that much power, so we'll tell you all about it when Benz sends us one for a regular week-long test drive. AMG or not, shy drivers need not apply: this is a substantial car that would barely blend into downtown Toronto traffic, never mind the winding two-lanes of this fantasy world of an island.

Substantial in more ways than one: on the road, the GLE Coupe's 2,250-kg curb weight is obvious. Handling is crisp, but those wide tires and the firm suspension work hard to control body motions.

All GLE Coupes get Benz's 'dynamic select' drive mode system, whose rotary knob spins between 'comfort,' sport,' 'slippery,' and 'individual' to alter throttle, steering, and transmission response. In 350d models with the optional sport package, this controller also works on the suspension, stiffening things up in sport mode. GLE 450 and 63 S trims get the air suspension as standard, and add a 'sport+' setting that bumps drivetrain response up another notch. With the pneumatic suspenders, sport lowers the car by 15 mm, sport+ drops it another 10 mm, and an off-road mode standard in all GLE Coupes raises the ride height well above comfort mode's setting for added ground clearance.

Sport and sport+ modes will be too firm for some drivers (including us), and that's where individual mode comes in, allowing a picky driver to adjust certain parameters. Our perfect setup was comfort for suspension plus sport for throttle, steering, and transmission, which brings more aggressive throttle response from a stop, and commands the transmission to hold gears longer and downshift more eagerly in highway passing moves.

Both 350d and 450 models can be kitted out with an 'intelligent drive' package that piles on safety features like adaptive cruise control with steering assist, blind spot assist and active lane keeping assist. Using cruise activates a steering assist function that effectively drives the car autonomously for short distances, until it senses you've let go of the wheel and prompts you to take back control.

Even with hands on the steering wheel making minute steering adjustments, you'll feel the active steering system tugging here and there to adjust the car's line when it senses you're veering too close to either side of your lane. 

We preferred that to the lane keeping assist system, which defaults to on every time the car is started. If the car drifts too close to the edge of a lane, it activates the brakes on the opposite side to guide the car back to the centre. Fair enough, but if you're squeezing over to make room for a vehicle stopped on the shoulder, the car then corrects and effectively points you at exactly what you're trying to avoid. Activating the turn signal disables it temporarily, and it can be turned off for the duration of a drive.

Just as the 450's turbo six-cylinder takes the place of a thirstier V8, so is the nine-speed auto here to help save fuel, which it does by upshifting as early as possible in acceleration, making use of the generous torque generated by all of the GLE's motors. While we suppose that's responsible engineering, both 350d and 450 models were much more satisfying to drive when their drivetrains were dialed in to one of the sport modes.

GLE 450 models can be optioned with active curve assist, whose electronically controlled sway bars reduce body roll on paved roads, but allow more suspension travel in off-road driving.

If you do stick with comfort mode's more laid-back performance settings, Benz says you can expect fuel consumption on the order of 10.4/8.2 L/100 km (city/highway) with the diesel, and 13.6/10.2 in 450 trim; we drove both engines on The Rock, and saw highway averages (according to the cars' trip computers) of around 9.5 L/100 km in the 350d, and in the low-11.0 L/100 km range in the GLE 450.

Cars like the GLE Coupe are lifestyle vehicles, which obviously trade some of the standard GLE's practicality for more attention-getting styling. Benz says its target buyer is a trendsetting man or woman in their late-30s to mid-50s, who lives an active, healthy lifestyle, and is "at the pinnacle of their career."

Pricing: 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE Class

Mercedes-Benz GLE 350d 4MATIC:
$63,200
Mercedes-Benz GLE 400 4MATIC:
$63,800
Mercedes-Benz GLE 550 4MATIC:
$81,100
Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S 4MATIC:
$113,700

While the GLE Coupe's 650 litres of cargo space (which expands to 1,720 with the rear seats folded) is flexible enough to accommodate that active lifestyle, rear seat space suffers for the car's rakish roofline. Headroom back there is best suited to kids and small adults, though legroom is equal to that in the more upright GLE crossover.

Knocks against the Coupe's practicality are the high cargo lift-over (which is not helped by leaving the car in off-road mode), and the lack of a rear wiper on the nearly-horizontal rear window, which compounds already so-so rearward visibility in foul weather.

This is not likely to be a big seller for Benz in Canada: BMW sold fewer than 900 X6s last year, and Infiniti moved half that many QX70s. Mercedes didn't talk sales projections, but we'd say they'd do well to sell 1,100 of this new model in 12 months, which would put one GLE Coupe on the road for every example of the less-expensive, more practical GLE crossover.

Mercedes-Benz would probably call that success for a vehicle intended less for mass consumption than as a 'halo' model for its busy crossover business, conceived to draw in shoppers more likely to go home with one of the brand's more conservative models.

Zita Cobb proved that even in the smallest places, there's room for at least one person to stand out. Mercedes-Benz may achieve something similar in the sport utility coupe segment: diesel power makes it stand out against its key rival from BMW, and its design continues Benz's trend of expanding beyond its comfort zone of sedans and staid SUVs.

The GLE Coupe may not make as big an impact on the marketplace as Cobb did on the place where she grew up, but regardless of how its newest model fares, Mercedes-Benz will learn a little about itself – and its customers – along the way.

You don't need to talk with many of the roughly 2,500 people who live on Fogo Island to find someone who has spent time away from this... 10/16/2015 10:30:52 AM