Engine woes are overblown
THE GOOD
  • 2.0L turbo motor
  • All-around spaciousness
  • Good value
THE BAD
  • Jarring ignition stop-start
  • Stiff and uncomfortable driver’s seat
  • Ventilated seats aren’t standard

The GLE-Class might not be the first name in Mercedes-Benz SUVs – that’s a title that undoubtedly belongs to its status-symbol sibling G-Class – but it’s certainly the brand’s best.

That’s a bold claim considering the other models this midsize sport utility shares space with on dealer lots, but it’s the GLE’s just-right approach to practically everything that makes it the gem of the lineup. And when it comes to the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350, you can add affordability to that list, too.

Power: 10/10

If I can level with you, dear reader, I was feeling a little on the pessimistic side heading into my week-long test of the GLE 350 based solely on what powers it. Having previously driven six- and eight-cylinder versions of this midsize Mercedes, the idea of a turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood was, well, less than appealing. However, I’m happy to report that I was wrong.

The 2.0L turbo nestled between the fenders might not look like much on paper – it generates 255 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque – but it can hold its own in practice, feeling far more stout than the numbers suggest. Unless you’re towing with any frequency, this four-cylinder is more than adequate, never feeling strained or overworked as it motivates the 2,140-kg (4,718-lb) GLE-Class.

Driving Feel: 8/10

The throttle even manages to feel snappy with a heavy foot applied to the pedal, while the nine-speed automatic transmission smoothly runs through gears most of the time. It might not sound like an outright powerhouse, but this 2.0L can pull hard when called upon. It’s only the ignition stop-start system that’s problematic, feeling particularly jarring on start-up. And then there’s the occasional rough shift at city speeds as the transmission sorts out what it wants to do.

The same is true of the suspension, which is fairly clunky and stiff at low speeds; think parking lots and puttering around downtown on a busy weekend. However, much like the transmission, it gets significantly better from there, negating the need for the optional air suspension that adds $2,450 to the price tag. The GLE-Class isn’t quite as smooth without it as its sedan counterpart, the E-Class; and the air suspension would unquestionably make the ride that much more supple. But the adaptive dampers do the trick and make this SUV a sultry long-haul cruiser.

The steering is also a highlight, with only a mild dead spot on-centre that doesn’t interfere with the sharp responsiveness that isn’t exactly commonplace in this segment of SUVs. It’s not go-kart quick like the amped-up Mercedes-AMG GLA 45, mind you, but this is a precise machine in spite of its size. Brake feel, too, is satisfyingly smooth and progressive, bringing the GLE 350 to a halt with confidence.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

It’s not that the GLE-Class is an especially large SUV, but moving any vehicle that tips the scales at more than 2,000 kg (4,409 lb) with a four-cylinder engine can be challenging. Beyond simply straining to move the mass, a downsized engine can do more harm than good at the pumps by having to work harder to complete the task at hand.

That’s simply not the case here, however, with the GLE 350 outperforming its official fuel consumption ratings during testing. Rated at a combined 10.8 L/100 km, the all-wheel-drive-only SUV managed to burn just 9.1 L/100 km during an initial evaluation drive spanning some 220 km spread across major and secondary highways, as well as some city roads, while the full week-long test finished at 10.0 L/100 km over some 810 km.

Value: 8/10

This entry-level GLE-Class starts at $69,900 before tax and freight – more than most premium sport utilities this size, but less than its rival X5 from BMW. Here’s another way to look at it: the GLE 450 and its straight six-cylinder is a $7,600 upgrade, bringing the asking price to $77,500. There are certainly merits to that motor, as I recently discovered while testing the E 450 sedan, but that’s a steep jump no matter how you slice it.

My tester, meanwhile, was topped up with enough extras to push the asking price to $79,000 – barely more than the starting price of the GLE 450. That’s certainly a tidy sum, yet it looks and feels every bit like the kind of family hauler you’d plunk down that kind of dough for. It’s also important to remember that you can easily spend much more making the GLE 350 your own.

Styling: 9/10

The GLE-Class in general might not stand out like the grinning and glinting GV80 from Genesis, with an understated approach to luxury instead. The Sport package ($1,500) applied to my tester may not bring with it all of the trappings of an AMG-tuned version, but it provides a sleek and stylish finish this SUV lacks on its own. The colour-matched wheel arch mouldings, stylish grille, and simple-yet-stunning five-spoke wheels make this one of the best-looking vehicles in the segment, playing off its proportions well and, more importantly, not looking too imposing.

Practicality: 10/10

The very size of the GLE-Class is among its most impressive attributes, with plenty of utility packed into its moderately sized footprint. While there’s a GLS-Class above it for those who need even more room, Mercedes has managed to maximize what this shorter version has to offer, with limo-like legroom in the second row and the option to add a third set of seats for $2,400 if required.

User Friendliness: 9/10

Since my tester did without the additional seating, all the space behind the second row was reserved for stuff. The 943 L is accessed through a wide opening that features a relatively low liftover height – handy for lugging heavy items into the back. Unfortunately, the back seats must be stowed manually, with levers on either side, but doing so results in 2,121 L. That’s similar to the slightly larger Ford Explorer, for those keeping score at home. And even though towing with this – or any – 2.0L doesn’t make my list of recommended activities, Mercedes says it’ll pull the same 3,500 kg (7,716 lb) as pricier six- and eight-cylinder models.

Like the hatch, the door openings themselves are large while the doors open nice and wide, requiring little more than a lateral motion to enter or exit. Once in the driver’s seat, outward visibility is about as good as it gets thanks to large windows all around. There’s also a great sense of control provided by the simplicity of the switchgear and the way most of it falls readily to hand.

Recessed in the dash rather than perched atop it is a 12.3-inch touchscreen display that’s crisp and bright, while input response is quick. However, that screen makes the touchpad on the console redundant, not to mention prone to accidental inputs (I can’t tell you how many times I mistakenly switched radio stations during testing).

Features: 9/10

If there was a complaint about the GLE’s infotainment system – aside from the redundant console controller, of course – it would be the way smartphone mirroring systems are called up on the display. On one hand, that both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay come standard should be celebrated considering they’re optional in most other Mercedes models I’ve tested. On the other hand, the shrunken format is disappointing, with dead space on either side that looks like you’re watching an old 4:3 aspect ratio DVD on a modern 16:9 flatscreen.

Otherwise, the GLE 350 is equipped with lots of good stuff even before diving into the options list. A panoramic sunroof, power-adjustable front seats with three-stage heat and a trio of memory settings, a heated steering wheel, temperature-controlled front cupholders, five USB-C ports, and a wireless phone charger. There’s also a built-in subscription-based Wi-Fi hotspot, satellite radio, and a navigation system with augmented reality functionality that overlays instructions on a live camera feed of the road ahead on the head unit.

Options added to my tester included a Premium pack ($3,200) made up of a surround-view camera system, foot-activated tailgate release, 13-speaker stereo, and self-parking system; a Premium Plus add-on ($1,200) that features upgraded front-seat heating, heated front armrests and door panels, and heated rear seats; and a Technology package ($2,400) that boats an outstanding head-up display, and upgraded exterior lighting.

Comfort: 8/10

That genuine leather upholstery isn’t standard fare in a $70,000 SUV would be a subject worth debating if it weren’t for how convincing the imitation stuff here looks and feels. (Yes, dear reader – it fooled me.) I’d be more concerned about paying for a $2,600 package in order to get ventilated front seats, though the silver lining is it also includes massage functions for both driver and passenger.

Despite being tricked by the imitation leather, I didn’t find the driver’s seat all that comfortable during testing. That’s not in keeping with the typical Mercedes experience, so I’m willing to chalk this up to a fluke, but the lower cushion was narrow and firm, leading to discomfort during long drives.

Safety: 8/10

Something else about my GLE-Class experience left me in pain, though it wasn’t the physical kind. No, it was the absence of much of the advanced safety and driver-assist goodies I experienced in the E-Class just a few weeks prior – features that would’ve rocketed this SUV up my list of preferred highway haulers.

Instead, it came equipped with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and a pre-collision system that can pre-emptively close the windows and tighten seatbelts before an impending crash, as well as nine airbags throughout the cabin. Shelling out another $3,000 adds extras like lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic.

The Verdict

Despite my pessimism heading into this test, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 managed to surprise me in a way not too many vehicles are capable of. Not that my expectations were low overall, but because of what’s under the hood.

But I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong, and it didn’t take long for me to change my mind about the 2.0L motor’s ability to motivate this midsize SUV. If you’re feeling apprehensive about the engine, here’s your official notice that there’s nothing to worry about.

So take the money you’ll save by skipping the GLE 450’s six-cylinder and spend it on the packages with the ventilated and massaging front seats, and the advanced driving aids. Trust me – you’ll thank me later.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $69,900
Peak Horsepower 255 hp @ 5,800–6,100 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 273 lb-ft @ 1,800–4,000 rpm   Destination Fee N/A
Fuel Economy 12.4 / 9.0 / 10.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $79,100
Cargo Space 943 / 2,121 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$9,100 – Premium Package, $3,200; Technology Package, $2,400; Sport Package, $1,500; Premium Plus Package, $1,200; Trailer Hitch, $800