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Saturday, March 24, 2018

2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE Class Review

2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE Class Review
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Performance, plug-in, or pedestrian: there’s a 2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE for almost every luxury-SUV buyer.

The 2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE skips the off-road pretense and luxury opulence for a family-first mission.

With the GLE, Mercedes has crafted an American-built answer to the likes of the Acura MDX and the Ford Explorer. The GLE is one of Benz’ best-sellers, and a quick survey of its size, its powertrains, its safety record, and its lavish features demonstrate why that continues to be true, two decades after it was launched as the M-Class.


Whether it’s a base GLE 350, a plug-in hybrid GLE 550e, or a powerful AMG GLE43 or GLE63, the mid-size Mercedes SUV offers abundant choice, for $53,000 and up.

First, it offers a choice between a conventional wagon body and a sloped-roof Coupe—their words, not ours. In either case, the GLE’s chunky grille, massive M-B star (lit if you like by LEDs) and its pronounced fenders place it visually in the crossover-SUV realm. Coupes have a more sleek roof that elongates the body but cut into usable space; we prefer the wagon, we’re not wastrels. In either body, a lavishly trimmed cabin still has an unfortunately fragile-looking digital display atop the dash, and doesn’t quite have the waterfall of beauty found inside a GLC SUV or any of Benz’ bigger sedans.

Performance runs from bright to wicked. The base GLE 350 sports a 302-horsepower V-6 and a 7-speed automatic with more than adequate responsiveness. A plug-in hybrid teams a V-6 with motors and batteries for much quicker acceleration and 5.3-second 0-60 mph times. The AMGs hit 60 mph in less than five seconds; in GLE63 S trim, there’s 577 hp on tap through a 7-speed automatic and all-wheel drive. Non-AMG editions have friendly handling and a soothing ride that relaxes even more with available air springs; the AMG editions tighten their road-motion screws and deliver unflappable handling that’s close to the sterling manners of a Cayenne Turbo.

Five adults can fit in the GLE-Class, but four will be much happier. The seats in AMG models improve on base trucks, thanks to stiffer bolsters. Mercedes puts leather and a power passenger seat on the options list, a somewhat breathtaking move considering the base price of the GLE. The rear seats recline for road-trip comfort, and cargo space is very good, though it suffers in Coupes for one obvious reason: that roof.

Safety scores aren’t complete but are already great. The GLE’s better with a bundle of safety options that include surround-view cameras and blind-spot monitors. Likewise, its base equipment is fairly complete, but aside from the optional leather and power passenger seat, you’ll also have to pay a stiff tariff for a package that bundles Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Despite their flaws, those infotainment interfaces are much easier to use than Mercedes’ COMAND system, with its non-touchscreen and its multitude of equally unimpressive input paths (voice, handwriting, roller-controller).

Styling
Handsome in wagon or fastback bodies, the 2018 Mercedes GLE wears an urbane SUV look.

The basic M-Class silhouette is still there, but the 2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE has fresher details that still knit together into a refined, somewhat car-like look.

We give it a point above average both for its exterior and its interior, with some credit for the more daring low-roof model—Coupe, in Mercedes-think.

Updated for the 2016 model year, the latest Benz GLE has an emphatically styled front end with a chunky grille, a big three-pointed star logo (illuminated, if you want, for some extra money) and more sculpted front fenders.

From there, the SUV and Coupe body styles diverge. The SUV has metal side steps and big wheels that dress up its traditional wagon body. It has a formal, somewhat generic rear end, with rectangular exhaust outlets and LED lighting. The Coupe, meanwhile, has a French-curved roofline that drops quickly toward a small spoiler at the tail. The Coupe’s rear fenders have more organic sculpting than the SUV, too. It’s still an SUV, albeit one with a fastback flair.

Inside, the GLE-Class hasn't dramatically changed since it was called the M-Class. The latest freshened models have some details that align it more with the Mercedes sedans. Freestanding infotainment screens, revamped sport seats, and newly styled, somewhat smaller steering wheels all help establish a somewhat sportier ambiance for the lineup.

The center console houses the COMAND controller with the touchpad fitted above in an optimum ergonomic position, and the trim options include carbon fiber, wood and synthetic leather.

Performance
The 2018 Mercedes GLE escapes its family-wagon orbit in its astonishingly capable AMG trims.

From plug-in hybrid form to street-storming AMG editions, the 2018 Mercedes GLE-Class has performance bandwidth to burn. The plethora of powertrains and its well-isolated ride earn a 7 here.

GLEs with the traditional SUV body can be fitted with a base powertrain. Under the GLE 350 badge, Mercedes fits a 3.5-liter V-6 with 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Good for 0-60 mph times of about 7.5 seconds, the smooth and quick GLE 350 sends power to either the rear or all four wheels through a 7-speed automatic with paddle shift controls.

The SUV body also can host a plug-in hybrid model. In the GLE 550e, Mercedes takes the V-6 and adds electric motors and lithium-ion batteries for a total of 436 hp and as much as 19 miles of electric-only driving. The GLE 550e offers four driving modes in all, with special programs to charge the battery and one to conserve the 8.8-kwh battery pack’s power. On a 220-volt charger, refilling the batteries takes about two hours.

Strong in its own right, the GLE 550e doesn’t feel as coordinated as the other GLEs. It requires a drive-mode selection of Sport to make the most of its substantial 479 lb-ft of torque. Still, the GLE 550e’s 0-60 mph time of 5.3 seconds is excellent for a vehicle with this much weight to move.

The GLE SUV and the GLE Coupe can be built out by AMG, of course. Things get interesting with the GLE43, which adopts a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 with 385 hp (up 23 hp this year) and 384 lb-ft of torque. Power shifts through a 9-speed automatic to all four wheels. It’s a flawless performer than can reach 60 mph from a standstill in 5.6 seconds.

At the top of the GLE lineup is the GLE63 and GLE63S. Their twin-turbo V-8 produces an eye-watering 550 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque–or 577 and 561 in the S version. Those numbers are good for acceleration as quick as 4.1 seconds to 60 mph, and for a top speed of 155 mph. Straight-line acceleration is brilliant, if slightly less outrageous than a Cayenne Turbo.

The all-wheel-drive system found on the GLE has different settings, depending on the model. The 4Matic system is set at an initial torque split of 50:50 on most GLEs, but AMG versions have a slight rear bias of 40:60. Both systems can split power almost entirely to the rear wheels for better traction. With it, the GLE can tow up to 7,200 pounds.

Ride and handling
In the GLE, Individual, Comfort, Slippery, Sport and Sport+ modes are configured for the best traction in that given situation, with modes now controlling steering, powertrain, and in some cases suspension settings, as well as engine sounds.

We’ve driven the range of GLE SUVs as they’ve rolled out in the current generation. As a group, they’re decently rugged—a cabin trail, a groomed backwoods path—but impress us far more as on-road wagons. Base GLEs with the steel-coil suspension and 6-cylinder engines have the slightly stiff ride we expect in an SUV, but most models now come at least with adaptive dampers, if not air springs as well.

There's a rather wide difference between modes with the available air suspension and adaptive damping system. Although Comfort provides more of a traditional luxury-car ride, Sport allows a crisper feel at turn-in, with only a slight bit more harshness.

Steering tends to involve more small adjustments than we’d like in Comfort mode, while Sport mode actually feels settled and more relaxed.

Performance-oriented AMG models add a Sport+ mode to shake up any ride home from school. On those AMGs there’s even an active anti-roll system that pushes down against the cornering forces that build on individual wheels. The result is exceptional roadholding for such a large, tall vehicle, though there’s some busy motion left in the suspension, and more tramlining with the AMG editions’ large tires.

Comfort & Quality
Useful in either body style, the 2018 Benz GLE has a refined cockpit and lots of adult space.

With its great interior space and finish, the Mercedes GLE merits a 9 on our comfort and quality scale.

We give it extra points almost all around, but it’s not quite up to carrying three people in the back seat, no matter what the spec sheet says.

The front seats in the GLE are softly contoured and supportive. On base models—even on the GLE43—you’ll have to pay for a power-adjustable passenger seat. Leather’s an option on base models too; the synthetic leather’s popular on Benz’s SUVs, and it doesn’t look much different from the real material.  On AMG models, the bolsters grow thicker and the number of adjustment angles increases. On all the driver and front passenger have all the head and leg room they need, and the consoles and door panels have plenty of small-item storage.
The second row can’t quite accommodate three adults across, but tall passengers will have no problem getting in and finding a comfortable seat. The rear seatbacks recline for long-distance comfort. There's space for taller adults in the second row, too, although getting three across isn’t completely comfortable.

The GLE SUV has more than 38 cubic feet of cargo space behind them, and a total of 80.3 cubic feet behind the front seats on the standard SUV body.

GLE Coupes have a lower roofline, and still have decent leg room. Head room suffers, of course; 6-foot-tall back-seat passengers will feel the pinch, or at least will make contact with the headliner.

Coupe models have 23 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row, but still offer a pretty low, long, and wide flat cargo floor. The space still has plenty of utility. Unless you stack stuff to the roof on a regular basis, the cut in functionality isn’t so desperate that you’ll have to buy a Sprinter as a second vehicle.

On all GLEs, the level of refinement is uniformly high, with low wind and road noise. Some of the higher-end trims are like those found in the S-Class. The main flaw in the cabin sits on the dash: the current GLE has an infotainment display that looks fragile in its dash-top mount.

Safety
The NHTSA hasn’t offered its opinion on the 2018 Mercedes GLE, but all other data is resoundingly good.

The NHTSA hasn’t crash-tested the latest Mercedes GLE, but others have. So far, the results, and its safety features, are outstanding.

The IIHS calls the GLE a Top Safety Pick, thanks to "Good" scores in every category, as well as advanced safety systems that the agency dubs "Superior." That set of gear includes blind-spot monitors, active lane control, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warnings with automatic emergency braking. Aside from the latter, those features are optional on some models, standard on the priciest models.

A rearview camera is standard on the GLE, while a surround-view camera system is an option.

Features
With the GLE, Mercedes slathers on some of its finest features but leather’s still an option on base versions.

The Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class marks the intersection of Happy Meals and Hermes.

Sold in two body styles, and as an AMG or as a plug-in hybrid along with a standard drivetrain, the GLE earns an 8 out of 10 on our features scale for its standard and optional features and its customization opportunities.

With a base price in the mid-$50,000 range, the 2018 GLE 350 has standard power features, synthetic leather upholstery, Bluetooth, a power driver seat, a power liftgate, a power sunroof, dual-zone climate control, 19-inch wheels, and a rearview camera with an 8.0-inch infotainment display.

The standard audio system includes a USB port, Bluetooth audio streaming, and still has a CD player. On the options list are Harman Kardon and Bang & Olufsen systems with onboard audio storage and HD radio.

Options include leather, navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a panoramic roof, heated and ventilated front seats, a power front passenger seat, heated rear seats, rear-seat DVD entertainment, an illuminated logo, and surround-view cameras.

Mercedes’ COMAND navigation system still needs a rethink. It’s been refined over the years, but the futzy roller-controller, non-touchscreen interface turns instructions into a series of whirls and clicks that separate driver vision from on-screen display from console-mounted interface. There’s also a capacitive pad that accepts handwritten input. In theory it’s less distracting, but in practice, it takes a long time to learn how to use it. There’s less distraction by using alternative voice commands, or by just avoiding some functions. That’s not good UI design, and base GLE 350s don’t come with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as standard.

On that note, Mercedes groups some features in pricey packages. To get CarPlay, you have to spend $3,050 on a group that includes navigation, keyless ignition, satellite radio, and more. Our features score here reflects the gadgets you can buy—but know going in that they’re sometimes bundled in expensive, inconvenient ways.

The plug-in hybrid GLE 550e takes the base equipment and adds adaptive dampers, air springs, active roll stabilization, better sound, navigation, leather, and the safety technology bundle mentioned above.

AMG versions—the “Coupe” and SUV—get sport seats, an AMG steering wheel, badging, and aluminum trim.

Fuel Economy
The Mercedes-Benz GLE 550e is the economy champ of its family.

With its range of plug-in hybrids and high-powered turbo engines, the Mercedes-Benz GLE earns a score of 6 on our green scale.

The base GLE 350 draws power from a V-6 engine. In tandem with a 7-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive, its most recent EPA ratings peg it at 18 mpg city, 23 highway, 20 combined. With all-wheel drive, the same vehicle checks in at 18/22/19 mpg.

The Mercedes-AMG GLE43 has a turbocharged V-6 and a 9-speed automatic. Its EPA ratings sit at 17/23/19 mpg.

At the top of the range, the Mercedes-AMG GLE63 and GLE63 S earn EPA ratings of 14/18/15 mpg.

The most efficient Benz GLE is the GLE550e plug-in hybrid, which the EPA has rated at 21 mpg combined. It’s capable of 21 miles of electric-only driving.

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