The Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV has received a facelift for 2016, and it has also received a new set of identifying letters. Yes, the SUV formerly known as the ML is now called the GLE. Mercedes-Benz has consolidated the model names of its SUV line, so that all model names in the class now begin with a G. The GLA crossover occupies the bottom rung of the ladder, followed by the GLC (previously the GLK), the GLE, and the soon-to-be-released GLS (currently the GL). The mother of all SUVs, the G-Class, will continue to be simply called the G.
The new nomenclature is designed to simplify Mercedes’ model line, and you’ll notice that it now aligns with the German automaker’s cars: The A class (as in GLA) is at the bottom of the ladder, and it progresses through to the C class, E class and finally the S class.
Mercedes-Benz launched the new GLE in Germany and Austria, and we got a chance to drive several different models, including a forthcoming plug-in hybrid.
New name, same stellar performance
The GLE offers more interior room than the GLC, but is not as substantial in size, or price, as the larger GL, basically falling in the middle of Mercedes’ SUV line-up. There’s nothing drastic to report on the exterior changes; its mild facelift includes a new bumper and grille, new LED taillights and rear bumper, and it gets a minor interior makeover with new trim materials and colours.
The GLE’s functional exterior has fallen into a somewhat generic profile, and it blends into the urban landscape quite discreetly among other vehicles in its category, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though some distinction would be nice—it is, after all a Mercedes. Even the AMG versions are subdued, lacking the eye-catching flair of some of the performance firm’s sedans and coupes.
You’ll find the same powerplants under the hood as on the former ML model, with a 329-horsepower, 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 (which claims 362 hp in the GLE 450 AMG), a 429-horsepower twin-turbo V8 (which is boosted to 577 hp in the AMG GLE 63S), and the 249-horsepower, 3.0-litre V6 diesel, which produces a bountiful 457 lb-ft of peak torque. All gasoline engines still come with a 7-speed automatic transmission, while the diesel benefits from an all-new 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic.
The BlueTEC diesel was the most popular engine among ML-Class owners, with 85 percent of them choosing it over the gasoline options, and there’s no indication that this trend will cease with the GLE. It is a remarkably quiet engine, has plentiful low-end torque, and boasts great fuel economy, claiming just 6.9-7.2L/100 km (European specs).
Well rounded, well appointed
Standard on all models is the Dynamic Select switch, located on the centre console, allowing you to select from up to six drive modes depending on the model. Modes include Comfort, Sport, Slippery, Off Road and Individual, each mode tailoring steering effort, suspension height (with the Airmatic suspension), transmission shift points and engine mapping for different driving conditions.
Within the dashboard, a larger 20.3 cm COMAND screen now occupies the space in which the former 11.2 cm screen was located. This much larger screen now protrudes above the dash, looking very much like an added-on iPad, though its large size is a welcome change.
It’s relatively easy to navigate the various menus, though using the console-mounted controller with integrated touch pad does require some getting used to when making the desired selections. One annoying trait is the navigation system’s occasionally slow response, which sometimes causes confusion when approaching a turn-off point.
Engine performance is as expected in the 577-hp AMG GLE 63S: Depress the accelerator and prepare to sink into the driver’s seat. You’ll also be enthralled by the V8’s luscious exhaust rumble, which produces an intoxicating burble between gear changes. The 63S has a slightly harsher ride than the non-AMG versions, mostly due to its ultra-low profile 21-inch tires.
Like the majority of Canadian ML drivers, my preferred engine is the 3.0-litre V6 diesel. This engine is silky smooth, especially now that it is coupled to a nine-speed automatic, and it has more torque at low revs than the 3.0-litre turbo V6 gasoline engine. Previous experience in an ML 350d has revealed it is, indeed, very fuel efficient.
The GLE Coupe
The folks at Mercedes didn’t stop by simply refreshing and renaming the former ML model; they also introduced the GLE Coupe, with a sportier, arching roofline, à la BMW X6. It’s remarkable what a simple modification to the roofline has done to alter the appearance of the GLE, though there are other changes that also make it a distinct vehicle. It is 7.7 cm wider, 9.6 cm longer and 2.8 cm lower than the GLE, and it rolls on 20-inch wheels (GLE models roll on 17 to 19-inch wheels), though it shares the same 219.5 cm wheelbase.
It features the same engine availability as the GLE, but the 9-speed automatic is also available on the GLE 450 AMG. The sleeker styling comes at a small cost, however, and you lose 290 litres of cargo capacity compared to the GLE, for a total of 1,720 litres. The A pillars are sloped more rearward and do intrude into your side view more than in the GLE, but this is not a hindrance. What is a hindrance is the reduced rear visibility. The GLE models, however, have Mercedes-Benz’s excellent 360-degree camera, which gives a great top view of the vehicle in the central screen to help when backing up into tight spots.
Of course, all of the safety features and driver aids return, including active lane keeping, cross traffic assist, active cruise control, steer assist, blind spot assist, collision prevention assist, crosswind assist, and a multitude of other safety features.
GLE hybrid on the way
We had the brief opportunity to sample a GLE 500e plug-in hybrid also, and it can’t get here soon enough. The 500e uses a 333-horsepower, 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 and an 85 kW electric motor, for a combined output of 436 hp. There are several drive modes, including an all-electric E-mode that is good for a gas-free range of 39 km. We managed 38 km on a full charge before the engine came on, and the drive system proved seamless. Charge time using a 220-volt charger is two hours, making this a viable, low-consumption yet powerful SUV—once it is actually introduced. It will likely arrive within the next two years.
The M-Class has been around since 1998, and received its last makeover in 2012, and the renaming follows a mild refresh of the model. The bigger news is the introduction of the Coupe, which should reach out to a new set of customers, most of whom would probably have otherwise set their sights on the BMW X6. The new GLE is expected to arrive in showrooms in the third quarter of this year, with pricing to be announced closer to the delivery date.