Long about 22 years ago as a young automotive journalist, I attended my first-ever Mercedes-Benz drive program in Huntsville, Alabama, the media launch event for an import luxury SUV. Back then, the idea itself of the “lux-u-vee” was new to Americans, and only three of note were offered anywhere: Land Rover’s Range Rover, which was seen as quirky and cantankerous (which it was) and two trucky Americans: the GMC Yukon Denali and the Lincoln Navigator, both having only been around for a year or two themselves. Suddenly, Mercedes-Benz—a company known mostly for its stoic sedans and chichi ragtops—was building trucks. In Alabama, no less. And the mid-size ML-Class was born.
Much has happened during the 22 years since. Obviously, luxury SUVs are no longer novelties, having proliferated beyond anyone’s expectations. Mercedes-Benz now offers seven of them. The M-Class remains among them, though it was rechristened “GLE-Class” in 2015 when the previous third-generation model got a facelift, and it got a slant-back coupe version around the same time. Now, with some 2,000,000 sold worldwide to date, the little old lux-u-vee from Tuscaloosa has been completely redesigned.
Among my other recollections of driving the M-Class in Alabama in 1997 is that it drove better than it looked. Well, that was then. In 2020 GLE guise, the GLE-Class drives better than ever, but its looks have caught up, too.
While the overall proportions and key styling elements are similar, including its draping C-pillar (the thick window post between the rear doors and the cargo area) and the clamshell hood with twin hood bulges, the edges and corners have been rounded off for a less angular yet stronger-looking appearance. Precise detailing within each nonetheless add personality and refinement in equal measure, particularly the all-LED head-and taillamp units with distinct new light signatures. A choice of classy monochromatic or more rugged “off-road” looks are available, the latter featuring prominent metallic skid plates curling beneath the front and rear bumpers, plus black overfenders and a trisected, eight-sided grille while others feature a wider-looking, six-sided grille with a glitzy arrangement of chrome dots orbiting the Three-Pointed Star. Customers may further specify darkened window trim and roof rack bars in lieu of chrome while an array of wheel designs from 19 to 22 inches in diameter fill out the wheel wells.
Familiar as it looks, one might be surprised to learn that the GLE-Class is five inches longer and an inch wider than before, its newfound size affording it a stouter stance and enough room for an occasional use/kids-only third-row seat, while setting a new aerodynamic standard, too, Owners of previous GLE- or ML-Class models should expect a slightly tighter squeeze in the garage.
Considering the exterior’s subtle but effective evolution, one may not be prepared for the interior’s revolution. Indeed, the GLE has traded one of Mercedes’ most dated cabins for one of its most modern and decadent, not only increasing in terms of passenger and cargo space but in sophistication and comfort as well. What struck me first as I plopped myself into the front seat was the sheer elegance, and the material quality is par excellence.
Several hours in two different GLEs—one with aluminum and standard leather upholstery and a “designo” interior with brown Nappa leather and open-pore wood, the latter clearly more sumptuous and equipped with many extras like heated armrests, massage functions and “seat kinetics” that make minute adjustments in the seat cushion “to support changes in posture”—left me impressed that the non-designo model’s material quality and ambience came so close to the fancy version. The dashboard’s calming arrangement of clean, horizontal forms and the new MBUX touchscreen and touchpad interface combine ergonomic simplicity with aesthetic appeal. Within the horizontal plank of glass floating about half an inch off the upper dashboard is a pair of 12.3-inch high-res screens, the leftmost containing the multi-configurable gauge cluster with four distinct themes while the right side displays audio, navigation, climate and off-road system information, plus numerous app-based functions, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. My favorite feature is the navigation system’s use of arrows superimposed upon real-time images from the forward-facing camera to direct drivers exactly where they should direct their vehicle, though the semi-autonomous drive system—Mercedes’ most advanced yet—may appeal most to the techies in your life.
Modern Mercedes-Benzes tend to elicit a constant spicket of praise from me when it comes to dynamics, and the new GLE deserves plenty of that, too, starting with its powertrains. A 6-cylinder engine remains available, now a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 in the GLE450 with uncanny smoothness and formidable 369 horsepower, but the base motor is now a 255-hp 4-cylinder that helps the new ute accelerate briskly enough, if not as urgently as GLE450. Both are aided and abetted by a 9-speed automatic transmission.
Four-cylinder models are available with rear-wheel drive only or all-wheel drive while the GLE450 comes standard with all wheels driven. The base model’s suspension seemed more natural and composed than the fully active, road-scanning, bump-erasing hydro-pneumatic suspension found in my GLE450 tester, which offered too little feel and less predictable steering response than I expected. Fortunately, one may leave that box unchecked and save $8,100 in the process, though it should be noted that the powerful 48-volt electrical system that comes with it makes another 21 horsepower available to the engine during acceleration, specifically helping to get the turbochargers spinning more quickly, reducing lag. So there’s that.
The GLE-Class is on sale now, with base prices starting around $57K for the GLE350 and $62K for the GLE450. Redesigned AMG versions are expected to arrive over a year from now to coax sportier types out of another $10K-$50K, but as far as this once and future trailblazer is concerned, the new GLE-Class is plenty impressive. You know, for a truck.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class
Base price (not including destination/delivery): $56,200
Body style: 5-door, 5- or 7-passenger SUV
Power: 255-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder (GLE350); 369-hp 6-cylinder (GLE450)
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Drive wheels: Rear or all
EPA fuel economy, MPG (city/highway): 19/26 (GLE350), 19/24 (GLE450)