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2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class Test Drive Review
The Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class returns for a “second” generation, sporting a full redesign that offers a roomier interior and the newest Mercedes tech.
Mercedes-Benz refers to the 2020 GLE-Class as a “second-generation model.” But savvy students of car culture will remember that the GLE-Class is actually a renamed M-Class, meaning this is actually a fourth-generation model that’s been in production since 1997. It has a legacy to uphold, and because of that, it’s just as quiet and comfortable as you’d expect. A longer wheelbase means more room inside, and the new MBUX infotainment system may be the best on the market. But this doesn’t mean the GLE-Class is walking away with all the laurels. Sharing a segment with the BMW X5—itself redesigned for 2019—means the GLE-Class is up against some tough competition. And with the usual luxury pricing structure in place, things can get expensive very easily.
Look and Feel
Visually, the 2020 edition is a smoother and less sculpted GLE-Class; all the lines have been softened, and most of the edges and scalloping have been removed. Perhaps that’s part of the reason its drag coefficient has dropped from .32 to .29 this year. While that’s not usually enough of a change to report on, Mercedes claims it’s enough to make it a class leader. But if you want to concentrate on more visible changes, the front end represents the most transformative contrast, and it’s definitely a good one. This is a handsome, if unoffensive, vehicle.
Inside, it’s more of the same. Things look good and feel good, too. There’s extra headroom this year, and thanks to a wheelbase that’s been extended 3.1 inches, there’s extra legroom as well. What’s more, that extra legroom means the GLE-Class can offer something no other midsize Mercedes SUV has ever had before: an optional third row. Mercedes claims adults up to 5’10” will be able to fit comfortably, but since my test GLE-Class didn’t come with the option, I’m going to file this under “trust but verify.”
One disturbing thing I noticed was that my tester's $720 Emerald Green Metallic paint showcased a surprising amount of orange-peel effect. This sort of imperfection is not something I want to look out for when I’m paying extra for special paint.
The GLE 350’s $53,700 starting price will get you a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. You can add Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel-drive system for an additional $2,500. From there, the price jumps rapidly. The purchase price of my test car included $1,620 for black leather upholstery, while $350 got me the Air Balance Package, which added a cabin air purifier and fragrance system that, honestly, I didn't like. For a few days, my passengers and I were laboring under the mistaken impression that the last person who drove this test car must’ve been quite liberal with cheap perfume, but it turned out the car was creating that smell itself. Otherwise, things were lovely inside the GLE-Class. The $1,100 multi-contour front seats had a massage feature. Strangely, however, heat and ventilation still needed to be added for another $450, not to mention power and memory for the passenger, which added another $350. To get the unique upper-door and dash trim, another $700 was added to the bill, and to make sure everyone in the cabin was equally comfortable, $580 got me heated rear seats, $380 added power rear-window blinds, and $760 meant 4-zone auto climate control.
As good as they looked, I didn’t feel the illuminated running boards were worth the extra $650, as they were too low and narrow to actually be useful, even for shorter passengers. That said, they did pair quite nicely with the optional $500, 19-inch wheels and the Emerald Green Metallic paint (despite the orange peel). One hundred eighty dollars for heated and cooled cupholders did seem a bit excessive, but they also worked like a charm. And the $550 soft-close doors added a bit of extra luxury that I honestly wish I didn’t have to pay for at this level. Finally, things were finished off with an upgraded Burmester stereo ($850), and “designo” black flamed, open-pore ash wood trim that looked quite smart for $850.
As daunting as that list seems, it’s just a sliver of the GLE’s options list. For $2,250, the Driver Assistance Package Plus adds all of the autonomous safety features, providing strong Level 2 autonomy, but it strangely doesn’t include the surround-view camera system, which costs another $400. An Advanced Lighting Package adds adaptive LED high beams for $900, while a Warmth & Comfort Package tacks on another $1,050 to the price, adding a quicker front-seat heating element as well as heat for the front armrests and upper-door panels, which seems a little excessive.
The $1,100 Acoustic Comfort Package seems well worth the expense, adding extra insulation and acoustic and infrared-absorbing film to the front windows and windshield. It works—this was one of the quieter cars I’ve tested. I’d save the $1,710 by not adding the optional Airmatic Suspension Package, however, as it made the vehicle feel too floaty, as if the wheels weren’t connected to the car properly. If technology is your target, start with the $1,850 Premium Package, which adds 64-color ambient lighting, wireless charging, a 115-volt outlet, six months of satellite radio, and an upgraded stereo. But the real meat is in the MBUX Technology Package for $1,600. This will get you the latest version of MBUX, a head-up display, augmented-reality navigation, and the MBUX interior assistant (Mercedes’ version of Alexa/Siri).
All told, with a $995 Delivery & Destination fee, my tester had a walkaway price of $78,370.
The GLE 350 uses a version of the turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine Mercedes-Benz has installed in the A-Class sedan. It features the lovely little twin-scroll turbo with some significant changes. Most notable would be the power output: 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, as opposed to 188 hp and 221 lb-ft in the A-Class. That’s a significant upgrade, and at speed, the GLE 350 has more than enough power—enough that I’d say upgrading to the GLE 450’s inline 6-cylinder isn’t really necessary. But from a stop, the 4-cylinder can feel quite sluggish, with moments of disappointing turbo lag. Now, I’ve heard the argument that this is intentional, that it's part of Mercedes-Benz’s design to create a controlled, relaxed experience during acceleration. That sounds questionable at best. The more likely explanation is that the GLE 350 weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. That’s a lot of work for a little 2.0-liter engine, twin-scroll turbo or not.
Unfortunately, the start-stop system in the GLE-Class is possibly the most inelegant of any car I’ve tested. I’ve contacted Mercedes-Benz for comment on that issue: Actual production models are supposed to be better, but I can comment only on the pre-production vehicle I tested.
And that’s a shame because I really like this engine. Other than the lack of oomph from a stop, it’s smooth, powerful, and sounds great. The 9-speed automatic is nowhere near as nice as the 8-speed in the BMW X5, but it’s still pretty good. I just wish the shifts were smoother. This brings up another issue with the GLE-Class. At the 350 4Matic's starting price of just $56,200 before destination, it’s quite competitive, landing about four grand less than the X5. But the X5 comes standard with a turbocharged inline-6 rather than a 4-cylinder, and the difference is noticeable (especially from a stop). While the improvements in the all-wheel-drive (AWD) GLE 350’s fuel economy are impressive—coming out with 19 mpg city, 26 highway, 22 combined—the X5 does it one better around town at 20, with a lot more power, too.
Form and Function
For me, the extra 3 inches in its wheelbase make the biggest difference inside the GLE-Class, especially in the back. I don’t remember the last time I sat in a midsize crossover that was so spacious in the second row. Depending on the options you choose, the GLE-Class offers between 33.3 and 39.3 cubic feet behind the second row, with a total of 79.4 available with the seats lowered.
The interior's new layout is quite striking, dominated as it is by dual 12.3-inch screens. We’ll talk more about this in the technology section, but for me, they’re setting the standard for dash design and customizability. We’ve still got a long way to go, and I look forward to the day when we start to consolidate and simplify our tech so that two footlong screens and a head-up display (HUD) aren’t necessary. But this is a nice jump forward from where we were five years ago. To its credit, the HUD is comprehensive enough that you can largely ignore the screens.
Seats are comfortable, though I had trouble finding a good position for the lumbar support. For longer drives, Mercedes employs a “Seat Kinetics” system that subtly adjusts your seating position periodically to prevent cramping and pressure points. I didn’t notice this working, but I also didn’t notice any substantial discomfort, so perhaps it’s working as intended.
Special note should be taken of the steering wheel. It’s nice and chunky and feels great in the hands. But I found it to be in the wrong position, always blocking some part of the screen no matter where I put it. I wonder if shorter drivers would experience the same issue. I had to constantly dip, duck, and dive my head to see the whole screen.
My tester's upgraded Burmester stereo provided some very nice sound, which was helped by the Acoustic Package. But no matter how low I turned down the bass, I got some pretty substantial vibration through the brake pedal. I thought it was mechanical until I noticed it was timed with the music. Frustrating.
And then there’s the technology. The 2020 GLE-Class boasts the new MBUX infotainment system, and it’s a delight. We covered this extensively in our review of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class; there’s a lot to get excited about here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a deep and daunting system at first glance, but if it were easy and familiar, it wouldn’t be new. And I know they’re controversial, but I love these steering-wheel controls. Once you get used to them, they become second nature. And I’m not taking my eyes off the road to use them, which I feel is important. The driver-assistance tech is better here, too. It’s still too wonky to rely on at speed—it gets confused too easily and constantly fights you—but it’s better than what BMW is offering. And gesture control here actually works, too.
These two giant 12.3-inch screens are the face of all this tech, and they're the biggest interior difference from the outgoing model. Combined with the HUD, it’s a huge change. It's a good one, too, allowing for options like augmented reality, which offers directions and traffic signals. It’s really, really cool, and it’s really, really distracting. For my money, I’d concentrate on the HUD instead, because it’s fantastic. And when future technology allows cars to communicate with the surrounding infrastructure, the GLE-Class is already set up for it.
But as I said, there are problems. The new, more natural voice control Mercedes now offers as a competitor to Siri and Alexa is pretty great. I loved it in the A-Class, and again, I urge you to check out that review for some in-depth demonstration. But here, it just doesn’t work as well, and I’m not sure why. Contacting Mercedes, the answer again was that this is a pre-production vehicle, and the manufacturer assures me that the versions you’ll find at the dealerships will not have this issue.
There is no current testing data available for the 2020 Mercedes Benz GLE-Class from the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), but with such an impressive suite of autonomous safety systems available, it's going to be hard to get into trouble. And, as a luxury car, there are systems available that you won't find on your usual crossover. For example, Attention Assist monitors your eye contact and head position to anticipate when you might be getting tired and starting to doze. Features like the aforementioned Seat Kinetics will make slight adjustments to your seating position over longer drives in an effort to ward off cramping and fatigue.
But it's not all great news, unfortunately. Even with the full suite of safety features—adaptive cruise, auto braking, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-keep assist—you can still encounter problems. At low speeds, the car can handle itself pretty much wholly. You'll find yourself needing to put your hands on the wheel simply because the car wants to make sure you're still paying attention, rather than because it needs your input. But at speed, things quickly get much less elegant. The car bounces around the lane rather than tracking straight, and it will fight you if you try to help keep it on a steady course. In fact, I'm surprised I didn't get pulled over for how much my car was swaying around the lane. It can also get fooled by things like shadows in the road or an unexpected line during merging situations. For this reason, I stopped using the system at high speeds after a few hours. I simply found it too frustrating and unpredictable.
At $56,200, the GLE 350 4Matic represents a great deal in the category, especially when you consider that its most direct competitor—the BMW X5—starts thousands of dollars higher. But toss in those options packages and you can easily get the GLE’s sticker past 80 grand without even upgrading to the GLE 450, not to mention the high-powered AMG versions. On top of that, as I mentioned before, the X5 starts out with a bigger, smoother, more powerful, and more efficient engine. While the tech in the Mercedes certainly bests the BMW’s, it’s still not refined enough for me to call it a deciding factor. Pick your poison, as always, but for me, the X5 seems the better choice at this point.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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