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2021 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class Test Drive Review
The GLE has everything you never knew you wanted in a midsize SUV.
Redesigned for 2020, the GLE-Class is the second-most-popular Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. It's a midsize luxury SUV in every traditional sense, but because Mercedes has way too much time and money to develop cars, the newest GLE has comfort and technology that border on ridiculous. The GLE Coupe models are brand-new for 2021 and among the strangest vehicles on the planet. Among the eight variants of this big Benz, at least one might fit your lifestyle, if not your budget.
Look and Feel
The GLE-Class is an OK-looking vehicle. It's just adequate, at least to our eyes. The original ML in 1997 looked like a bread van compared to the svelte, hunkering presence of its rival, the BMW X5. Generations later, the GLE (renamed for 2016) still appears like a rushed homework assignment. The exterior has a promise of something great, like the aggressive nose with the sloping, low hood, and then gives up past the A-pillar, where it's almost indistinguishable from the old GLE. Flat taillights and a contoured rear help the GLE overcome its minivan tendencies, but let's be real. Mercedes bends over backward to style its sedans, coupes, wagons, and sports cars. They're stunning to behold. The car-based SUVs and crossovers—and there's five of them, not counting the coupe variants—don't have the pitch-perfect proportions of a BMW, Audi, Jaguar, or a (omg!) Lincoln. In AMG trim, the GLE puts a tracksuit on a body that can't really wear it. The full effect is good, yet it'll lose a staredown next to a BMW X5 M, Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Audi RS Q8, or a Range Rover Sport SVR. Gosh, look how pretty the Volvo XC90 is. The GLE? We love Mercedes, but we don't love the look of this Mercedes SUV.
However, Mercedes has made improvements to the GLE's interior and reworked the awkward, steroidal chunk of steel and glass it calls the GLE Coupe (that's what we tested). For 2021, that car gets a full redesign to match the normal GLE. It's much more streamlined and cohesive than the first generation. The interior is a masterpiece—in quality, layout, colors, and textures. Our car's red and black interior was louder than a fire truck and more palatial than any SUV from Porsche or Audi. The twin arching grab handles on the center console, outlined with LED lighting, are the tell-all for the GLE's purpose. They're thick and oversized, just like the headrests or the air vent grilles surrounding black screens measuring two feet across the dash. Wood, metal, leather, suede, plastic—it's all a delight to touch and operate, with the exception of the flimsy gear selector and turn signal stalks. A GLE in any configuration exudes a sense of pampering, but then again, so does the inside of a Kia Telluride. You'll need to option a GLE pretty high to feel rich.
Regardless of styling quibbles, the GLE excels as a multi-purpose airship. With all boxes checked, the GLE really is such a thing. Lots of Mercedes models use air suspensions and turbocharging. The GLE harnesses air in the most complex suspension and engine setup you'll find on any new SUV. There are five suspension configurations, and only the base GLE 350 uses an ordinary coil-sprung setup. This makes the most sense for reliability (nothing expensive to fail) and ride-handling balance (tuned for comfort). Opt for AIRMATIC on the GLE 450 and it features self-leveling air springs that adapt to the car's weight and even how it's parked on a slope. They feature adaptive dampers with several ride heights that raise during off-road mode or lower at highway speeds. That's neat, but the real tricks come on the AMG Ride Control+, a sport-tuned version of AIRMATIC, when it's paired with Roll Stabilization and the Active Curve system. These are anti-roll bars cut in half and spliced with electrohydraulic motors. They vary the spring rate of the front and rear anti-roll bars to change how the GLE leans around turns. Finally, there is E-Active Body Control, which can lean the GLE into turns, just like a motorcyclist would. This is the car world's craziest air suspension. It can change the spring rate, damping, and height for each wheel, independently, with yet more electrohydraulics. It can also bounce the entire vehicle like an L.A. lowrider in the effort, Mercedes claims, to free the GLE if it's ever stuck in sand. Uh-huh.
If that wasn't enough air, the AMG GLE 53 Coupe we tested has an electric supercharger integrated with the powertrain that forces air into the engine like a traditional supercharger or turbocharger but without using a belt or any exhaust gas to spool their turbines. Instead, an electric motor drives the turbine and spins it to max speed within milliseconds. This ensures instant throttle response without any lag. Sure the GLE 53 is quick, but it's not the shot-in-the-arm experience you'd expect. The conventional twin turbos on the eight-cylinder GLE 580 and AMG GLE 63 S will scare you to pieces.
What's more, every GLE except for the base GLE 350 is a hybrid. Between the engine and the nine-speed automatic transmission is an electric motor-generator that replaces the alternator, starter motor, and accessory belt drive. It's powered by a 48-volt battery on a secondary electrical circuit. The GLE's 12-volt system wouldn't have the power to do all those wild mechanical feats you just read about. It can provide up to 21 additional horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque for brief seconds, allow the engine to shut off more often and at higher speeds, plus it provides energy to power the air conditioning and all the other accessories normally driven by the engine. The auto stop-start system becomes seamless, and so does a cold start. There is virtually no vibration or shake when the engine cranks up. This doesn't mean the GLE works like a Prius. It can't drive away in electric mode, for example. It's just more aggressive in shutting down the engine while you coast and while stopping. Mostly, this hybrid setup does nothing for fuel-efficiency. We averaged 16 mpg in the AMG GLE 53 Coupe. The eight-cylinder GLE 580 is EPA-rated at 16 mpg city, 21 mpg highway, and 18 mpg combined. But the six-cylinder GLE 450 returns 21/26/23, which is slightly better than the four-cylinder GLE 350 4Matic's 19/26/22. Any way you look at it, the GLE's efficiency isn't better or worse than competitors.
The GLE 350 is the only GLE with rear-wheel drive, for the rare subset of SUV buyers who want that kind of thing. It's a lazy lump in a vehicle this large, with 255 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. 4Matic all-wheel drive is optional and standard on every other trim. The GLE 450 has a turbo 3.0-liter inline-six with 362 hp and 369 lb-ft. The AMG GLE 53 takes this engine to 429 hp and 384 lb-ft with the help of that second electric supercharger. The GLE 580 has a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 with 483 hp and 516 lb-ft. Finally, the GLE 63 S outdoes them all with 603 hp and 627 lb-ft. AMG models all feature AMG-tuned driving modes that fine-tune every last part of the car (including the stability control), variable torque split (instead of the standard 50:50) that can send up to 100 percent of torque to the silly wide tires. Lastly, there are massive brakes (with optional carbon-ceramics that are lighter and more heat-resistant) and crackling sport exhausts.
The driving experience is exceptional because this big heavy car dances around like it's a little sedan. All GLE models can tow up to 7700 pounds, which is also exceptional (a GMC Yukon maxes out at 8500, and that rig can't do anything but drive in a straight line). Ride quality? Amazing. Steering? Perfect. On non-AMG models, the GLE feels lazier and softer but still fully in control. That's the Benz way.
Form and Function
Most GLE models are roomy two-row SUVs unless ordered with the optional third-row, which allows seating for seven. It also affords second-row passengers in the outboard positions with power controls for recline, fore-aft, and the headrest. Pressing a button at either rear door will slide and fold the seats for easier access to the third row. The Coupe is only fit for five people, though unless you drew a short straw, don't sit in the middle. Cargo capacity behind the second row is 34 cubic feet. With all rows folded, it's 75. The Coupe is much shallower, with 23 and 61 cubic feet, respectively. The sloping roofline and slimmer windows constrict around rear passengers, making the space feel smaller than it is. The Coupe's rear doors don't open far and the openings are narrow because Mercedes fitted this vehicle with huge rear tires that belong on a city bus. Seriously—open the door and watch how the 22-inch wheels block your legs from a graceful exit.
Usability is much-improved thanks to the new MBUX infotainment that eliminates the clunky rotary/touchpad combo for a single touchpad and a simplified interface. Seat controls on the doors, rocker switches on the center console for the suspension, and on AMG models, shortcuts for driving modes on the steering wheel are all easy to use. Two thumbpads on the steering wheel are fussier (they press and also move in four directions, not always as intended). This is a car you'll need to set up in your driveway before heading out for that first drive. It's a lot less complicated than the previous GLE, but at the same time, it's unlike any other car.
The main 12-inch display is a touchscreen and equipped with Interior Assistant, it can read certain hand gestures. Point two fingers at the display, and a shortcut you program will appear (such as activating the seat massage, of which there are eight settings). Move your hand toward an icon on the home screen, and the icon magnifies in size. You can control the screen with the touchpad or the right thumbpad, and it really gets easier the more you use the system. There are no more submenus upon submenus buried within each category on the right-hand side. Instead, search bars and larger type help with features you'll want to change (such as live traffic or the stereo tuning). The AMG models have a Track Pace app that acts as a virtual pit crew and as a GPS lap timer (it has a bank of saved race tracks, such as Laguna Seca, and also can learn the layout of new tracks). The Seat Kinetics will make small adjustments as you drive—a little recline, a slight rise in hip angle—and if you enter your height, the system will set the seat, mirrors, and steering wheel to what Mercedes considers ideal. There are perfume canisters, a mood-yoga-zen function called Energizing Comfort that plays weird spa music, heated armrests on the doors and center cubby, and bolsters that automatically inflate when you steer. Notice we haven't gotten past the front seats. This is how overengineered the GLE is.
The head-up display can be reconfigured in dozens of layouts, just as the instrument panel can with separate readouts for the left, center, and right portions of the screen. The displays are sharp and crisp. The ambient lighting has 64 colors, will flash blue if you lower the air temp on one side, and can cycle through animations like a gaming computer keyboard. The navigation can project the front camera feed and overlay arrows and street names to aid with directions. Along with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, there's a natural voice assistant that responds whenever you say "Mercedes" and will learn new commands the more she listens to you. Want to check a random fact on the web or have the car make fun of BMW? It will do it. The semi-automated functionality will change lanes and slow down for curves by itself. In short, the GLE can be equipped with more electronic nuggets than any of its customers will have the time or patience to fully grasp. It's overkill yet so well executed.
The 2020 GLE, which is identical to the 2021 model, earned the best Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for scoring the top ratings in six crash tests, for headlights, and for its standard forward emergency braking. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not rated the GLE. Blind-spot monitoring and a driver attention monitor are also standard. Adaptive cruise, lane-keeping, evasive steering assist, front cross-traffic braking, and the functionality of semi-automated control (including the ability to stop the car if the driver doesn't respond) are optional along with many other features like 360-degree cameras. Pre-Safe Sound is standard and plays a "pink noise" to reduce hearing damage in a crash. Pre-Safe Impulse Side is optional on higher trims and can inflate the side bolsters of the front seats to better position a person's body from a side impact. The brakes will prime the calipers closer to the discs if the driver suddenly lifts off the accelerator, the stability control can compensate for crosswinds, and much more.
The 2021 GLE 350 starts at an MSRP of $54,750 or $57,250 with 4Matic all-wheel drive. The GLE 450 is $62,500, the GLE 580 is $77,600, and the two AMG models start at $72,350 for the GLE 53 and $113,950 for the GLE 63 S. The GLE Coupe is offered in the same AMG trims for $76,500 and $116,000, respectively. Our AMG GLE 53 Coupe test car was $108,000 with destination. That's a lot of cash for even the nicest new cars. From a value and resale perspective, any GLE performs as poorly as other luxury competitors. You don't get a ton of luxury and performance features unless you start with an AMG, and even then they're hardly loaded. Other luxury SUVs like the Volvo XC90 pack more value and the BMW X5 more style. Few vehicles in the market are as technically sophisticated and lavishly appointed as the Mercedes GLE, and for that, you'll have to decide where your buck stops.
Clifford Atiyeh is a contributing editor at CarGurus who writes, hosts, and co-directs video reviews of the latest vehicles. He has reported and photographed for dozens of websites, magazines, and newspapers over a nearly 20-year journalism career, including Autoweek, the Boston Globe, and Car and Driver. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and runs a creative marketing consultancy.
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