The Mercedes-Benz M-Class was a trailblazer of the large SUV category when it was launched in 1997, and it inspired everyone from Audi (Q7) to Volvo (XC90) to introduce luxury dirt-duellers of their own.
Having sold more than 2-million units worldwide thus far, the all-terrain Benz has arrived in SA in its latest fourth-generation iteration, albeit now wearing the GLE badge that was introduced in 2016 as part of Mercedes’ new naming convention. If you’re a little rusty on how that works, the GLE sits above the compact GLA and the midsized GLC in Merc’s SUV line-up, and below the supersized GLS, while the boxy Gelandewagen fills its own niche as the adventurous iconoclast of the family.
Behind the large three-pointed star on the new GLE’s grille is an SUV that is reborn with new styling and a host of innovations, driver assistance systems that further increase safety, and an interior that’s more spacious and comfortable — with a third seat row available on request.
The infotainment system lays on larger screens and introduces gesture control which detects hand and arm movements to assist with control functions.
The GLE initially goes on sale in two diesel derivatives and one petrol model, all offered in 4Matic all-wheel drive. The six-cylinder 3.0l petrol engine in the GLE 450 is electrified with 48V technology and produces 270kW and 500Nm of torque, with a further 250Nm available via EQ Boost over short periods. The integrated starter/alternator is responsible for hybrid functions such as EQ Boost or energy recuperation, while allowing fuel savings.
Installed in the GLE 400 d is a six-cylinder 3.0 turbo diesel that sends 243kW and 700Nm to all four wheels.
Also available at launch is the four-cylinder GLE 300 d 4MATIC with 180kW and 500Nm on offer from its 2.0 turbo diesel engine.
All variants shift power to the wheels via 9G-Tronic automatic transmissions. In the GLE 300 d the 4Matic all-wheel drive is transmitted in a fixed 50/50 front to rear ratio, while the two six-cylinder models have an electronically controlled multidisc clutch that allows a variable transfer of drive torque from 0-100% between the axles.
For owners wishing to do some real trailblazing, optionally available is an off-road transfer case which offers low range and an automatic locking effect.
The GLE is equipped with the latest generation of the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) multimedia system. As standard it includes a large screen cockpit as 31.2 cm screens arranged next to each other for a widescreen digital scene that comes straight out of sci-fi movies.
The new, optional MBUX Interior Assist also allows intuitive operation of various functions by movement recognition. Move your hand towards the touchscreen or the touchpad on the centre console and the media display changes and individual elements are highlighted.
A feature of MBUX is its learning capability thanks to artificial intelligence. With its predictive functions, MBUX can anticipate the driver's wishes, for instance a regularly used navigation destination.
The new GLE has a considerably longer wheelbase than its predecessor which has created a lot more interior space, with legroom in the second seat row increasing by 69mm. As an optional extra, the second-row seats can be electrically adjustable.
The luggage capacity is up to 825l behind the rear seats, and up to 2,055l when the second row is folded down. A 72mm increase in through-loading width allows bulky items to be stowed more easily.
At extra cost, larger families can opt for a folding third seat row which provides two extra seats, and an easy entry function that allows passengers to reach the rearmost seats without squeezing.
Styling-wise the new GLE adopts a more powerful facade with its upright octagonal grille, the prominent chrome-plated underguard and bonnet with two power domes. The striking visage is emphasised by a distinctive headlamp design by day and night, and optionally available are Multibeam LED headlamps with a particularly long-range beam of light.
Improved aerodynamics accompany the more purposeful design, and the Cd figure has reduced from 0.32 to a segment-best 0.29 as a way of keeping fuel bills down. The body structure of the new GLE is about 20% more torsionally rigid than the previous model’s, providing benefits to both driving refinement and handling agility.
An optional E-Active body control package independently regulates the suspension at each wheel, preventing excessive body roll during cornering and also keeping the vehicle level under hard acceleration or braking.
E-Active also has the technical wizardry to "bounce" the vehicle out of sand or mud in case it gets stuck.
The new GLE debuts latest-generation driving assistance systems including Active Distance Assist Distronic with route-based speed adaptation. With this feature the vehicle is able to respond to LiveTraffic info — ideally before the driver or the radar and camera sensors detect the hold-up or hazard. When a traffic jam is detected, the vehicle’s speed is reduced to about 100 km/h as a precaution, unless the driver decides otherwise.
Once the tailback dissolves, the GLE accelerates back up to the set speed. The system also automatically sets the vehicle to the signposted speed limit, unless the driver chooses to override it.
There are also functions that help you avoid hitting cars in your blind spot, and a self-steering function that keeps the GLE in its lane. There’s also a new function which comes into play when the driver intends to turn across the oncoming lane: if the driver fails to spot oncoming traffic due to their view being blocked, the GLE can autonomously brake.
The innovations continue with a smart windscreen wiper/washing system called Magic Vision Control that saves washer fluid by precisely metering the fluid according to ambient temperature and road speed. The automated procedure distributes warm washer fluid onto the windscreen along the entire length of the wiper blades using channels and hoses.