The Mercedes GLE offers two options – a traditional wagon and a more overt coupe.
Mercedes Benz is on a product roll yet is only now just starting to seriously address the sports utility sector that already reaps rich reward for Audi and BMW.
The medium GLC has huge potential but won’t fully impact until 2016, so for the remainder of 2105 the large GLE - the new designation for what used to be the M-Class (and, before that, the ML) – is on point for taking the fight to its Benz’s rivals.
It’s not to be taken lightly, solely tip the balance, especially since Benz now has all bases covered, not only with a wide range of engines – from category-favoured diesel to a roaring AMG V8 – but also with ‘both’ kinds of bodyshape.
In addition to continuing with its GLE five-door, five-seater wagon priced from $104,900 to $205,900, Stuttgart has entered a niche until now occupied solely by BMW.
Mercedes’ X6-countering GLE Coupe, occupying the $139,900 to $210,000 zone, is to the same recipe as its main rival; it shares – as X6 does with X5 - a platform, drivetrains and major interior components with the GLE wagon but repackages to overt, more flamboyant body shape.
How will it do? Modestly, of course, if X6 sales figures are any barometer. That just 21 of the BMWs were registered nationally in 2014 suggests Kiwis are quite reserved about this sort of vehicle, so its surprising Benz feels the market condition can support three derivatives of its own offer.
An entry 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 350d turbodiesel that costs $15,000 over its wagon equivalent (admittedly, that’s not just for a shape change as the spec is also higher) starts off.
There are also two AMG petrols, a biturbo V6 450 and the 63 flagship with a nutsy and always deep-throated, often bellowing 5.5-litre V8, kitting identically to its equal in the more family-friendly shape but with a $4100 premium.
The engines span across a 2143cc four-cylinder turbodiesel for the wagon making maximum power of 150kW at 3800rpm and maximum torque of 500Nm at 1600-1800rpm, plus a 2987cc six-cylinder turbodiesel (maximum power 190kW@3400rpm, maximum torque 620Nm@ 1600rpm). The petrol V6 choice is a 2996 direct injection turbocharged unit making 245kW at 5250-6000rpm and 480Nm at 1600-4000rpm in the wagon and 270kW at 5500-6000rpm and 520N at 1800-4000rpm in the Coupe. The wagon also takes a 4663cc direct injection biturbo V8 with 320kW at 5250rpm and 700Nm at 1800-4000rpm. The AMG engine, a 5461cc direct injection biturbo V8 petrol, creates a stupendous 430kW at 5500rpm and 760Nm at 1750-5250rpm.
Fuel and economy runs from 6.0 litres per 100km for the GLE 250d, 6.6 (GLE 350d), 9.3 (GLE400), 9.4 (GLE 450 coupe), 11 (GLE500) and 11.8 (AMG 63) litres per 100km. The fuel tank capacity is 93 litres.
Drive in all models is to all four wheels; the sixes taking the latest nine-speed automatic while the top AMG, because of its huge torque loadings, stays with a seven-speed.
How different is the GLE Coupe really to an X6? A lot … and not so much. Styling-wise, Benz has produced another road-bound giant bug. The Coupe has a lower, more sloping roofline than the standard GLE and has a more rounded design to it too.
It’s not an X6 clone but the silhouette similarity became all too apparent when we by chance parked our car behind the latest version of the BMW while unloading at the airport. The BMW driver pretended not to notice what had pulled up behind, but we weren’t so coy. The tails and noses are a bit different and the Benz, undoubtedly because its designers were working with the benefit of hindsight, have managed a smoother-looking shape. But, overall, they’re big and equally divisive. There’s never any dilly-dallying about cars like these. There’s no emotional in-between; you either love ‘em or hate them with equal passion.
It’s not just the look but also the limitations to practicality. Headroom is taken away by the lower roofline, and while Benz’s offer maintains an edge by having a larger boot than its fellow German rival, neither offers particularly friendly luggage space because, either way, the area is long and deep.
If you want to see where the Mercedes stands out as a newer car, look at the detailing and at the cockpit, which is superior in its look and ergonomic feel.
Mercedes’ suggestion of this being a sportscar-like SUV is also familiar but not misleading. There’s no ignoring the substance and bulk, yet the steering is sharp and accurate and ride comfort pretty good. Obviously the AMG 63 delivers extra firmness, but even broken surfaces aren’t all that unsettling.
The flagship is tangibly most playful; its huge rubber and special features such as a body roll-minimising active curve system, plus of course the incredibly punchy (and seriously loud) powertrain put it in a different category. That such nimbleness can be extracted from a 2.2-tonne titanic mass is impressive.
Those who want an easier life will likely find it with the GLE wagon, landing in five editions from a starter 250d whose four-cylinder diesel promises fuel consumption more appropriate to a small hatch.
GLE introduces a specification upgrade, with LED headlights with intelligent light system, driver assistance package, keyless start, power tailgate and navigation with touchpad all standard now. The 250d is alone in having man-made leather and 255/50 R19 tyres; everything else steps to cowhide and up to 285/40 R22 rubber.
All models get nine airbags, active cruise control with steering assist, stop and go pilot, PRESAFE, crosswind assist, active blind spot and lane keeping assists plus a fully electric trailer coupling with ESP stabilisation.
The dynamic handling control system delivers up to six different drive programmes, or seven if equipped with the optional Off-Road Engineering package.
Mercedes’ target is to become the world’s best-selling premium brand by 2020; clearly something of a challenge. It certainly has quality product, but is up against some tough opponents. You can bet Audi and BMW alone will not yield any ground easily. Volvo’s new XC90, though a rather different kind of choice, should also be taken seriously.
There’s no doubt that the Benz offer is very “German’ in its outlook. A Coupe that sets out to achieve as a sports model and a sports utility struggles, on first impression, to achieve either goal. However the less overt wagon remains a tasty proposition.
Either way, the models deliver what you need from a premium SUV, both in terms of comfort and finish. It’s another arrow in the sales quiver.