2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE400 4MATIC
Mercedes has euthanized the M-class. Sort of. At least the name is dead. Last year, the third-generation M-class, a.k.a. the ML, was redecorated and rechristened the GLE.
The M-class name was worth shedding. Mercedes-Benz’s M-class SUV always seemed like a sop to the U.S. market. Almost two decades ago, it arrived as an amorphous blob on 16-inch wheels that was developed reluctantly and marketed half-sincerely with an appearance in the first Jurassic Park sequel. It was Mercedes playing at an American game it hadn’t fully embraced—not quite a truck but not a station wagon, either. It was one of the first crossovers as we know them now, but back then it seemed like a disingenuous attempt to horn in on the hot-selling Ford Explorer’s action. You know, the Explorer that was featured in the original Jurassic Park.
More Mercedes than Before
This year, the GLE400 4MATIC gets Mercedes’ 329-hp 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6. The new engine helps the GLE drive, feel, and look more like a real, honest-to-Stuttgart Mercedes than any M-class ever did. That’s true even though it’s assembled, as the ML always has been, at a plant near Vance, Alabama. “More like,” however, isn’t the same as “is.” This refreshed Mercedes still doesn’t seem to have its whole heart in this market segment.
Naturally, this V-6 hits all the expected technical highlights: It’s direct injected, has variable valve timing, and is tuned to keep engine speeds low for better fuel economy (the EPA city rating rises 4 mpg over that of the former V-8, while the highway number increases by 3 mpg). Compared with the naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 used in the GLE350, it has a shorter crank stroke and smaller cylinder bores. And it runs a 10.5:1 compression ratio, relatively high for a turbocharged engine.
That 329-hp rating is somewhat deceptive, because what the engine delivers best is a sweet-natured well of torque. There’s good response right off the line as the turbos kick in early, but only a moment after that event the engine produces its 354 lb-ft of peak torque at 1600 rpm and maintains that output all the way up to 4000 rpm.
Throw in the confident talents of Mercedes’ seven-speed automatic transmission and the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system, and the result is a nonchalant driving experience. There’s always torque available, and that torque always finds a drive wheel to use it. Make a passing maneuver on a two-lane back road, and the sensation is that of an easy vehicular shoulder shrug—like the one Michael Jordan performed after sinking six three-pointers in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals.
Satisfactory—but Not Exemplary—Dynamics
Keeping in mind that—German roots and Alabama connections notwithstanding—this isn’t a Wernher von Braun–spec rocket ship (that mission is reserved for the AMG models), the GLE400 is quick and satisfyingly nimble. The waltz to 60 mph takes 5.5 seconds, while the quarter-mile goes by in 14.1 seconds at 99 mph.
The Inside Story
It may not be the people hauler’s preference, either; the slightly larger Q7 has three rows of seats to accommodate seven people, whereas the GLE allows five in two rows. Still, there are arguments working in the Benz’s favor. Without a third row to deal with, there’s 38 cubic feet of cargo capacity in a spacious interior that is exceedingly comfortable, handsomely trimmed with wood, and perfectly stitched together. That includes Mercedes’ three-spoke steering wheel, which is just the right shape and nicely padded, has well-placed thumb guides, and is covered in textured leather that, Braille-style, informs the driver of wheel position. The spectacular Swedish minimalism of the Volvo XC90 has reset the bar for cabin décor in this luxury class, but traditionalists will find reassurance in this Mercedes.
There’s a grace to the GLE400 that was missing from its sometimes dumpy-looking ML ancestors. And there’s a unity to the design that seems in line with what buyers expect from a Mercedes. But there’s still some stopgap feel here, as if this may be the warmup act for a truly great fourth-generation mid-size SUV from Mercedes-Benz.