INNSBRUCK, Austria - 2015 is the year of the SUV for Mercedes-Benz.
That was the message from the German manufacturer’s chairman of the board, Dieter Zetsche, at the recent unorthodox unveiling of the new Mercedes Benz GLC at the headquarters of Hugo Boss in Metzingen, close to Stuttgart.
The successor to the popular GLK will soon join the recently released GLE and GLE Coupe in European showrooms, he said, while Stuttgart’s flagship SUV, the GLS, was set to be released in October 2015.
The GLC’s unveiling was preceded by the world launch of Merc’s GLE and GLE Coupe models in the heart of BMW country – where we had the opportunity to sample some of these latest X-fighters from Stuttgart.
The latest GLE models are actually just thoroughly revised derivatives of the current M Class, but the GLE Coupe – while based on the same platform – is completely new; developed specifically to challenge Munich’s X6 SUV coupes.
IMAGE GALLERY: 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLE
The design of the GLE Coupe, according to Merc, brings together sensuality and purity, personified by the nature of the two inventors of the automobile, Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler.
Where Benz was more rationally oriented, Daimler was more emotional and driven by his passion, and the new SUV is an attractive symbiosis blending this rational intelligence and passionate emotion, tradition and modernity.
Gorden Wagener, head of design at Daimler AG, described it as “embodying sensual clarity and representing modern luxury plus superior sportiness”.
Be that as it may, fact is BMW exploited this niche market first and Stuttgart’s challenger is very similar to the X6 in terms of packaging and execution.
In my view, however, the GLE Coupe is more resolved in terms of design and more attractive than its BMW contender with with obvious visual references to the S-Class Coupe at the rear.
Mercedes-Benz chose Bavaria and the northern parts of Austria as venue for the world premiere of the new GLE Coupe and the upgraded GLE range – perhaps intended as a warning shot across the bows of BMW’s X models, or just a gentlemanly hat tip towards the Bavarian automaker for its pioneering role?
Fact is, some of the best roads in Germany are in Bavaria and the foothills of the Tirolean Alps in Austria, and it made sense to use this area to launch a vehicle with a bespoke four-wheel drive system.
THE COUPE RANGE
Four versions of the three pointed star’s latest SUV models awaited us at Innsbruck; a diesel (GLE 350d) and three petrol driven derivatives – including a surprise package in the form of the GLE 450 AMG, a new “entry-level” version in the AMG stable.
The other two petrol models included the GLE 400 and the “real” AMG, now identified as a Mercedes-AMG (GLE 63 S).
Power output ranges from 190kW for the twin turbo V6 diesel, with the petrol model rated at 245kW, while the powerful AMG models delivers from 270kW (450 AMG) to 430 kW in the twin turbo petrol-V8 AMG 63 S flagship.
The Coupe’s massive wheels – 21” on the GLE 450 AMG and outsized 22” alloys on the AMG S – immediately caught my eye, but also made me wonder how they will cope with our potholed roads.
Besides the bigger and unique wheel and tyre combinations the AMG versions also sport model specific frontal treatment and a subtle spoiler at the rear.
Inside one is greeted by attractive sports seats and multi-function steering wheel, plus the now familiar Merc-style infotainment layout partially integrated into the instrument panel.
The tactile feel of the interior materials, as well as the fit and finish, are exemplary and numerous driver assistance packages are available, including distronic plus with steering assist, BAS Plus with cross-traffic assist, active blind-spot assist, Lane-assist and pre-safe plus.
Also available is a parking package with 360° camera, active parking assist and parktronic that makes manoeuvring into and out of tight parking spaces easy. Night-time visibility is improved by the LED Intelligent Light System.
The Coupe is roomy and spacious and according to Mercedes-Benz it has the widest rear bench and largest luggage compartment in its class.
All the models are equipped with Dynamic Select with up to five driving modes – Individual, Comfort, Slippery and Sport, and optional Sport+ mode for the GLE 400 4MATIC.
The system works in conjunction with the Airmatic ADS suspension and the preferred pre-programmed setup is selected using a rotary knob in the centre console.
In Sport mode the ride height is lowered by 15 mm and Individual mode allows you to choose your own steering (Comfort or Sport) and suspension setting preference.
The Sport+ mode on the GLE 400 4-Matic and AMG derivatives lowers the suspension by another 10 mm for super sportiness, and the Active Curve system (as featured in the S Class Coupe) is optionally available.
The powerful twin-turbo V6 or V8 engines, combined with either the new 9G-Tronic auto transmission or 7G-Tronic Plus in the case of the AMG’s, the variable suspension settings and driving systems endow the GLE’s with impeccable road manners.
ON THE ROAD...
On the well kempt German roads and through the Tyrolian curves the GLE 450 AMG 4-Matic Coupe managed a fine balance between performance (0-100km/h in 5.7 seconds) and comfort, and combined with its handling prowess it quickly established itself as a favourite.
The best trait of the unruly GLE 63 S-model was the unadulterated, powerful growl of its V8, sending shivers down your spine when it reverberates against the Alpine cliffs.
In contrast to the smaller GLE 450 its ride quality in Sport+ mode was quite hard, but still more comfortable compared to that of its Bavarian counterpart, the X6 M.
The AMG S version’s 5.5 litre V8 churns out 20 kW more power and 60 Nm more torque than the normal AMG and its hairy performance – 4.2 sec from 0-100km/h and a top speed of 280 km/h – is actually superfluous.
What was very clear is that the new GLE Coupe is a thoroughly developed and solid package, but while dynamically excellent it is still not as race track-focused as BMW’s M derivatives.
It is exactly this versatility, plus it’s more attractive design, that makes the GLE my favourite in this niche, but more dynamically oriented drivers may still prefer the X models…
GLE – M-CLASS REVISED
The GLE models we sampled are in essence thoroughly revised derivatives of the M-Class – but now includes an entry level 250d model with 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel (150kW/480Nm) and its 4-Matic counterpart.
Also available is a V6 diesel 350d model (190kW and 620Nm), the petrol driven GLE 400 4-Matic V6 (245kW/480Nm), the GLE 500 4-Matic V8 (320kW/700Nm) and a 500e hybrid model with a 3-litre V6 (245kW/480Nm) and 85 kW electric motor.
The Mercedes-AMG versions include the 63 4-Matic (410kW/700Nm) and 63 S 4-Matic (430kW/760Nm).
While the 500e is not earmarked for local consumption (well, not yet) the seamless power delivery of its hybrid system was impressive – more so taking into account it can drive 30km just on battery power and averaged under 5 litres/100km over our 150 km test route.
It is this combination of sensual design and pure luxury, comfort, performance and versatility (yes, its quite capable off-road as well), that makes the latest GLE range so desirable.
The good news is most of the models, the notable exception being the AMG 63 Coupe and 500e hybrid, will be available locally by October with prices varying from R866 694 for the GLE 250d to a whopping R1 866 111 for the AMG GLE 63 S 4-Matic Coupe.
Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe*
GLE 350 d - R1 005 674
GLE 450 AMG - R1 110 057
Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S - R1 876 111
*Includes CO2 tax
GLE 250 d - R866 694
GLE 350 d - R970 053
GLE 400 - R968 747
GLE 500 - R1 181 287
Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 - R1 726 006
Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S - R1 855 006
*Includes CO2 tax
VERSATILE SUV: The new GLE is spacious and, Mercedes-Benz says, it has the widest rear bench and largest luggage compartment in its class. Image: Mercedes-Benz
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