Test Drive: 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 AMG

While we driving enthusiasts sat around complaining about the automotive world going to hell in an SUV handbasket, a funny thing happened: SUVs became great. As painful as it is to admit, many SUVs have become safe, stylish, comfortable, and in some instances, legitimately fun to drive.

I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was that the new GLE 450 AMG is an excellent machine, full stop.

Where previously the smart family money was plunked down on a minivan for their unrivaled practicality, or on a station wagon for their superior ride, braking and handling performance, sport utility vehicles simply grew in popularity as the family machine of choice that wouldn’t render its owner a social outcast.

Despite their popularity, crossover SUVs were always a compromise. They’d trade off performance and efficiency to a lower, lighter station wagon, or give up interior space and usability to a minivan in exchange for an SUV’s “cooler” image. All the while, manufacturers continued to rake in buckets of revenue from the steady increase of SUV sales across all segments and in turn, they have invested heavily in more SUVs, making models available from size XS through to XXL, and to fit almost any budget.

Mercedes-Benz is one such company that has systematically improved its growing fleet of SUVs (from cutesy-ute to macho beast). The Benz SUVs – particularly the compact GLK (now GLC) and mid-size ML (now the GLE subject of this review) – were outstanding examples in their previous generations. With exceptional build quality and truly excellent diesel engines, the GLK and ML unsurprisingly claimed a few past Autos.ca comparison test victories against some formidable products from competitive premium brands.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was that the new GLE 450 AMG is an excellent machine, full stop.

It’s rare to find a vehicle that can chameleon itself as completely as the GLE 450 does. Need a practical family machine to haul the kids, the dog and the boat to the cottage? No problem, this Benz’ll do it.

How ’bout a premium-brand luxury machine suitable to take even the snootiest of clients to a tony lunch? Again, this GLE – especially finished in deep, dark metallic blue paint over a gorgeous saddle-brown interior – is ready to please.

But what about when you’re simply by yourself and want to actually enjoy the pleasure of driving? Surely an SUV can’t be fun-to-drive too, can it? Heck yeah, it can – and this one is!

That last point remains the biggest shock to me following my week of driving the GLE 450. The AMG branding added to the fenders aren’t simply a styling exercise – there’s some honest-to-goodness performance capability with this machine. And that exhaust note? It’s absolutely ludicrous in this type of vehicle.

In Pictures: 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE

One of the first mornings I had the GLE I started it up, then proceeded to walk around to the back of it to load a bag in cargo area.  Astern this luxurious family machine my brain could hardly believe what my ears were telling it. That gruff, loud, gravelly voice rumbling away is being emitted from those subtle tailpipes integrated into the rear valance. A sleek, mean-looking C 450 Coupe with this soundtrack is to be expected, but from this thing? Shocking.

Understand, this isn’t a complaint, mind you. I adored the sound, and from inside, with Sport + mode engaged, the GLE 450 blips the throttle on downshifts (commanded of the new nine-speed gearbox via paddle shifters) and gives ill-mannered (and thoroughly fun) belches on the rapid-fire upshifts.

That 9G-tronic Plus transmission contributes far more to the brilliant driving experience than one might expect with so many cogs to choose from. In the past, nine-speed transmissions have seemed to me to always have at least one too many gears to hunt between, but Mercedes has absolutely dialed in this transmission. The engine always seems to be in the sweet spot and when in Sport and Sport + mode, its gear changes are swift and deliberate. In Comfort mode, they’re sufficiently subdued and soft.

Of course, the transmission’s job is easier when it doesn’t have to shift all that often thanks to a deep well of both torque and horsepower to draw from. The new twin-turbo 3L V6 engine I first experienced in the C 450 AMG last autumn is simply awesome. It sounds magical – and not just that gruff exhaust note; its intake noise and mechanical growls are exquisite too – and it is both smooth and ferocious at the same time.

In a smaller, lighter C-Class, it makes sense, but I was skeptical about how well-suited this high-performance engine would be in a sport utility vehicle. While burdened with a few extra kilograms to haul around, the boosted V6 still feels every bit as lively and energetic, and infuses a whole new dimension to driving an SUV. What fun it can be driving an innocuous (and around the Greater Toronto Area, thoroughly common) luxury crossover in such a manner that drivers of many performance cars watch mouth agape as they can’t keep up with the GLE ripping down an on-ramp.

Not that I’d endorse hooligan-style driving or anything, but if, for instance, you found yourself needing to complete a pass quicker than originally thought, the GLE has plenty of guts to see you through. Likewise, out on the road, if you need to take evasive action to avoid a sudden hazard, the GLE 450 has enough handling chops to move out of harm’s way pretty well. Being a tall crossover, it does exhibit some body roll, and under aggressive braking there is considerable nosedive, but they’re well-managed, and power is put down effectively through the standard 4Matic all-wheel drive system.

Despite driving the GLE in a very spirited manner all week, it still delivered an average fuel consumption rate of 12.9 L/100 km of mixed city/highway driving. Very good indeed for this type of vehicle, especially one with 360 horsepower.

Inside, the interior changes to this GLE from the previous ML are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Those familiar with other contemporary Benz products will feel at home here. Materials are all first rate and the updates are primarily applied to the infotainment system, where they were most needed.

While graphically the larger screen is brighter and crisper than before, it’s not without its flaws. Occasionally Bluetooth audio failed to connect for me and the Apple CarPlay functionality (new this year) disallows the Mercedes’ own navigation functions and requires the rotary knob to operate rather than the touch pad. The screen itself is not a touchscreen. There is room for improvement in this integration.

Ergonomically, the rest of the interior is quite good if you can get used to the column shifter Mercedes employs for the transmission. The shifter itself works fine, but it takes a conscious effort to locate the wiper functions on the turn signal stalk.

The seats – and cup holders – are heated and cooled in this GLE 450, and the seats themselves are quite comfortable, if a little stiff. Space is ample for four passengers, with five being able to fit without much complaint, though the centre tunnel does create a hump to straddle in the rear inboard seat.

With that rear seat folded flat, the GLE 450 will swallow over 2,000 L worth of luggage volume (690 L with the seat up), and it’s rated to tow a 3,265 kg trailer, all of which is competitive in the mid-size segment.

When SUVs are as wholly good as the GLE 450, it’s little wonder that sales continue on their upward trajectory across all segments. Consumers shopping the mid-size luxury SUV segment truly can have it all with virtually no compromise, and the GLE 450 is one heck of a great machine. And as a car enthusiast, it still pains me to tell you that.

Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Competitors:
Audi Q7
BMW X5
Cadillac XT5
Lexus RX 350

2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 AMG 4MATIC
2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 AMG 4MATIC
Base Price $70,800
Optional Equipment Intelligent Drive Package, $2,700; Premium Package, $5,900; Exclusive Package, $1,250; Night Package, $375; Saddle Brown Leather, $1,990; Aluminum Running Boards, $750; Climate Controlled Cupholders, $250; Heated Steering Wheel, $250; Climate Comfort Front Seats, $1,200; Trailer hitch, $675
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,495
Price as Tested $88,735
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.8
8 Exterior Styling
8 Performance
8 Interior
8 Comfort
7 Fuel Economy