INNSBRUCK, Austria – We’d just completed a marathon dash up to Obergurgl, a village nestled 6,330 ft in the Ötztal Alps. A joyous romp for us Canadians, well-versed in navigating ice and snow, but our colleagues from down under were looking a little shell-shocked.
To be fair, even by Austrian standards the snowfalls had been extreme. The towering snowbanks formed a surreal, icy blue-white corridor; the “whomp-whomp-whomp” of a helicopter passing overhead serving as a reminder that avalanche control was in effect. And the 100 km/h posted speed limit on narrow alpine switchbacks would command the attention of a Scandinavian rally driver.
A nearly 5,000-lb vehicle wouldn’t be my first choice to tackle roads like this, but what the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 lacks in lightness and tossability, it makes up for by the sheer technical brilliance of its adaptive suspension and dynamic ride control systems, with performance enhancements courtesy of Mercedes’ AMG performance branch. In Canada, the Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 will be joined by the AMG GLE 63 S, which features a 4.0L V8.
The GLE follows Mercedes’ strategy of aligning its sedans with a corresponding SUV, and slots in below the full-size GLS, just like the E-Class and S-Class, respectively. The boxier GLE SUV, introduced in 2019, rides on a longer wheelbase than the coupe (coupe 2,935 mm, SUV 2,995 mm), yet the coupe is actually 37 mm longer (4,961 mm vs 4,924 mm). Like many of its ilk, the GLE Coupe is a bit cartoonish in execution, with the typical arched back, boxy rump, exaggerated haunches and oversized wheels typical of the segment. In AMG guise, the GLE 53 Coupe adds a more aggressive grille with large air inlets, and a rear diffuser with four integrated exhaust tips.
The interior is typical of Mercedes, beautifully rendered with premium materials without garish embellishments. It’s the same new cockpit that made its debut in the 2020 GLE and GLS. Most notable is the enormous tablet-style information screen that replaces the traditional gauge pod. The floating screen is divided into two 12.3-inch high-definition displays: on the left a fully configurable instrument panel, and on the right, the connectivity and infotainment interface. Differentiating it from the regular model, the AMG GLE 53 Coupe also has AMG-specific graphics and performance telemetry, and a flat-bottomed sport wheel with aluminum paddle shifters.
As expected of a premium, technically sophisticated vehicle, the AMG GLE 53 has a comprehensive list of standard safety technology and plenty of available additional options. Every GLE 53 features fully variable all-wheel drive, adaptive cruise control, Pre-Safe collision hearing protection, lane-keeping assist, attention assist, active parking assist, brake assist, and blind-spot assist. An optional driver’s active assist package includes Distronic distance assist, active traffic jam assist, steering assist, lane-change assist, route-based speed adaptation, emergency stop, evasive steering assist, stop-and-go assist, and speed limit assist. Optional too, is a large, fully customizable colour head-up display with storable settings.
One of the GLE’s most (literally) brilliant features is its headlights – which our neighbours to the south miss out on due to lagging safety standards. Mercedes’s intelligent multi-beam LED headlights use 84 individual LEDs per headlight, and sensing oncoming traffic, can mask out other vehicles within its light distribution range in milliseconds to prevent dazzling. This makes it possible for the GLE to safely use full-time high-beams without worrying about other drivers.
This segment was born of a need by customers who could afford luxury and power, but wanted to justify their purchase with a little utility. The performance versions of these giant crossovers will never handle quite as well as their sedan or coupe counterparts, and their swooping design compromises the interior space that’s one of the strong suits of a regular SUV. But the customer of this particular niche willingly sacrifices a little practicality for style and cachet. Still, the AMG GLE 53 coupe does provide 655 litres of cargo space that expands to 1,790 L with rear seats folded down – compared to 630 / 2,055 litres for the SUV. The coupe’s 60-mm-lower rear deck – and ability to electronically lower by another 50 mm – makes cargo loading a breeze.
User Friendliness: 7/10
Anyone who’s previously used Mercedes MBUX connectivity system should have no trouble finding their way around the GLE’s controls. A new voice control function replaces the outgoing COMAND, which makes hands-free operation easier. At this price point, the AMG GLE 53 is laden with so many technology extras, it does take some familiarizing to become comfortable and proficient with their operation. In addition to the extensive suite of driver’s assist functions, there are seven drive modes to choose from, and an AMG track package with performance telemetry.
The big vehicle is simple to drive with the high seating position and good forward visibility preferred by its fans. Power delivery is reassuringly smooth and linear.
Premium buyers expect a lot of comfort and technology, and there’s plenty of competition vying for their loyalty. Mercedes-Benz has a well-deserved reputation for luxury and refinement with an increasing focus on sophisticated technology. The GLE 53 Coupe offers all the previously discussed semi-autonomous driver’s aids and in-cabin technology, and then is further enhanced by Mercedes’ AMG performance arm. Our testers featured an air suspension that automatically lowers the vehicle by 15 mm over 120 km/h to reduce drag, or can raise it by 30 mm for clearance over snow or rough ground.
The GLE’s well-isolated cabin and high level of luxury content make it a comfortable place to spend time. The fully adjustable Nappa leather-covered AMG bolstered seats are both heated and cooled, and there’s four-zone climate control to suit a variety of body temps. Depending on which drive mode you choose, the air suspension changes the damper rates from stiff to smooth, and adjusts the body to optimum height. Select Comfort, and the GLE lowers to reduce aerodynamic drag and improve stability and fuel consumption, while the suspension becomes smooth and compliant. The large, heavy wheels clad in low-profile rubber do detract from the ride’s overall quality, introducing a bit of harshness over road imperfections.
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Driving Feel: 8/10
It’s only natural that such a large and heavy vehicle feels, well, large and heavy. But thanks to the excellence of its chassis and suspension engineering, the GLE handles tight alpine roads with aplomb, its electronic anti-roll system insuring it corners flat and in control. With Sport, or Sport+ mode engaged, the GLE lowers and stiffens, and its 429 hp feels instantly available at throttle tip-in. Electro-mechanical speed-sensitive steering feels precise and well-weighted. Despite its size, the GLE has a confidence-inspiring stability even on slippery roads.
Under the GLE 53’s hood is an AMG-massaged 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine producing 429 horsepower and 384 lb-ft. The powertrain also features Mercedes’ EQ Boost mild hybrid system, a 48-volt integrated generator that delivers an additional 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque for short bursts until the exhaust-gas turbocharger kicks in. This, coupled with the nine-speed transmission creates a broad and linear power delivery that feels alert and responsive. Fuel economy is improved not only by its smooth delivery, but by the system’s ability to shut off the engine and briefly cruise while running on electric power alone. Using electric boost, the GLE 53 sprints from zero to 100 km/h in 5.3 seconds. Occasionally, however, we experienced a peculiar lag when asking the coupe to perform a quick passing manoeuvre – understandable when the vehicle weighs in excess of 2,300 kg.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
Official NRCan fuel economy numbers for the GLE 53 aren’t yet available, nor are they available for the GLE 450, which is usually within a few tenths of a litre per 100 km. However, the EPA has rated the GLE 450 at 11.2 L/100 km combined, which ranks it favourably against its competitors, such as the BMW X6, Porsche Cayenne, Audi SQ8, and the Jaguar F-Pace.
The AMG GLE 53, which is expected to arrive in Canadian dealerships later this year, should start around $87,800. It replaces the $82,500 AMG GLE 43, and offers more power and sophisticated technology for the $5,000 bump in price.
There’s no point in questioning the arrival of yet another identity-challenged hi-po coupe-slash-SUV – tastes are subjective and clearly enough people buy them that companies will continue to build them. The GLE 53 offers a long list of amenities, plenty of technology, AMG power, and brand cachet to appeal to buyers in its segment. Still, it faces significant competition from the similarly configured BMW X6 M, or the prettier and engaging Porsche Cayenne S.