2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S first drive review: Varsity athlete

The GLE63 is already immensely competent, but a new mild-hybrid getup makes things even more interesting.

Mercedes-AMG's Panamericana grille looks good on just about every vehicle it graces.

When the original Mercedes-Benz M-Class first received the hi-po AMG treatment, the company wasn't entirely sure the world would embrace this new idea of performance. Fast-forward more than two decades and 50% of AMG vehicles leaving dealerships are SUVs. This trailblazer has hardly rested on its laurels at any point, and for the 2021 model year, things are shaping up to be as righteous as ever.

The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S picks up the same powertrain as the larger GLS63. At the heart of the matter is a 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 producing 603 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque, just a bit of a bump from the 342 hp and 376 lb-ft of the original ML55. That power heads to all four wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission, and sandwiched in the driveline is the same EQ Boost mild-hybrid system found on AMG's 53-badged models. It can add up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft, in addition to extending stop-start use.

My first couple hours with the GLE63 S weren't spent giving it the ol' what-for. Instead, I was existing how most of its owners eventually will: stuck in Los Angeles traffic. You might think a hulking, 600-hp brute wouldn't be the smoothest thing at low speeds, but you'd also be dead wrong. The GLE63 S is a consummate professional at urban-commute velocities, with a throttle that's easy to modulate in tiny increments, making for smooth starts every time. A little grunt pops out of the exhaust pipes and off you go, the nine-speed automatic shifting smoothly along the way.

The only morning-drive downside here is the brakes. As I start pushing the pedal, the initial bite is always a little too grabby, causing head bobs as the GLE63 S' nose takes a dip. That said, it's actually pretty easy to modulate after that initial hiccup, so an extra-gentle foot shouldn't have a hard time keeping things comfortable. The ride quality is OK, but the adaptive suspension does transfer a fair amount of jostling to the cabin over bad roads, even on its softest setting (Comfort). Some of that is likely due to the GLE63 S' honkin' 22-inch wheels and thin Yokohama Advan summer tires.

Speaking of comfortable, being stuck in traffic makes a good time to take in the GLE's well-crafted interior. There are some unique touches specific to AMG vehicles, like the slightly different steering wheel, its attached mode switch and some exclusive trim finishers, but the GLE's interior is eye-catching no matter if it's the base model or this one. Visibility is top-notch on all sides, and second-row space abounds for both heads and legs. Out back, there's more than enough space for a family's worth of groceries or suitcases for a weekend trip.

There is nothing that will make you feel bougier than saying, "Hey, Mercedes, turn on my massaging seat," but welcome to the GLE63 S. Natural-language processing is part of the new MBUX infotainment system, which has steadily made its way into every new Mercedes. With a UI residing on the central 12.3-inch screen in the dashboard, the system is faster, more responsive and more smartly laid out than the Comand interface that came before it.

The voice recognition works with some pretty short phrases ("I'm cold" will get the heat turned up), but it's slightly annoying that the assistant kicks in with every utterance of the word "Mercedes" behind the wheel. Multiple microphones mean passengers can make their own requests and the car will only change settings affecting that specific corner of the car. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on the GLE63 S, as is embedded navigation. There's some extra stuff in here too, like an optional augmented reality display on the dash that overlays turn-by-turn directions onto a camera feed.

When I'm behind the wheel, it's not hard to notice that more than a few people are trying to take a closer look at the GLE63 S. With some monstrous AMG-specific wheels and an AMG body kit with some big air vents up front, the GLE63 S definitely carries more visual anger than the standard GLE-Class, but it's still restrained enough that people won't think you're a well-off 16-year-old.

Eventually, I got far enough away from downtown LA for traffic to break up. Turning toward the Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest highways, it was time to see if the GLE63 S' performance chops were really as fully baked as Mercedes-AMG says.

Whether you're cruising with serenity or speed in mind, the GLE63 S' interior is a good place to burn a few hours.


Spoiler alert: The GLE63 S is definitely fully baked. Slap the mode switch from Comfort to Sport, and the car tightens up in preparation for fun. The suspension stiffens, improving its curve-to-curve handling, and the throttle ramps up the sensitivity for blasting out of corners while the transmission holds the revs higher to keep noise and dramatics high. Despite being touchier, it's still plenty easy to mess with the throttle in the corners, bringing the nose a little closer or farther away from the apex as needed.

I am genuinely impressed at how well the GLE63 S handles in Sport or Sport+ mode. Weight transfer doesn't come with the feeling that the vehicle's getting ready to step out, with massive 325-width tires providing more grip than most drivers will ever need. When I bring the GLE63 S closer to the edge, there's more than enough feedback in the chassis to let me know when I'm reaching the limits of adhesion. Stopping in a hurry is no problem whatsoever, as the brakes will bite, bite and bite some more, scrubbing speed with as much vigor as a more traditional performance vehicle.

The car wants to be driven at this point as often as possible, and it's very rewarding to do so, but the fact that it's still serene at lower speeds highlights the hard work AMG's engineers undertook to ensure the GLE63 S is producing quality in every situation.

That's the real takeaway from my time with the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S. It's easy to just give something 600 horsepower and call it a day while owners struggle to figure out what to do with all that power. It's much harder, but far more rewarding, to create something that is perfectly fine to putt around in but immediately ready to jump into action at a moment's notice with a character shift that almost makes the SUV feel like two cars in one.  

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.