Mercedes-Benz GLE550e hits a sweet spot in SUV power, economy

A new version of the Mercedes-Benz's five passenger SUV incorporates a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, combining power, efficiency and pure electric driving.

Wayne Cunningham
Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
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NEW YORK -- Modern SUVs are known for offering passenger comfort, ample cargo space and often the ability to travel off road. The 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE550e adds a new element to this formula: electric drive efficiency.

The GLE550e is a plug-in hybrid, using its 8.5-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack to assist its 3-liter V-6 engine or become the sole source of power, giving the SUV a pure electric range of 18.6 miles. Although Mercedes-Benz has not released fuel economy figures for this vehicle yet, they should come in very high, and beat anything in its segment.

And the plug-in hybrid drivetrain doesn't mean a lack of power. The gasoline engine is a twin turbocharged V-6, capable of producing 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet or torque on its own. Mix the output from the electric drive motor integrated with the transmission, and total output goes up to 436 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque, considerably more than the GLE350 and GLE400 models that sit below it in the range.

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Along with the gasoline filler cap on the right rear fender, Mercedes-Benz includes a charging port mounted on the bumper.

All-wheel drive comes standard on the GLE550e and an air suspension is optional. Drivers can choose between Comfort and Sport modes with a dial on the console. In addition, the GLE550e also lets the driver choose Hybrid, E-mode, E-save and Charge settings while driving. Hybrid is the standard mode, making use of both gasoline and electric motors as needed, while E-mode keeps the GLE550e running on electricity as long as it has battery range. E-save favors the gasoline engine, holding onto whatever electric range is left on the battery, and Charge attempts to use the engine and the SUV's kinetic energy to recharge the battery as much as possible.

Mercedes-Benz notes that the GLE550e can go up to 88 mph under electric power alone.

Mercedes-Benz luxury materials were in evidence in the cabin of the example sitting on the New York auto show floor. Leather seats include power adjustments and satin-finish wood lined the dashboard. Quilted upholstery highlighted the door panels. The GLE550e also comes with Mercedes-Benz's standard cabin electronics, such as navigation and app integration, and adds information screens for the drivetrain.

The only compromise is reduced cargo capacity, as the rear load floor has been raised to accommodate the battery pack.

Until the Mercedes-Benz GLE550e, plug-in hybrid SUVs have been virtually nonexistent. This model provides buyers with an intriguing fuel-saving option that boasts big power figures as well. In Mercedes-Benz GLE range, it will likely post the highest combination of power output and fuel efficiency, making it a win-win when it comes out later this year. However, it will likely be on of the more expensive models in its range.