2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class first drive review: The next chapter in SUV luxury

The year 2020 used to seem like it was way far off in the future, but sure enough, the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class I'm driving will have a 2020 model year when it goes on sale in the spring. Fittingly, though, it's seriously futuristic. With a mild-hybrid powertrain, a flashy touchscreen interface and semiactive suspension, the 2020 Mercedes GLE-Class modernizes the luxury crossover in a big way.

Handsome design

As is the trend of nearly all new vehicles, the 2020 Mercedes GLE is longer and wider than its predecessor, and rides on a longer wheelbase, too. Visually, the new GLE doesn't depart too far from its predecessor. It's more of a nip-tuck than a redesign. Most notable are the reshaped front fascia, with big grille and swept-back LED headlights, the slightly more sloped rear window and the somewhat "pinched" look to the liftgate that leaves the model-designation badges sitting at an angle. It's a rather handsome SUV. It can be further dressed up with options like wheels ranging from 19 to 22 inches in diameter and silly touches like illuminated running boards.

The new design, along with tricks like a fully covered underbody, help lower the GLE's drag coefficient to a slippery (for an SUV) 0.29, versus 0.32 for the outgoing model. That plays a significant role in improving highway fuel economy and reducing cabin wind noise. There are also retractable shutters ahead of the radiator that can close to reduce drag, and the outside-lower vents on the front fascia are closed off for the same reason. (Though forthcoming AMG models will have real vents there to cool and feed their engines.)

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE350 4Matic

Two 12.3-inch screens dominate the dashboard design.

Mercedes-Benz

Flashy interior

If you've seen the inside of other new Mercedes-Benz models, the GLE-Class won't look unfamiliar, with its very horizontal dash design, stylish drilled-metal Burmester speaker vents and minimalist center-stack physical controls. The inside of this luxury SUV is impeccably assembled, with everything you could conceivably touch feeling delightful. The leather is plush, the controls operate with a satisfying click-click and the various optional wood veneers all look wonderful.

Back-seat room is generous enough that, with the front seat adjusted to how I normally drive, I can still lounge out. Because the new GLE has a 3.1-inch longer wheelbase, there's an extra 2.5 inches of second-row legroom. Power-reclining second-row seats are available as an option -- an incredibly luxurious option that will undoubtedly spoil your children. The available panoramic sunroof has a larger glass area than before, helping keep the cabin bright and airy. Cargo space is plentiful, too, with a power liftgate making for easier access.

Another new option for the interior of the GLE-Class is a third row of seats. Mercedes promises the way-back can comfortably fit an adult up to 5 feet, 10 inches tall, and I'm looking forward to seeing at a later date how easily I fit back there. The BMW X5 -- the GLE's key rival -- also offers an optional third row.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE450 4Matic

The second row has ample room and easily folds down for extra storage space.

Mercedes-Benz

Two giant screens

Two 12.3-inch screens are standard, one for the instrument cluster and the other for the infotainment system. The former is, as in other Mercedes models, infinitely customizable to show myriad graphic arrangements and pieces of information. It's all easily accessed and configured via a thumb controller on the left-hand side of the steering wheel. But there is so much info displayed at all times, all in different colors and graphics, that it can often be a little overwhelming. Fortunately the big, color head-up display provides a simple, legible look at key data like speed, navigation info and so on.

The infotainment system is the same MBUX -- that's pronounced em-bee-you-ex -- touchscreen from the new A-Class sedan. Of course, in addition to touching the screen you can operate the menus with a touchpad controller on the center console, a thumb controller on the right-hand side of the steering wheel or by saying, "Hey, Mercedes" to activate the voice-recognition tech.

The good news is that the system will detect you saying "Hey, Mercedes" or even just "Mercedes" flawlessly, though the bad news is it's so oversensitive that's basically impossible to discuss the car brand without hearing, "How may I help you?" (Filming a subsequent in-depth review video in this car will likely be a challenge for us…) Still, it is incredibly smart in its responses. You can ask the system to turn down the climate-control fan, change the ambient light color, swap radio stations, turn on the seat massagers and many other commands. 

Still more internet-connected functions are available, as well. When I asked, "What's the weather forecast?" the system read me meteorological info and displayed a forecast on the screen. When I asked, because we were driving in Texas on election day, "Who is Ted Cruz?" MBUX obediently read out a brief summary about the senator.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

MBUX's home screen is bright and has easy shortcuts to key functions.

Mercedes-Benz

Aside from the voice-recognition features, MBUX works incredibly well. Its displays are gorgeously rendered and bright, its responses to any input near-instantaneous. The navigation even offers a cool augmented-reality display that overlays street signs, direction arrows and even house numbers over a view ahead of the car -- eliminating that, "Is it this junction or the next?" conversation when using the nav in unfamiliar areas.

Perhaps the only demerit to MBUX is that there are so many menus, buttons and settings that one could spend hours sitting in the driveway simply configuring (and finding) the many functions. Technophobes, take note during your test drive whether you'll like the system or find it overwhelming.

Driving the GLE350

The base engine in the US market, under the GLE350 badge, is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four rated for 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, the latter available from 1,800 through 4,000 rpm. With a nine-speed automatic dishing up that power to the wheels, the GLE350 accelerates strongly without much fuss at all. Mercedes predicts a 0-to-60-mph sprint of 7.0 seconds with rear-wheel drive and 7.1 seconds with the optional 4Matic all-wheel drive. The engine can sound a little gruff at times, and it's possible to catch the powertrain off-guard when it needs a downshift before delivering full power, but overall this is a hugely satisfying engine and transmission combination.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE350 4Matic

The GLE-Class drives extremely well with either of its two powertrains.

Mercedes-Benz

My tester features optional adaptive air suspension, which is sublimely comfortable in the default Comfort mode. However, it floats and wallows a little too much for my tastes on fast-flowing back roads and highways. Opting for the Sport suspension setup is much better: still plenty pliable over rough patches but far more composed through bends. As the entry-level and thus more affordable GLE-Class model, the 350 is without vice from behind the wheel.

The GLE450 mild-hybrid

Even more interesting, however, is the GLE450, which uses a new EQ Boost inline-six engine found in other new Mercedes models like the CLS-Class. A turbocharged 3.0-liter unit, it's rated for 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet, but can receive a 21-horsepower boost thanks to an electric motor-generator.

Mercedes' claimed 5.5-second sprint to 60 mph feels perfectly realistic. The GLE450 digs in with effortless torque and pulls strongly. Moreover, it pulls smoothly, thanks to the trademark balance of straight-six engines, and offers up a surprisingly snarly sound under power. This is, without question, the GLE I'd want simply for its right-now passing performance.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE450 4Matic

The 3.0-liter, inline-six engine is augmented by a turbocharger and an electric motor-generator.

Mercedes-Benz

The EQ Boost system is not, however, only about adding more oomph. As a mild hybrid, it regenerates electricity under braking to help bolster acceleration. Select the Eco driving mode and the gas engine can even shut off at speed in a coasting mode. It's fantastic to see the tachometer at 0 rpm as the big GLE-Class motors along at 40 or 50 mph, or even faster still. And when the engine does restart, it does so with such smoothness you really need to pay attention to notice. It remains to be seen what kind of EPA fuel-economy ratings this powertrain will deliver -- but subjectively, it's wonderful for its smoothness, power and efficiency.

Clever suspension

GLE450 models can be equipped with a new semiactive suspension system called E-Active Body Control. It uses 48-volt pumps (one at each wheel) to provide hydraulic fluid pressure to actively move the suspension up and down individually, by up to 4.7 inches upward or 3.1 inches down from standard ride height. Mercedes has offered semiactive suspension like this before, but those systems used belt-driven pumps that were less effective and couldn't work on hybrid engines.

Like other active antiroll systems, E-ABC is intended to keep the GLE as flat as possible at all times for improved handling, while also absorbing bumps more easily. For party tricks, it can "bounce" the suspension up and down to help free a GLE stuck in sand or even "dance." And a menu in the off-road settings allows for you to individually adjust the ride height at each corner. It's meant for navigating rough terrain -- or, you know, posing the GLE at weird angles because you're a tad immature.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

You can independently adjust the ride height at each corner.

Jake Holmes/Roadshow

Anyway, suspension comfort is the primary aim, with engineers at my press event saying that E-ABC can detect and react to pavement imperfections as small as 2 millimeters when driving at 75 mph. While it is extremely comfortable, smoothing out much of the rough stuff on roads through Texas Hill Country, I don't find E-ABC to be otherworldly comfortable -- railroad tracks, expansion joints and the like are still readily noticeable through my rump. That said, my tester wore optional, upsized AMG wheels with low-profile tires, hardly representative of the car's normal ride comfort. As ever, we'd like to try this suspension setup on our local roads to see how well it absorbs potholes and speed bumps with which we're more familiar.

Plenty of other technology

There are five USB ports throughout the cabin, though they're all the new Type C standard -- in other words, many people won't be able to plug in their phone or tablet without an adapter cable. Mercedes officials say that when they were developing the GLE-Class, they figured Type C would have become prevalent by the time the car launched. They were wrong, though it's becoming more prevalent on most new Android phones and some new Apple devices, so every GLE includes a Type A-to-Type C adapter. A wireless phone charging pad is also offered as an option.

Otherwise, the GLE's tech complement is exhaustive and, ultimately, familiar from other new Mercedes models. Standard equipment includes LED head- and taillights, blind-spot monitoring, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, precollision braking and navigation. Optional extras include an enhanced Driver Assistance Package with adaptive cruise control, highway steering assist and a traffic jam assist feature that can help drive the car in stop-and-go situations; a Burmester sound system; an in-cabin fragrance system; heated, cooled and massaging front seats; the color head-up display and four-zone climate control. In other words, if there's a luxury feature you can think of, the GLE probably has it.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

Augmented-reality navigation is one of many features that makes driving the GLE even simpler.

Mercedes-Benz

It'll be worth the wait

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE450 4Matic and 350 4Matic go on sale in spring 2019, with the rear-wheel-drive GLE350 following in the summer. While we won't have pricing or fuel economy figures for some time, it's safe to say the GLE-Class will be quite tempting no matter what it costs. It's a real delight to drive, offering up equal parts futuristic connectivity, plush luxury and engaging driving dynamics. Sure, we don't have flying cars yet, but the 2020 GLE-Class is still a modern marvel of technology.


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