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Benz's rakish sports SUV isn't for everyone -- that's by design

Benz's angular new SUV is here to take on BMW's X6 with a similar mix of style, tech and pace.

If you're a Mercedes-Benz dealer or fan, chances are you've been expecting this GLE-Class Coupe for some time. That's because the cross-town rivals at BMW have already been offering a very similar slantback SUV for years, and just about any new car or utility that finds success with a Roundel on its hood will soon trigger a competitor wearing a Three-Pointed Star (and vice-versa). 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be.

BMW's X6 has been on sale since 2008, so what's taken Mercedes so long to respond? To be fair, the odd-duck "Sports Activity Coupe" always seemed like an unlikely model to find lasting success. But despite being pricier, less spacious, harder to see out of and more divisively styled than the X5 crossover upon which it's based, the Hunchback of Bavaria has turned into a bona-fide rainmaker for BMW, with surprisingly strong global sales, particularly in North America. These high-riding hatchbacks may not be to everyone's tastes, but that doesn't mean they're not good business. Luxury SUVs are among the key drivers of North America's white-hot car market these days, so automakers are unsurprisingly eager to fill any perceived "white space" in the segment. The bottom line? Expect to see more niche products like the X6 and this steroidal Mercedes in the coming years.

The new GLE Coupe follows the X6's playbook very closely, but to Benz's credit, this new model seems better integrated visually. It shares the bulk of its genetic makeup with the face-lifted ML midsize utility, which itself has also been renamed GLE SUV for 2016. It's got a boldly handsome face, a slightly more upright roofline than the Bimmer, strong flanks and a planted, wheels-at-the-corner stance.

The GLE's roofline is slightly more accommodating than that of the BMW X6. Chris Paukert/CNET

This particular model, the GLE450 AMG, is part of Benz's new AMG Sport lineup, a clearinghouse for more athletic models that stop short of being full-fat, high-performance AMG cars and SUVs. Mercedes is actually playing catch-up with these junior varsity offerings -- competitors have occupied the same middle-tier performance rung for some time. Rival Audi has sold S-branded models for years, BMW offers its M Sport products and even Cadillac has joined the fray with VSport. AMG models have been tremendously popular in North America (Mercedes sells 2.5x more of them here than anywhere else in the world), so it's surprising that it's taken so long for the automaker to develop this more accessible AMG Sport line.

In the case of this test car, "AMG Sport" means that the GLE450 is powered by a 3.0-liter bi-turbo V-6 whipping up 362 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque, funneled through a nine-speed automatic transmission delivered to all four wheels.

Given that kind of power, it should come as no surprise that the vehicle's default torque split is biased toward the rear wheels (60% rear/40% front). This, along with a driver-controlled five-mode Dynamic Select knob, means that the GLE450 AMG can execute a startling impersonation of a heavyweight (if very high-riding) sport sedan, with a factory-estimated 0-60 mph time of 5.6 seconds that feels conservative.

The cabin is unerringly well finished, but options get costly. Chris Paukert/CNET

That's not to say that this vehicle feels like it shrinks around you on a winding B-road at speed like some others can. With its tall seating position, broad width and compromised visibility, the GLE450 very much felt its size on the often narrow, serpentine threads of tarmac rambling through the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina.

Having said that, the GLE450 is capable of surprising dynamic feats. On the more challenging, bumpy and narrower roads just outside of the legendary -- but unfortunately highly trafficked -- Tail Of The Dragon (slogan: 318 Curves in 11 Miles), this SUV's performance was spirited and almost surreal in its efficacy, with ample power and traction to accelerate hard out of corners and a firm, easy-to-modulate brake pedal that refused to wilt in the face of nearly 4,900 pounds of Teutonic luxury. It also sounded properly snarly, with gratuitous burbles and pops emanating from the exhaust tips on overrun in Sport and Sport Plus modes.

Speaking of which, using the GLE350's Individual detent on the Dynamic Select dial and the on-screen menus, I calibrated the drivetrain and steering to their sportiest setting (Sport Plus) and left the air suspension in comfort mode for better compliance. You might've expected the resulting package to be a quick, wallowy mess, but cornering was still decidedly flat (in part thanks to optional $2,910 active anti-roll bars), and grip from my tester's 21-inch Continental tires was impressive, even over lumpen surfaces. With the suspension calibrated to firmer settings, the chassis was stiff-legged and had moments where it felt unsettled, especially over midcorner bumps. I suspect that Sport or Sport Plus settings would make for better partners on a groomed racetrack, but out on these rural roads, Comfort (and occasionally Sport) struck the best balance.

Grippy 21-inch Continental ContiSportContact summer tires (all-seasons optional). Chris Paukert/CNET

While the paddle shifters on GLE's nine-speed automatic proved responsive and fun to use (if only to summon more revs to better hear the engine in the otherwise quiet interior), there was generally no need, as the transmission came across very well-calibrated, even under such dynamic mountain road conditions. This is a welcome development and something of a surprise, as to this point, every new automatic I've sampled with nine speeds has been rubbish in terms of refinement and gear selection (I'm looking especially at you, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles).

The GLE450 Coupe's hatchback-like shape may be divisive, but its cabin won't be. It's a perfectly sumptuous place, with power seats that adjust every which way, nicely stitched and grained surfaces and real wood and metal trim. There's a broad palette of leather dyes and trim finishes available without even delving into Mercedes' costly Designo custom program, too.

Yes, there's less headroom on offer than in Benz's more upright GLE SUV, but the Coupe still feels like it has more second-row space than the BMW X6, and it's not all that bad once you negotiate getting in and out. Naturally, it's easier to get objects in and out of the cargo area, but available space takes a predictably large hit thanks to the sloped rear window. You get 23 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks upright and 60.7 with them folded (the boxier GLE SUV offers 38.2 and 80.3 cubic feet, respectively). Such is the high price of fashion.

Power seats feature heating and cooling, along with massage. Chris Paukert/CNET

As you'd expect of a premium German SUV, there's a raft of advanced cabin technology on offer, including Benz's latest-generation COMAND infotainment system with a crisp, tablet-style 8-inch screen through which everything from navigation and Internet searches to the massaging seat functions can be accessed. Because it's such a complex and powerful system, COMAND takes some getting used to, but with time and judicious use of driver presets, it becomes second nature. Optional features, like power soft-close doors and heated and cooled cupholders are, if anything, over the top...but then again, so is this vehicle.

These days, safety isn't just about crumple zones and powerful brakes, it's about advanced driver-assistance systems that keep watch on the surrounding environment to head off potential unpleasantness. The GLE offers a comprehensive suite of such e-minders for $1,950, including blind-spot assist, lane-keep assist, Distronic intelligent cruise control with steering assist, and a pre-safe system that can recognize slowing vehicles and pedestrians and auto-brake the GLE to a stop. Given the intensely hands-on rural winding road conditions that I encountered on this drive, there wasn't much occasion to test out items like lane-keep assist or smart cruise control, but in other Mercedes vehicles, they've proven very effective.

You're looking at just 23 cubic feet with the seat backs up and 60.7 with them down. Chris Paukert/CNET

While the GLE450 starts at $66,025 delivered, as with any German luxury vehicle pricing can get out of hand in a hurry, easily tacking on $10,000 or $20,000 in extras. My well-equipped Dakota Brown Metallic tester, which included additional options like a 360-degree camera system, self-parking and panoramic roof, rang up at $82,265 all in, but it's not even fully loaded. In the UK, the GLE450 AMG starts from £62,800.00 on the road, and getting one in your driveway in Australia will cost nearly $154,000.

Those are substantial numbers, but as a typically younger and wealthier buying audience than the typical Mercedes consumer, AMG buyers don't seem to mind shelling out for the added performance and presence these models offer. With today's inexpensive gas prices, they'll likely also be undeterred by the GLE450's EPA estimates of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway using premium fuel. Considering the amount of power on offer and the Coupe's brutish curb weight -- it weighs the same as a V-8-powered Ford F-150 -- those numbers are actually slightly better than I might've imagined, no doubt thanks to the nine-speed auto and stop/start.

The 3.0-liter bi-turbo V-6 summons 362 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque. Chris Paukert/CNET

Of course, if you're happy to part with more money for even more performance, there's a full-fledged AMG GLE Coupe available, dubbed the AMG GLE63 S. With 577 hp and 561 lb-ft from its hand-built 5.5-liter bi-turbo V-8 paired with a seven-speed automatic, it promises a 0-60 mph time of 4.2 seconds, which should run BMW's X6 M awfully close.

On paper, the Coupe doesn't have much to recommend it over its less expensive, roomier GLE450 AMG SUV relative. But if the BMW X6's success offers any indication, that won't matter. New cars are as much of an emotional purchase as they are a rational one -- especially in the luxury segment. The GLE450 AMG Coupe's somewhat sleeker and more self-indulgent looks will no doubt win its fair share of test drives, and the underlying Mercedes-Benz goodness should be enough to seal the deal.

The Coupe's looks aren't for everyone, and that's just fine by Mercedes. Chris Paukert/CNET

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