CAPE TOWN – Analogue or digital? That question applies to many things in life, from wrist watches to cars. Compare, for example, the W166-generation Mercedes-Benz GLE350d I had the privilege to pilot for a weekend with the recently revealed new-generation GLE. Apart from the obvious styling differences, one of the biggest changes is found inside, where a multitude of buttons and a tablet-style screen have made way for the acclaimed new widescreen MBUX system ... but more about that later.
Question is, should you rush to buy one of the last "analogue" GLEs left on showroom floors or wait for the new tech-infused version to arrive in South Africa?
Where does the GLE slot in?
This large premium SUV is a favourite among affluent families that require some extra space plus the ability to tackle the odd off-road excursion. But this segment has been buzzing lately with the launch of the latest Land Rover Discovery and, more recently, the new Volkswagen Touareg. And, of course, there's a new BMW X5 on the way, too.
As the W166 generation was launched way back in 2011, the cabin feels somewhat outdated compared with those of its competitors, particularly in terms of technology. Of course, this may or may not be a problem; it all depends on whether you prefer the feel of actual buttons (and don't mind the tablet-like screen) or are more partial to the widescreen cockpit employed by the new GLE.
As automotive journalists, we find ourselves bombarded daily by new technology, so it was a little strange poking at the outgoing GLE's screen several times before realising it was devoid of touchscreen functionality. The fit and finish is still good and the feeling that you're in control of a substantial vehicle from behind the steering wheel is ever present. Rear occupant space is excellent in terms of legroom, with particularly impressive shoulder room for three adults.
There is nothing old-school about 190 kW and 620 N.m connected to the smooth shifting nine-speed automatic transmission in this model. Apart from a slight lag at take-off, the engine pulls like a train and there's plenty of punch to overtake on the motorway for a vehicle weighing on the wrong side of two tonnes. Our family explored the West Coast region's majestic flower display and completed around 500 km, with the average fuel consumption reading showing 10,5 L/100 km (perfectly acceptable for this class of vehicle).
The GLE comes with standard-fit air suspension, but the test car was also equipped with optional 21-inch wheels, which resulted in a surprisingly crashy ride over undulations. On smooth motorways, though, it's perfectly fine and there is even some dynamic ability to unearth if the mood takes you. Still, I'd suggest opting for the standard wheels to improve comfort levels.
The GLE is known to be more off-road capable than some of its competitors, especially if the "Off-Road Engineering Package" (R30 000), which includes low-range transfer case, has been specified. The test car did not have this box ticked, but nevertheless featured various drive modes, including an off-road setting to raise the body and increase ground clearance. While we didn't do any serious bundu-bashing, we did take the GLE on dirt roads, where the 21-inch wheels again contributed to a jittery ride over slight sinkplaat sections.
Potential areas of improvement?
There are definitely a few areas in which the new GLE will no doubt improve:
- Seven-seat arrangement: The outgoing GLE has only five seats (and a vast boot), which can become a problem when the in-laws arrive. As most competitor vehicles in this segment now offer a third row, Mercedes has responded with (optional) extra pews in the new version.
- Infotainment system: The older technology in the GLE works perfectly fine, but the cabin is missing that ultimate sense of occasion. Even if all the functionality of the upcoming system is not used, it still certainly looks the part.
- Ride comfort: While dynamic ability is not paramount in this segment, the current GLE is outgunned in the comfort stakes by the likes of the new Discovery. We will only know if this is still the case after driving the new model, which interestingly will be offered with a new hydro-pneumatic active suspension based on the 48-volt system, working in combination with a newly developed air suspension arrangement.
The outgoing GLE is still an impressive vehicle ... as it should be, with a price north of R1-million. There are certainly more technologically advanced and comfortable vehicles in the segment, but if you're not particularly fond of the tech race (that is, if you're more "Nay Mercedes" than "Hey Mercedes"), nobody would blame you for swooping in and grabbing one of the last units of the outgoing generation. Who knows, perhaps Mercedes-Benz would even offer you a good deal during the run-out phase...
Author: Nicol Louw