JOHANNESBURG – Those of us in our 30s (and older) will no doubt remember the first instalment of Jurassic Park. If your interests extend into the automotive world, you'll probably also recall the Mercedes-Benz ML vehicles used in the film. Back then, of course, the “SUV” acronym wasn't nearly as widely used as it is today, but I remember thinking this was a most unnatural car for Mercedes-Benz to build. How things have changed...

What’s new?

It was during the facelift of the third-generation ML that Mercedes-Benz switched to the GLE badge, which technically makes this latest model the fourth generation. Take a closer look and you'll notice a number of elements typical of older MLs, including the rear-side wrap-around window and the angle and design of the C-pillar. Stand or drive behind this new model, and the relatively small glass-house perched atop those wide hips is also reminiscent of earlier models.

Should you require space for more than five occupants, there's now the option of specifying a third row of seats, making the GLE a fully fledged seven-seater. The new model is also wider, longer and has a lower roofline than the outgoing generation. Impressively, the Cd is just 0,29.

Climb inside and you'll see the GLE now offers all the latest equipment and trim we’ve seen in new-generation models in the E-, G- and S-Class ranges, to name but a few. The clean layout of the cabin is highlighted by the large single-piece screen, which proves easy to use and offers a plethora of options and information.

During an off-road excursion, which comprised a purpose-built obstacle course, the 4x4 display served up some interesting information about torque distribution and the angle of the vehicle. The latest version of the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) system, meanwhile, made light work of several tasks (it quickly obliged when I said: “Hi Mercedes – close the sunroof”, for example).

While the cabin is generally as pleasant a place to spend time as one might expect, there are parts that could have been better trimmed, especially when one considers what the competition offers.

Under the bonnet

Here you’ll find a 3,0-litre, turbodiesel engine (in in-line six-cylinder guise) producing 243 kW and 700 N.m. For the anoraks, the engine code is OM656. That mountain of torque affords the GLE the ability to accelerate swiftly yet relaxingly, without ever really intimidating its driver.

Although a specifically designed off-road transfer case with differential locks is available as part of the optional off-road package, the obstacle course proved that for 90 percent of the basic challenges you'll likely face, this is not really necessary.

The standard 4Matic system, which senses which wheels have the most traction and brakes the others, means the GLE feels fairly capable on unfinished surfaces, even on road tyres. However, select the full off-road package and the GLE is further set apart from rivals (although the BMW X5 is now offered with an off-road package, too).

On tarmac, the GLE handles well for a vehicle of this size and weight, while road and engine noise are both kept to a minimum. Indeed, there were times when I forgot I was driving a turbodiesel.

Summary

A brief drive in the less powerful GLE300d 4Matic, which produces 180 kW and 500 N.m, indicated that as an everyday proposition, this variant ticks all the boxes. However, for faster open-road driving (and, of course, towing), the 400d is the better option. Although I didn't sample the petrol-powered GLE450, one of the two aforementioned oil-burning models is surely the most sensible choice here.



FAST FACTS

Model: Mercedes-Benz GLE400d 4Matic 9G-tronic
Price: R1 361 194
Engine: 3,0-litre, six-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 243 kW at 3 600 r/min
Torque: 700 N.m at 1200 r/min
0-100 km/h: 5,7 seconds
Top Speed: 240 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 7,0 L/100 km
CO2: 184 g/km
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Maintenance Plan: 5-year/100 000 km