Towering in stature, if not accomplishment, the entry-level version of the new GLE is a mixed bag...

Just over 20 years ago, the first-generation M-Class emerged from the shadows of the military-grade G-Wagen, kicking off what would eventually become one of the most diverse and hotly contested territories in the automotive sphere: the luxury-SUV segment.

We could argue Land Rover’s Range Rover Classic and Discovery were the progenitors of the segment but, while they did carry a certain weight of pedigree, they weren’t as premium as the M-Class and its rivals to follow; more of a Hunter Wellington boot than a Hugo Boss loafer, if you will.

Since the M’s entrance, the slew of manufacturers moving into the luxury SUV scene has come in thick and fast, with the likes of BMW’s X models, Porsche’s Cayenne and the Audi Q7 vying for attention. Now in its fourth generation and pitched among some accomplished opposition, the GLE really needs to shine to honour its predecessors’ strong all-round performances in the luxury-SUV segment. It’s a hefty ask and, despite it impressing in many areas, the latest GLE isn’t without its shortcomings.

One area where the GLE certainly doesn’t disappoint is the sheetmetal. Take a stroll around this car and you’ll appreciate just how hulking it is. Seated on a mildly tweaked version of the Mercedes-Benz MRA platform which underpins a number of its larger sedan models and measuring 4 924 mm long, 1 947 mm wide and 1 772 mm high, the GLE strikes an imposing figure, wearing its smooth skin over a two-box frame that houses a spacious interior.

This impression of roominess is furthered not only by the GLE’s broad beam, but also by a generous glasshouse and a second-row bench with 793 mm of legroom. With its squared-off air vents, a massive swathe of dashboard and the broad TFT panel housing both instrumentation and infotainment displays, the cabin is boldly executed – the 64-colour ambient lighting pack, which illuminates the trim seams in the doors and air vents, adds a welcome bit of pizzazz – although our modestly specced test unit’s interior otherwise felt quite plain in terms of its fixtures and fittings. The plasticky climate control strip shared with the A-Class is a case in point.

The boot managed to accommodate 384 litres of our ISO measuring blocks. Flattening all the seats presents an impressive 1 368 litres of utility space with a flat deck and virtually nothing in the way of wheelarch intrusion into the load bay.

Continuing in the fine tradition of alphanumeric model designations bearing little resemblance to what’s under the bonnet, the entry point to the GLE family mounts a 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel that feeds drive to all corners via a nine-speed torque-converter transmission. With a modest 180 kW on tap at 4 200 r/min, the GLE300d looks a little underpowered compared with the six-cylinder rivals occupying equivalent price and model-tier posts.

Indeed, the union of low-displacement four-cylinder engine and a vehicle weighing a shade over 2,3 tonnes shouldn’t be a happy one; however, the GLE300d’s unit is a surprisingly keen performer and doesn’t feel as hobbled as you’d expect. The 500 N.m of torque announces itself in a hearty dollop between 1 600-2 000 r/min and no doubt plays an integral part in punting that weight off the line. A respectable 8,50-second average 0-100 km/h sprint time and roughly two-second increments separating the 40-60 and 60-80 km/h in-gear acceleration runs is testimony to its ability.

The assured way in which the unit melds with the nine-speed transmission means the engine never feels overly stressed. Consequently, the expected four-cylinder turbodiesel clatter is instead largely muted at motorway speeds. The level of mechanical refinement and a long-legged gait make the GLE a consummate long-distance cruiser.

Outside its AMG models, Mercedes-Benz tends to leave sporty dynamics fairly low on the priority list of handling traits and that’s generally not a bad thing. Partnered with its refined and flexible engine, the GLE’s softly sprung undercarriage acquits itself well on the motorway. It’s fair to expect something of the GLE’s proportions and weight to trip over its toes when presented with twisty sections of road and, while it’s not a complete pudding when pressed into corners, spirited driving tends to unearth a noticeable amount of body roll. And that, along with light steering, stymies fluid progression and accentuates the GLE’s bulk. Despite some nose-dive during our 100-0 km/h braking tests, the GLE returned an average of 3,09 seconds, garnering a “good” rating.

Having grown accustomed to Mercedes-Benz SUVs’ aptitude for wafting effortlessly over all but the most pockmarked road surfaces, it came as something of a surprise to see the GLE’s feathers being ruffled by minor lumps and bumps in its path.

Although softly sprung, things tend to go awry with the ride quality on less-than-perfect road surfaces at low to moderate speeds. The GLE’s ride never seems to completely settle under these conditions and becomes especially jittery when coasting over regular corrugations. Our test unit ran on standard steel springs and optional 20-inch rims shod with 50-profile rubber, so it will be interesting to see if the R29 000 Airmatic air-sprung option offers more composure.

The GLE has traditionally held the edge over most of its more urban-biased rivals when venturing off the beaten track. The GLE300d’s standard 4Matic permanent all-wheel-drive system marries a centre-mounted limited-slip differential with input from the vehicle’s braking and stability control systems to best attune to conditions underfoot. Factor in a useful, if not towering, 190 mm of ground clearance and it feels more at home off-tarmac than some cars in its bracket. Those wishing to venture further from the beaten track can specify an optional off-road package that adds an adaptive-damping module to the suspension and uprated towing capacity.

Given its price point, the GLE300d is not the most generously equipped model in its class. While premium SUV staples such as climate control, auto lights and wipers, a slick touchscreen infotainment system and camera-assisted parking aids are present, it’s disappointing to see keyless entry and ignition, fully adjustable electric front seats and leather upholstery (the GLE300d features fairly soft and supple Artico synthetic leather) feature on its equivalent rivals in our Match-up section but not on the GLE300d. Thankfully, some of that sting is softened by the engine’s frugal performance; it returned an impressive 6,80 L/100 km on our 100 km mixed-use fuel route.



TEST SUMMARY

Perhaps it was our positive first impression when sampling the GLE on its international launch, or the strangely unsettled quality of our test unit’s ride, but we walked away from the GLE300d with mixed feelings. We got the impression the fundamentals were present but the execution felt curiously lacking. There’s no doubting the GLE’s presence and practical packaging, and the engine’s ability to punch well above its weight was a pleasant surprise, but the jittery ride quality and the fact that it wants for more standard specification for the price just seemed to take the wind out of the GLE’s sails.

Granted, this is our first (relatively low-specced) taste of the GLE, so we’re keen to see if a more generously equipped model on air springs will atone for the GLE300d’s shortcomings. For now, though, it looks as though Mercedes-Benz might have its work cut out to remain a competitive player in the luxury-SUV scene.  

ROAD TEST SCORE

GLE Mercedes-Benz GLE300d 4Matic
69 / 100
  • Price: R1,344,080
  • 0-100 km/h: 7.2
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 180 KW @ 4200
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 500 N.m @ 1600-2400
  • Top speed: 225
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 6.4 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 169 g/KM