IF imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery, BMW would have felt particularly gratified once the covers were pulled from the new Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupé 4Matic at the 2015 North American International Auto Show. Munich no doubt felt a sense of fulfilment with not only another major manufacturer accepting the market potential for a sports activity coupé (or SAC), but that, particularly viewed in profile, the Stuttgart creation shares design elements with the X6.
The fact that Mercedes-Benz chose the Detroit show to reveal its interpretation of a coupé-bodied SUV says much about the market that’s most intrigued by this concept.
Like the BMW, the GLE Coupé is heavily based on an existing SUV in its stable. As part of Mercedes-Benz’s renaming strategy, the facelifted third-generation ML-Class (due in South Africa as this issue hits the shelves) is now badged GLE, the “G” denoting it as an SUV and the “E” clarifying its size, in this case in relation to the E-Class range.
Design-wise, the sleek lines of the new GLE Coupé sit somewhat incongruously on the raised platform and lacks the cohesion of the second-generation X6. The accoutrements applied to this first version of Benz’s new AMG Sport range further underline its over-the-top design.
The GLE Coupé is also available locally in slightly more demure 350d guise; the GLE450 AMG, which benefits from an aggressive styling package, aims to compete with the likes of Audi’s S and BMW’s M Performance models, while also serving as an entry point to the Affalterbach model (GLE63 S) further up the pecking order. Optional 22-inch wheels aside (21s are standard), few would argue against the sheer presence, either positive or negative depending on your tastes, the GLE450 AMG exhibits on-road.
Longer and wider than the vehicle on which it’s based, the Coupé is 77 mm lower than the GLE. If you’re seated in the heavily bolstered AMG-sourced front seats, this lower roofline doesn’t ultimately impact on comfort levels, but – like the X6 – rear headroom is compromised. What’s more, the standard fitment of wide, chromed side sills on the 450 will either be viewed as helpful to small feet climbing aboard or a menace to calf muscles disembarking.
Another consideration for potential family buyers is the tall lip (raising the load height to 892 mm) that needs to be negotiated before accessing
352 dm3 of luggage space. Thankfully, an electronically operated tailgate is standard throughout the range.
Finally, a standard three-spoke multifunction steering wheel, piano-black facia inserts and chrome-look pedals add a sporty touch to an otherwise well-insulated and classy cabin. The large centre-mounted screen for the Comand system is clear and user-friendly.
Performing an admirable job of propelling the GLE450 AMG is Benz’s twin-turbocharged 3,0-litre V6 engine. Scheduled to be introduced in other ‘Benz models (including the C450 AMG early next year), this smooth motor produces 270 kW and 520 N.m of torque between 1 800 and 4 000 r/min. These outputs are delivered to all four wheels (in a more dynamic 40:60-split compared with other models) via a new nine-speed automatic transmission that impressed not only with the fluidity of its operation (addressing our criticisms of the seven-speed transmission Benz has been using for years), but also its ability to adapt to driving conditions without the perpetual search for an optimal gear negatively impacting on the driving experience. That said, a 12,6 L/100 km consumption figure recorded on our fuel route proves this powertrain does work hard to shift the Coupe’s 2,4-tonne mass.
While the AMG-developed styling may signal serious performance intent, overtaking acceleration figures report steady rather than blistering pace once on the move. That said, the GLE450 (with no launch-control function) was able to show a clean pair of heels by launching from standstill to 100 km/h in just 6,0 seconds flat.
This figure was made possible by firming up the standard AMG-sourced Airmatic air suspension to limit body pitch. Activated via the vehicle’s Dynamic Select programme, adjustments to throttle and steering responsiveness through sport and sport+ settings helps the GLE to feel much more alive. It’s the firmest of the three damper settings (which lowers the ride height by up to 55 mm), however, that’s tasked with managing an instinctive – and at times annoying – pivot motion around the Coupé’s raised centre of gravity as the vehicle surges forward.
So effective is the firmer suspension setup at keeping the GLE Coupé’s body roll in check that we opted for it as default (via a further individual mode) for most driving conditions; the softest setting allows the body to sway gently from side to side on the open road, or pitch heavily under braking.
While the sport+ damper setting, working together with an Active Curve anti-roll system, keeps the GLE450 AMG relatively flat in corners, you always remain aware of the sheer weight being shifted around. Ultimately, the X6 and Range Rover Sport feel more agile than the GLE Coupé.
Fortunately, in any setting, the Coupé’s continuously variable suspension remains compliant enough to cope with most road imperfections without sacrificing occupant comfort.
There’s a subjective drawback to constantly driving the vehicle in sport+ mode, however … it engages one of the most prolific soundtracks of pops and crackles from an exhaust system we’ve encountered. The jury is out whether such an ostentatious vehicle requires any further gimmickry to attract attention. A persistent drone at cruising speed also negatively impacts on the otherwise premium feel of the cabin.
From a consumer point of view, vehicles like the GLE Coupé and X6 are inherently compromised. Touted as an amalgam of SUV and sportscar, both vehicles sacrifice versatility and practicality in the pursuit of a sporty edge that no vehicle carrying this much mass nor ride height could fairly hope to achieve.
However, the relative success of the X6 proves there is a market prepared to accept these compromises in order to make a social statement. We do wonder, though, whether these purchases are based on loyalty to the badge rather than the result of a comprehensive search through the segment options. They may not have distinct coupé-like rooflines, but full-size SUVs such as the Range Rover Sport and Porsche Cayenne continue to set the dynamic standard in this segment and are ultimately more practical.
As an exercise in offering its customers more variety, Benz will feel the GLE Coupé delivers an optimal balance of sporty prowess allied to the sophistication for which the brand is known. As a package, however, there are simply too many compromises. The GLE Coupé is neither a practical SUV nor a sportscar, and may prove to be an attractive proposition only to diehard Benz fans.