Mercedes-Benz is debuting new technologies previously destined for its top luxury sedan in its SUV line, a signal of how much market preferences have recently shifted.
The redesigned 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE midsize crossover, on sale in spring 2019, introduces a range of new features that will spread across future models in the lineup. They include an intelligent air suspension, an online infotainment assistant and enhanced automated safety.
The German automaker poured its engineering might into the 2020 GLE to fend off a growing list of competitors in the midsize luxury SUV segment.
It’s a telling sign of the growing influence of SUVs. More than 58 percent of the luxury brand’s U.S. sales are SUVs or crossovers through the first 10 months of 2018. It’s a higher share than at competitors BMW and Audi.
Sales of Mercedes crossovers and SUVs are up 4.8 percent through the first 10 months of 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. Sedans have fallen 15 percent.
The automaker expects the new GLE to surpass its sedans and become the second top-selling model, behind only the smaller GLC crossover. It’s clear from a 200-mile drive of a new GLE across central Texas that Mercedes gave the updated vehicle airtight build quality, innovative features and more off-road capability.
“We are still the trend-setter,” said Andreas Zygan, chief engineer for Mercedes-Benz SUVs.
At launch the GLE will be available in two models. The GLE350 is powered by a turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine with 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The GLE450 has a twin-turbo 3-liter inline-six engine with 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque.
Both models come with a nine-speed automatic transmission and full-time all-wheel drive. A rear-wheel-drive GLE450 will follow later in 2019.
Pricing and fuel economy figures will be available closer to launch.
Optional Third Row
For the first time since it debuted as the M-Class in 1998, the GLE will offer a third-row seating option. Mercedes hopes to bridge the gap between traditional GLE owners and those of the mammoth GLS. The GLE’s closest competitors, the BMW X5 and Lexus RX, also offer a third-row option.
The GLE is not breaking any aesthetic barriers. It has a snub-nosed front end and generic crossover shape. A striking headlamp signature and prominent Mercedes badge are its most distinguishing features.
Yet, inside it shines. The GLE has a stately interior design with premium materials. Gentle glowing LED accent lights change color on command. The leather seats are plush and supportive; headrests are pillow-soft; an available massage function is intoxicating.
The key interior feature is two conjoined screens, each 12.3 inches, laid out wide in front of the driver and across the dash. Called the Mercedes-Benz User Experience, or MBUX, the screens offer dazzling clarity and are intuitively controlled by touch, a pad on the center stack or scroll buttons on the steering wheel.
MBUX is standard equipment on all GLE models. It uses a forward camera to project live directions onto a view of the road ahead in real time. Six-cylinder models get a voice-activated interior assistant that when prompted with, “Hey Mercedes,” controls navigation, searches the web or tells a joke.
E-Active Body Control
But the GLE’s calling card is the new E-Active Body Control. E-Active is an intelligent air suspension. Electronic dampers at each wheel allow the suspension to adjust up and down for an optimal ride. It can even lean aggressively into turns or bounce the GLE to free itself from deep sand or mud. To read more about how E-Active Body Control works, click here.
The system uses a lot of power. Mercedes installed a 48-volt battery, similar to that in the new Ram 1500, under the floor of the driver’s seat to feed E-Active without stressing the traditional 12-volt battery. It is the second application of Mercedes’ 48-volt mild hybrid system – it’s —also used in the CLS four-door coupe.
The CLS and GLE mild hybrids use an Integrated-Starter Generator that runs the engine start-stop technology to conserve fuel at idle. In the GLE the transitions are so smooth it’s difficult to tell whether the engine shut off in the first place.
Altogether, the GLE delivers a satisfying drive. The lighter GLE350 is rev-happy off the line and offers direct driving feel. The GLE450 with E-Active weighs an extra 300 pounds – its —total curb weight is nearly 5,000 pounds. The suspension is a technological marvel, but the vehicle’s heft is hard to ignore.
The 3-liter engine relies on beefy turbochargers; the boosted electronic steering and braking assist insulate drivers from the road – and world – around them. The GLE does not have the sporty performance to match its X5 rival. But the serene ride and ease of operation likely are what many customers want.
Compared to other rugged vehicles on the market, a luxury crossover like the GLE may not seem an appropriate choice for the road less traveled. However, adventure remains a priority. The GLE has good approach and departure angles and comes standard with raised roof rails.
“An SUV still needs off-road capability,” Zygan said. “We created the segment with the M-Class and always want SUV to mean Sport Utility Vehicle, not Sport Activity Vehicle.”
Available accessories include protective cargo area storage for hauling gear and plastic door cladding to prevent exterior scratches. Mercedes also will offer its own branded crossbars, bike racks and cargo boxes it said are designed to withstand greater forces than aftermarket products. The optional off-road package comes with a transfer case providing torque-on-demand to the wheel that needs it most.
If adventure is front of mind and owners don’t mind dirtying their prized new SUV, Trucks.com recommends swapping out the Michelin Primacy Tour all-season tires. The stock 19-inch wheels are too large for all-terrain models. But an aggressive all-season like the Michelin Defender LTX or Kumho Crugen HT51 will provide a distinct advantage off-road.
The new GLE launches an SUV platform called Mercedes High Architecture that will also underpin the revised three-row GLS in the future. And more GLE variants are on the way. MHA will be used on an upcoming GLE plug-in hybrid, a four-door “coupe” and powerful AMG performance models.
Mercedes-Benz is betting big on SUVs. The automaker invested $1 billion in its Tuscaloosa, Ala., plant to increase production capacity for the GLE and other models. Mercedes could not build the previous generation GLE fast enough to fulfill demand. It doesn’t matter whether the GLE outsells the X5, Zygan said, as long as orders are full.
“We are convinced that this car is making its way,” he said.
Editor’s note: To facilitate this report, Trucks.com attended an event where Mercedes-Benz hosted travel and lodging.