2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE first drive review

A Mercedes so sophisticated, it connects to your watch to plan your massage

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE is a technological marvel, and it will take you a while to dig through all the features.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE is a technological marvel, and it will take you a while to dig through all the features.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE is a technological marvel, and it will take you a while to dig through all the features.

Highs

  • Top-tier comfort
  • Marvelous tech
  • Decent performance
  • Advanced driver assistance
  • Sharp looking SUV

Lows

  • None worth mentioning

The 2020 GLE is the all-new replacement for the outgoing GLE and the newest descendant of the popular M-Class line of mid-size SUVs from Mercedes-Benz. Let’s start with the bottom line – there’s nothing not to like about this vehicle. It’s incredibly comfortable, reasonably fast, and good-looking. Mercedes had to do a good job, because the mid-size luxury SUV segment is a must-win contest with cutthroat competition.

The new GLE will go up against with the usual crop of contenders from Europe and Asia, including the BMW X5, Volvo XC90, Audi Q8, Acura MDX, and Lexus RX. You could throw in competitors from Land Rover, Porsche, Jaguar, and Tesla, but those don’t usually attract the same buyers.

In America, you’ll be able to get the GLE 350 with a potent turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder and rear-wheel-drive, or as the GLE 350 4Matic with full-time all-wheel-drive. You can also order the GLE 450 4MATIC with a gutsy turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six with 48-Volt mild hybrid assist, and all-wheel-drive. Mercedes will offer a range of turbo-diesels around the rest of the world, but not here. In fact, the only GLE that we will have in common with the rest of the world is the 450 4Matic.

Mercedes has not yet announced pricing, as the first models won’t arrive until spring of 2019, but it’s reasonable to assume that starting prices for the GLE 350 will be about $55,000, as they are with the current model.  We’ll get the AWD models first, with the rear-wheel 350 coming along later next year.

Interior and tech

The main thing to know about the new GLE is that it’s a technological fun house. Mercedes has piled on every electronic feature you can imagine, and it all works together to make this SUV smooth, comfortable, and easy to use.

Let’s start with the suspension. You’ve got three options to choose from. There’s the normal suspension, which is Mercedes-nice. It’s tight, smooth, and predictable. You can upgrade to air ride with the AirMatic suspension option. Like most air suspensions, this allows you to raise or lower the ride height, and the GLE will automatically do so depending on where you’re driving. AirMatic comes with adaptive damping based on how much pressure you’ve got in the system.

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

However, the top suspension option is where things get interesting. Mercedes has what it calls E-Active Body Control, which works on top of the AirMatic to actually give you predictive damping. There’s a radar/camera system in the GLE that constantly scans the road surface just ahead of the vehicle, and looks for bumps, potholes, and rough road. Then the E-Active system prepares the suspension to handle whatever’s just ahead before you roll over it.

That’s not all. The E-Active system also monitors your steering, and leans into corners and curves. The system drops the inside suspension height so that the lateral g created by cornering pushes you into your seat, instead of pulling you towards the outside of the curve. As you exit the corner, the GLE returns to level ride. Motorcyclists will recognize this feeling instantly, and everyone will like it.

The Distronic system will now automatically keep the GLE at the posted speed limit unless you override the function.

The GLE also comes with all modern conveniences, including an optional large head-up display that is configurable with all kinds of information. Some drivers found it intrusive, but we liked it. You can turn it off if it bugs you. Then there’s Mercedes’ Distronic adaptive cruise control with steering assistance. This system will now automatically keep the GLE at the posted speed limit unless you override the function. That’s a very good feature for those of us who need to keep our traffic violations under control.

On top of all that, the GLE offers lane change assist, emergency braking, evasive steering assist, active blind spot assist, and left-turn assistance. What’s really amazing is that most of that stuff is hardly worth mentioning on a new luxury vehicle.

On the dashboard, the GLE comes with not one but two 12.3-inch short-wide screens. One is in front of the driver delivering a configurable information display, but to tell the truth we hardly looked at it because the same information is displayable on the HUD. More action happens on the center dash screen, which is where you control the navigation, infotainment, and seat features through the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User eXperience) interface. Mercedes told us that there are about 40 new functions in the MBUX system, and we didn’t get to most of them. GLE buyers can fully explore the MBUX ecosystem at their leisure, but be sure to try the gesture control. It will make you feel like a Jedi.

2020 mercedes benz gle review merdeces first drive tech xxl
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Notably, the MBUX navigation system has taken a page from the gaming world. As you approach a navigation instruction, the center display changes to a camera view of the road ahead, with floating tags that identify street names, destination addresses, and floating arrows showing you which way to turn on the desired road. Our only complaint with this system is that it encourages the driver to look down at the dash long enough to absorb detailed information. The obvious upgrade is to float those tags and arrows on the windshield as part of the HUD.

One more note on the tech. MBUX now includes a “Hey Mercedes” function as part of the voice control system. Like her cousins Siri and Alexa, Mercedes can perform a web search, find some music, or chat with you in English, German, and Mandarin. The only quibble is that Mercedes tends to butt into unrelated conversations you’re having with your passenger to offer help if she thinks you said her name. At least until the GLE is used to your voice, saying “my dog has rabies” can trigger the automated assistant.

Those are just the highlights of the tech package on the GLE. There’s a lot more there to discover, but the takeaway is that it all just works without you having to do much management.

The front seats have more massage options than a Navy town, including a simulated hot stone effect.

The rest of the interior is exactly what you’d expect from a first-class luxury SUV. The rear seats can be ordered with heat and power-adjustment. The front seats have more massage options than a Navy town, including a simulated hot stone effect. The GLE even has an Energizing Coach feature that will recommend different massage, ambient lighting, and audio programs to suit your mood. Available programs include Freshness, Warmth, Vitality, Joy, and Comfort, plus three training modes for muscle relaxation, muscle activation, and balance that come with exercises for you to do while driving. To top that off, if you’ve got a Garmin smart watch or fitness monitor, the GLE will interact with it to determine if you’re more stressed or tired than usual, and the vehicle will use that information to suggest a restorative program. Your Benz can also be your personal trainer.

Oh yeah, the GLE also has a fragrancing system with eight different scents, plus a coconut shell charcoal filtration system and high-voltage negative air ionization. Simply put, you can now fearlessly carry your dog in the car no matter what he’s eaten lately.

On the practical side, the GLE can seat up to seven passengers with the third-row seats. There’s 22.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row, and up to 72.5 cubic feet with all the seats folded down. The seats fold almost flat in the GLE, so the space is quite functional.

Driving experience

The heart of the GLE in America is a pair of capable engines. There’s a turbocharged, 2.0-liter with 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, which Mercedes puts to good use with a nine-speed automatic transmission. We drove only the 4Matic version, which will be first to dealers in the new year, but it’s likely that the base rear-wheel drive GLE 350 will be perfectly adequate in the sun belt. The GLE 450 comes with a turbocharged, 3.0-liter straight-six boasting 367 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, plus an additional 22 horsepower available on demand from the mild hybrid system.

2020 mercedes benz gle merdeces first drive exterior 6
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

By the numbers that’s a big difference, but perceived performance isn’t vastly different between the two models. The 450 boasts a 0-60 time of 5.5 seconds, while the 350 does the dash in 7.1 seconds. While the 1.6-second difference is ticking by, what you notice is that the six-cylinder has more grunt, while the four-cylinder runs eagerly at the high end.

One area with a difference is the AWD system. The 350 4Matic uses a fixed 50:50 torque split front to rear, with wheelspin controlled by brake actuation. The 450 4Matic has a clutch pack that can send up to 100 percent of torque to either axle. A low-range reduction gear with locking center differential is optional on the 450 4Matic. Like other manufacturers, Mercedes has made the AWD system smart enough to dig itself out of a jam if you get it stuck in sand. But let’s be real, no one’s taking a mid-size luxury SUV into deep sand in North America.

Let’s be real, no one’s taking a mid-size luxury SUV into deep sand in North America.

Realistically, most buyers are going to choose the 350 4Matic because it’s not slow and this isn’t a sports car. No one is ever going to ask a GLE driver about their 0-60 times. However, if you plan to pull a trailer, the GLE 450 4Matic is capable of pulling up to 3,500 pounds, and includes sway control and trailer maneuvering assistance.

On the road, both versions of the new GLE are a joy to drive. This SUV is not as fast or nimble as the Jaguar F-Pace, but it’s as calm and steady as a Range Rover. The GLE compares favorably to the Acura, Audi, BMW, Lexus, and Volvo offerings. Especially when equipped with the E-Active system, the GLE is confident and firm while also offering a silky-smooth ride over all kinds of road surfaces. If you don’t want to spend the money on the electronics, the air suspension is also smooth and offers the ability to raise and lower the GLE. For those who have an eye on the bottom line, the basic suspension is perfectly good. You’ll never feel like you put yourself in a penalty box if you go with the base GLE.

As you probably expect by now, the GLE has every modern safety feature you can think of, and a few that you probably never thought you needed. The bottom line is this: the new GLE will do everything possible to prevent an accident, and take care of the occupants if an accident can’t be avoided. It’s not a self-driving car, but the GLE is on the job.

Warranty

Warranty information for the GLE has not been announced, but Mercedes offers a standard four-year, 50,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty. Mercedes also offers a pre-paid maintenance plan.

How DT would configure this car

Without knowing the actual price range, it’s harder to make a definitive statement about what we’d buy, but the GLE 350 4Matic is likely to be the best value for most North American drivers. Unless you live in Los Angeles or Houston, AWD is expected in an SUV.

We’d definitely spring for the HUD and the E-Active suspension. Leaning into corners is just too cool to pass up. We like our comforts, so we’d make sure our GLE had heated and ventilated front seats, but we probably wouldn’t pay for the massage system. One’s car should be the last refuge from being nagged about one’s fitness.

The navigation system is definitely worth buying, but we’d probably settle for the standard seven-speaker audio system. Mercedes has two optional levels of Burmester surround sound upgrades for audiophiles, so that’s available if you want it.

Our Take

The new GLE is a wonderful mid-size luxury SUV. It’s loaded with tech, including some features that you’ll really come to appreciate. Those who bought the last GLE or the M-Class before it will absolutely love the experience. Driving dynamics, comfort, and safety are all above par for the class.

Comparing the new GLE to the competition is a matter of taste. The Jaguar F-Pace is our current personal favorite for its driving dynamics and the Volvo XC90 for comfort and user design. However, the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne are both going to be renewed for 2019, and both have been praised in early reviews. The truth is that the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE in any configuration will be a worthy competitor to any of these choices, and it will come down to price and features, and whether you like Mercedes’ approach to the tech.

Should you get one?

Yes. If you liked the old GLE or M-Class, you’ll absolutely love the new GLE.

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