First Industry Drive: 2019 Mercedes-Benz GLE 4Matic

Scheduled to go on sale in the UK market in early 2019, Dr Ian Kuah travels to Texas for to discover the all-new fourth generation GLE.

“With an 80mm longer wheelbase, it makes it larger all round than its predecessor and with a seven-seat option, it bridges the gap between the old model and the larger GLS.

Its 4,924mm overall length is 105mm greater than the outgoing model, while width (without mirrors) has grown by 12mm to 1,947mm. However, thanks to a new design of exterior mirror, the GLE’s overall width with mirrors is reduced by 16mm.

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Despite its larger measurements, fine proportions belie the GLE’s actual size, and the optional 20-inch wheels worn by our test car certainly help the visual balance. The new GLE also boasts the best drag coefficient in its class, its Cd of 0.29 a huge leap over the 0.32 of the outgoing model. The only metric that has suffered from the size increase is the turning circle, which is now 0.2m greater at 12.0m.

The load space is truly cavernous, with the boot alone swallowing 630 litres of luggage. If you fold all the seats flat, which is easy to do thanks to the remote buttons, the resulting 2,055 litres of load space is about 20% more than a large estate like the E-Class T-model.

Designed to look good as well as be functional the standard side steps make entering and leaving the spacious cabin relatively easy. Once you are behind the wheel, the electrically adjustable steering column and memory seats make it easy to find the ideal driving position.

The single glass panel covering the dual 12.3-inch instrument and infotainment screens is a thing of beauty, and this thin panel appears to ‘float’ away from the dashboard. Augmented software moves the MBUX interface first seen on the latest A-Class up a notch with some clever new features. This is also the first GLE with the option of a Head-Up Display.

BMW introduced gesture control with their current 7-Series for actions like answering the phone or altering the cabin temperature. However, those who know this system also know that inadvertent hand movements in front of the dashboard by driver and passenger alike can have unintended consequences.

The chief advantage of coming to the party later is learning from the mistakes of early adopters. Thus, the new Mercedes system requires specific predetermined gestures with two fingers monitored by a camera built into the roof dome light cluster. This also tracks the position and movements of your hand above the pad on the centre console so that only deliberate instructions are recognised and acted upon.

Meanwhile, the system also recognises the direction a hand is coming from so that the correct seat will be chosen when driver or passenger wants to alter the massage setting or turn on the seat heating via the touch screen.

The rear seat boasts over one metre of legroom and plenty of headroom, even for the very tall. The light and airy feel conferred by the huge optional panoramic glass room adds to the feeling of space, making travel in the rear an absolute pleasure.

Although our test cars were not so equipped the GLE will offer a third row of seats for the very first time. Mercedes say that this seven-seat option has been designed so that adults will have enough leg and headroom to be comfortable.

Part of the comfort equation is acoustic refinement and the new GLE is around 10dB quieter in the human speech frequency range than before. This means carrying out a normal conversation at freeway speeds or listening to the outstanding optional Burmester audio system is that much easier.

The 3.0-litre six-cylinder GLE450 with the optional E-Active air suspension we drove on the launch in Texas showed off the full extent of this new platform’s capabilities. Other markets like the UK will also get four and six-cylinder diesel engines, all teamed with a nine-speed automatic gearbox and 4Matic all-wheel-drive.

The all-new 2,999cc twin-turbocharged i6 petrol engine introduced in the face-lifted S-Class last year benefits from a partial 48-volt electrical system with starter/generator. This engine makes 367hp from 5,500-6,100rpm and 500Nm of torque from 1,600-4,500rpm. The EQ Boost from the starter/generator provides an extra 22hp and 250Nm of torque at low revs.

This motor is strong and smooth and perfectly suits the loping gait of the GLE 450 4Matic when equipped with the Airmatic or E-Active suspension options. The six-cylinder motor closes the sophistication loop, so the fact that its 5.7 sec 0-100km/h sprint, and electronically limited 250km/h top speed are good for a full sized SUV will be of little relevance to most prestige SUV buyers whose priorities are image, sophistication and quality.

On the basic steel suspension paired with 20-inch wheels and 275/50ZR20 rubber, the GLE ride and handling experience is good but nothing special. While compliant, the ride has a firm edge to it that results from the roll stiffness required for safe handling at speed. Thus, the diagonal rocking movement you experience in any tall vehicle when traversing dips in the road at low speeds is still there.

Things smoothen out at higher speeds, the motorway and A-road ride being supple and composed in the front and satisfyingly compliant in the rear. In fact I was not unhappy to give up the steering wheel and move aft for a while to feel the enhanced comfort engendered by the longer wheelbase.

If the steel suspension is a compromise, and the Airmatic suspension a good halfway house, the subjective difference the new E-Active Body Control (E-ABC) suspension option makes to the new GLE’s ride and handling behaviour is stellar.

An optional addition to Airmatic, E-ABC is the only active suspension system on the market that can individually control the spring and damper forces at each individual wheel. Where air suspension smoothened out the ride of the old GLE but did not do enough to control roll in fast cornering, the E-ABC system has a truly transformational effect on the GLE’s dynamic behaviour.

As SUVs go, an E-ABC equipped GLE is peerless in its ability to soak up small imperfections at low speeds, while retaining iron fisted body control when you pick up the pace on a twisty road. It certainly has the edge over other full size air suspended SUVs like the Range Rover Sport, Audi Q7, and Porsche Cayenne in this respect.

However, that is not the full extent of E-ABC system’s abilities. Using Road Surface Scan and the curve inclination function to seemingly work against the laws of physics, the E-ABC suspension leans into a bend to counter roll in a way that effectively removes body lean from the equation.

By limiting the cornering forces acting on the cars occupants normally generated by body roll, comfort and overall deportment are noticeably better, something your VIP passengers will surely appreciate.

From a ride quality perspective the E-ABC suspension confers impressive serenity to the GLE on road surfaces of all kinds. From a handling point of view, controlling body movement and roll in this way mitigates the laws of physics that affect any tall, heavy vehicle being asked to change direction. In summary, the E-Active system adds surreal composure to your progress down any road whether straight or twisty. This is a game changing technology for both comfort and cornering performance.

In an age where good cars are not exactly in short supply a vehicle capable of raising the bar to such a great extent is a rare find. In base form, the new Mercedes GLE is a good car, but when equipped with E-Active Body Control suspension and a six-cylinder engine it becomes a truly great one, and VIP transport par excellence.

Report and Pictures: Dr Ian Kuah.

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