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If this doesn’t look like an all-new SUV you’re bang on the money. It might have a new name – Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 d – but, as is obvious from the pictures, this is the mid-life refresh of the SUV previously known as the ML-Class.
What’s with the name you ask? It’s in keeping with Merc’s new naming system for SUVs – GLE is essentially the E-Class equivalent of their SUV range, just like GLA is the A-Class equivalent and the plus-sized GL, will associate itself with the S-Class when it is facelifted and be given the GLS name. And with that out of the way, let’s get on with what’s new in the GLE.
Visual tweaks are quite mild and you get redesigned headlamps with the new single-arc LED DRL that is now a Mercedes visual signature. At the front, the bumpers are reprofiled, the grille is revised to look sportier with two slats and the wing mirror housings are new. The changes to the rear are even more subtle with the obligatory new LED graphics in the tail lamps of the GLE 350 d, while the old ML’s signature C-pillar treatment with the glasshouse wrapping around the tailgate remains in place.
Inside, the cabin remains virtually untouched save for a new infotainment display that adopts the floating iPad-like style on the A and C-Class. The display is of a higher resolution, which is very welcome, but the old COMAND interface (this doesn’t get the slick new system from the C-Class) can feel a little ponderous to use and is slow to respond at times. And even though it gets in-built navigation, we felt Google Maps worked far better, at least while I was trying to get out of Delhi.
That said, the cabin of the GLE 350 d feels suitably lavish, well appointed (there’s even park assist that automatically reverse parks the car in to a well defined parking spot) and the quality of the trim is improved. The new steering wheel is delightful to hold (gone is the half-wood treatment and in comes a flat-bottom), the instruments get new graphics and there’s also a touchpad to scribble numbers and destinations or scroll through the COMAND menus. One thing that remains is the GLE continues to be a 5-seater while its rivals, the X5 and Q7, both have three rows of seats. Again that’s open to dispute because, technically, the GL competes with the Q7, the upcoming GLC will compete with the Q5 and this, the GLE, will slot between the Q5 and Q7 (which is why it gets both V6 and four-cylinder diesels). Confused?
What I’m driving is the GLE 350 d that gets Merc’s venerable (and lovely) 3-litre V6 diesel. What’s significant is that this motor gets the new 9-speed automatic transmission, replacing the 7G-Tronic. As we’ve experienced with all Mercs equipped with this engine, the powertrain is lovely, easy-going, very refined and blessed with solid low-end torque for effortless progress. The 9-speed auto, shifts quicker than the old 7-speed and shifts are less intrusive but, like the old 7-speed, it works best when left to its ways rather than banging up and down the ratios via the paddle shifters. What you can be sure of is the 9-speed will deliver better fuel efficiency, and when it comes with better performance who will complain?
The motor makes 254bhp and 620Nm of torque from a low 1600rpm. The claimed 0-100kmph time is 7.1 seconds while top speed is limited to 250kmph. Of course the big seller will be the 250 d that gets the four-cylinder motor making 201bhp, 500Nm of torque (also at 1600rpm) and capable of 0-100kmph in 8.6 seconds. This motor is also mated to the new 9-speed auto.
While the 250 d gets steel springs, the 350 d is equipped with AirMatic air suspension that offers a cosseting ride without feeling vague and unresponsive. The electro-mechanical steering offers a decent amount of feel while the double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension deliver well-controlled body movements. It will go around corners with surprising enthusiasm and carry surprisingly high speeds before descending in to understeer. All GLEs get 4Matic all-wheel drive as standard, that has a standard 50:50 torque split but can vary the ratio depending on grip levels, sending as much as 100 per cent of torque to the rear axle if required. There are 5 switchable driving modes that alter the steering feel, gearshift speed and shift points, and throttle responses. Sport mode makes everything quite heavy and the suspension too stiff and we felt the GLE works best when left to do its own thing in comfort. In fact Mercedes admits to engineering the GLE with comfort in mind, unlike the sportiness of the X5 and, with our roads being what they are, it does work better. And, of course, if you want sportiness from your Mercedes SUV, early next year you will be able to buy the GLE Coupe that gets a swoopy coupe-roofline like the BMW X6 and firmer suspension.
Off road enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the driving modes in the GLE 350 d include off-road that raises the ride height and softens the throttle and gearshifts. However, we won’t get the optional off-road engineering package that gets a low-ratio transfer case and a mechanical locking rear differential to turn the capable rock-crawler into a Thar-baiting off-road champion as I found out on the launch drives a few months back (story in Evo Off Road, July 2015 issue). There just isn’t enough demand for it in India to offer even as an option.
The ML was always one of our favourite SUVs in its class and the GLE feels even better – the cabin is better equipped and feels more expensive, the handling is more engaging, it is better to look at and the powertrain performance and refinement have gone up a notch. And all of the updates come at a price hike of 4 to 5 lakh rupees. It might not have seating for seven but on every other – and particularly on the proven formula of luxury, comfort and quality – the GLE makes a solid case for itself.
Evo India rating: 4/5
Engine: V6, 2987cc, turbo-diesel
Power: 254bhp @ 3400rpm
Torque: 620Nm @ 1600rpm
0-100kmph: 7.1 seconds
Top speed: 225kmph (claimed)
Basic price: Rs 70 lakh (est)