Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class driven
This is not something you do with an SUV that will cost you three quarters of a crore!
I like a breakfast of mud and gravel as much as the man who writes the editorials for this OFF ROAD magazine, but that’s where the similarities between Ouseph and I end. I see gravel and shift down, nail the throttle, throw the tail sideways and dial in an armful of opposite lock. Ouseph and his ilk get their kicks out of putting their off-roaders into ditches and then winching them out of it. And that’s exactly what we are doing.
Not winching, but putting the GLE into a series of big fat ditches. I believe this is called an axle twister and I can’t see what real-world conditions would require such an extreme ability but every off-road test seems to have one of these tests so I go with the flow. Turn the drive select mode switch (this is new) and select off-road mode which increases ride height by 60mm. Turn the drive selector knob once more to engage Off Road Plus (available with the Off Road Engineering Package) and you get an additional 30mm of ground clearance for a total of 285mm. If you’re vertically challenged you’ll need a very big stool, or a ladder, to alight from the GLE with this mode engaged. Mumbai residents will be most pleased to note the 600mm fording depth, essential for mobility in the monsoons. Everything engaged we head off into the series of ditches like it is a walk in the park, alternate wheels dangling nearly two feet off the air. Makes for great pictures, I have to say.
Ouseph will tell you that a spotter is any off roaders’ best friend. I can tell you that the GLE’s cameras work just as well – and you don’t need to feed its face. Or you can check out the other info like slope angle, tilt angle, steering angle or heading. We round a bend and I am asked to take a sharp left and head down a 70 per cent decline (translates into roughly 35 degrees). No spotter required, check the view ahead on the new COMAND screen thanks to the front facing camera, place the wheels perfectly (it even tells you how much the wheels are turned), engage hill descent control, use the cruise control lever to adjust the downhill speed (I’m happy with 2kmph) and inch down the slope. 35 degrees is damn bloody step (the GLE can handle up to 45 degrees) but with hill descent you don’t touch accelerator or brake, the GLE’s electronic brain figures everything out for you and you just steer.
Any fool can do it.
This test is followed by an uphill section that is wet and slippery. Our GLE’s are equipped with off-road tyres that can improve ability off the road by nearly twenty per cent but Merc’s engineers tell us that the GLE can do everything we have done (and are going to do) with regular road tyres. With low-ratio engaged on the transfer the torque (620Nm) is nearly tripled and it clambers up the crunchy gravel like a mountain goat. Imagine 1800Nm driving all four wheels, that’s enough torque to pull down the hill we are climbing up.
What follows is more uphill and downhill through what looks like a quarry, more heart in mouth moments (for me), and the GLE just goes through with ease. Of course the GLE will go through the test route with ease, nobody at Mercedes is crazy enough to map out a route that the GLE will struggle through and lead to negative reviews – but boy oh boy does the GLE have some mad ability. And before the year is out you will be able to get yourself one of these GLE’s in India.
So what is the GLE?
This is the replacement to the ML-Class, a face-lift rather than an all-new model, and falls in step with Merc’s new naming convention for SUVs. GLE is the E-Class equivalent of Merc’s SUV range, slotting between the recently unveiled GLC and the soon to be updated and rebadged GLS. For three years since it was launched the ML has been Merc’s best selling SUV in India and the GLE has big boots to fill. And it will do it with one big USP – off-roading ability. With the Off Road Package being standard the ML 350d will be the only SUV in its class to get a low-ratio transfer. This package comes with the adaptive air suspension that can increase ride height by up to 90mm. Boy will Ouseph and his ilk love driving the GLE!
Obvious question then, how close is the GLE to the legendary G-Wagon in terms of off-road ability?
After much ho-humming Merc engineers let on that the GLE can do 80 per cent of what the G-Wagon can – and that, in my books, is hugely impressive. Remember the G-Wagon is this old-school designed-for-the-military hard-core off-roader that sits on a ladder-frame chassis and has not one, not two but three mechanical locking differentials. The GLE makes do with the centre differential with a 50:50 torque split on its permanent four-wheel-drive and a clever dose of electronics. In Off Road mode the centre differential is locked in a straight line but opens when going round corners to give you a decent turning circle. In Off Road Plus the centre differential stays locked all the time.
When the ETS detectsslip it brakes thespinning wheel and sends torque to the wheel with traction thus working like front and rear locking differentials and ensuring that even if only one wheel has traction the GLE can continue moving and not waste away all its torque spinning the unloaded tyres. How this differs from mechanical diff locks is that the locks transfer torque before the slip starts while electronic diffs need a bit of slip to get activated. The latter is not as effective as mechanical diffs but it reduces weight and complexity while improving efficiency and thus is a far better solution for a luxury SUV that will rarely see much off-roading action. For the record the Off Road Package adds 25kg to the weight of the car.
What else is new in the GLE?
Merc’s new 9-speed automatic transmission is now standard across all diesel engines. This gives a wider spread of ratios to play with leading to improved refinement, performance and efficiency while also being quicker to react than the earlier 7G-Tronic. The platform remains unchanged with the same wheelbase and suspension settings but it is all a bit tighter and more refined. Interior space remains unchanged but that was never a problem in any case. There is no third row of seats, you will have upgrade to the full-size GL for that.
On the interiors there is a new high-res 8-inchinfotainment screen that, in terms of design, is reworked to look like an iPad stuck on to the dash, just as you would find in the C-Class, GLA et all. There is also the new COMAND interface, again like the C-Class, that it mated to a touchpad to deliver a more intuitive experience. Dynamic Select is activated by a rotary knob on the centre console and you can switch between Comfort, Sport, Slippery and Individual modes where engine, transmission and suspension settings can be adjusted separately. With the Off Road Engineering Package you also get the additional Off Road Plus mode. The rotary knob that mimics Land Rover’s Terrain Response and is an easy way to access all the modes but I did find the tactile feel to be strangely lacking for a Mercedes.
Top-end variants get B&O surround sound that has gorgeous little tweeter towers in the A-pillar. And, oh, there’s a fat and flat-bottomed steering wheel, swathed in alcantara on our test car. Goodbye half-wood-rimmed steering wheels. Together it brings the GLE up to date with the times at least till the all-new Q7 comes towards the end of the year and rewrites all the rules.
On the road the GLE drives with the same refined manners as the current ML. To give it better on-road dynamics there is a new Sports Direct-steer system makes has a rack steering quicker, the directness and the immediacy that it affords giving the GLE a new found enthusiasm for cornering. Adding to that is the optional Active Curve System which is an active anti-roll bar system on the front and rear axles that tightens up during sporty driving to cut body roll but slackens on poor roads so the suspension works independently and thus is better at isolating poor roads. It all made for a rather enjoyable drive on the mountain roads heading to Kitzbuhel and then the motorway for the drive back to Munich. That said it won’t be able to keep up with the new Q7 when it encounters one of the road, neither will the driver have as much fun as the guy sitting behind the virtual cockpit of the latter.
The V6 diesel engine delivers 258hp and can hit 100kmph in 7 seconds and on to a top speed of 226kmph. Optimisation to electronics has claimed to have improved the fuel efficiency while the 9G-Tronic has improved refinement. The four-cylinder 250d develops 204hp and 500Nm with 0-100kmph taking 8.6 seconds and a top speed of 210kmph. The 250d, which is and will be the best-seller, will not get the Off Road Package and to make it price competitive it will also come with a rear-wheel-drive variant. Which means you won’t be able to do silly things that should be left to the Gypsy.
Of course the GLE looks far more elegant clambering up slopes and dropping into ditches. There are new headlamps with Merc’s new ‘eyebrow’ DRL visual signature while the bonnet, bumpers and wings are reprofiled. The bonnet has twin power domes while LED headlamps are an optional extra. But apart from these tweaks the GLE remains identical to the ML, which isn’t a problem in my books. This is a classically good-looking SUV: not too brash, not too understated – a please-all-offend-none act. Which can do way, way more than you’d expect of a luxury SUV when the going gets mucky.
Ouseph will be pleased.