Mercedes-Benz GLE 300d & GLE 400d First Drive Review: The E-Class of SUVs
Curve mode. I had to rewire my brain to corner a Mercedes-Benz GLE 400d Hip Hop Edition hard in Curve mode. Because when you chuck an SUV in to a corner at speed, you expect it to roll. You expect to be shoved in to the side bolstering of your seat. You expect to feel weight transfer to the outside wheels as you feel for the limits of grip. These are sensations that my brain has been conditioned to expect when it sees a corner approaching fast from so far above the road. But, it didn’t happen. Instead, the GLE stays flat, you barely move in the seat and the front-end of the GLE dives in to the corner with unbelievable ferocity. The sensation is unnerving at first but then you get more confident with each corner you attack, pushing the GLE more and more every time. Active suspension — it may be making headlines for how it can make the SUV dance, but its when you’re driving it hard that you really see what a brilliant bit of innovation it is.
There’s no such thing as too many GLEs, which is why we have two on test here. First up, the GLE 300d (in Mojave Silver with beige interiors, FYI) and the 400d (in Emerald Green with brown interiors). As I look at the two SUVs at the shoot location, there isn’t too much to tell the two apart from the outside, save for the badges and the wheels — the 300d runs on 19s while the 400d gets 20s as standard. Close inspection, however, will reveal that the two actually have different headlamps too as the 400d gets Multibeam LEDs with the ability to switch off individual LEDs to not dazzle oncoming traffic, while the 300d gets regular LEDs. The GLE is a handsome looking SUV. The proportions are pretty much the same as the older car, and I particularly like the fact that Merc chose to retain the forward-sloping C-pillar. In terms of dimensions, the GLE has grown in length — its 105mm longer than the old-gen car and a lot of that (80mm to be precise) is between the two axles. And all of that goes on to make sure that the new GLE will grab plenty of eyeballs as it rolls down the road.
The interiors are a far cry from the old GLE’s too. This new generation interior looks really, really good and is easily one of the highlights of the SUV. While most of your attention will be drawn to the twin 12.3-inch screens that dominate your view out at the front, it is the smaller things that actually make this interior special. Like the little leather wrapped palm-rest to make using the MBUX trackpad easier, the open pore wood trim that feels really rich and even the chunky grab rails (with some cool ambient lighting integrated in to them) around the centre console. The switches and knobs finished in brushed metal feel top quality and the seats are wide and comfortable. But the 300d is not as well equipped as the 400d. It misses out on a number of features — Burmester speakers, massage seats up front with heating and ventilation, nine airbags (the 300 gets 7), electrically reclining (and folding) rear seats, a 360-degree camera and a head-up display. But there’s some cost cutting that rather surprised me in the 300d — it doesn’t get memory seats and the steering has to be manually adjusted for rake and reach. That feels like a bit of a let down, after how good the rest of the cabin feels. Both variants, however, do get four-zone climate control as standard and both get connected car features that allow you to control functions from your smartphone. The backseat is rather comfortable too. Space is more than enough, and three can sit abreast without trouble with the sense of airiness amplified by the panoramic sunroof. Something you should note is that the GLE is available as the seven-seater in international markets, but in India it can only be had with five seats. This carries on in the same vein of the ML and the older GLE which were always 5-seaters, probably done to differentiate it from the soon-to-be-launched GLS.
Mercedes Benz GLE 300d
I started my day from behind the wheel of the GLE 300d. I was a bit apprehensive before I started driving it because the GLE is BIG, and up front was a two-litre diesel engine with one turbocharger latched on to it. But the spec sheet gave me a glimmer of hope: the engine puts out 241bhp and 500Nm. And in all fairness, the engine impressed me a fair bit. Getting out of the city, the refinement was what stood out — it is fairly quiet and non-intrusive inside the cabin. And as we got out of the city, I could be more liberal with the throttle pedal and get a sense of how the GLE moved. It actually has good responses, and will pick up speed well. I could overtake slower moving traffic with ease, even on inclines with the gearbox willing to kick down when asked and pulling the car along confidently. I was under the assumption that the 300d would be caught out earlier, but when I was actually driving, I never felt the engine lacking for grunt.
The ride and handling quotient is good too. , yes, but not at the expense of handling despite the fact that it doesn’t have active suspension. The 300d rolls an acceptable amount and will corner with a fair bit of enthusiasm. It doesn’t feel as tied down and connected to the road as a BMW SUV would, but it gets close. The steering feels pretty direct and though there isn’t much by way of feedback, it turns in well and weighs up nicely at speed. But the GLE 300d doesn’t get a Sport mode, and you have to make do with Comfort, Eco or Off-Road.
So don’t expect the car to tighten itself up and become more responsive at the touch of a button. The 300d, thoroughly impressed because this is the GLE that most people will go for. But with a 400d staring back at me, I couldn’t help wonder how good that would be.
Mercedes Benz GLE 400d
The stickers on the side of the GLE 400d aren’t standard equipment, in case you were wondering. I suspect this was the car that was displayed at Auto Expo and Mercedes hasn’t bothered peeling off the stickers that explained why it was bouncing all over the place. And why would they, when that one single feature makes such a difference to how the GLE behaves. The difference when you hop in to the 400d from the 300d is immediately apparent. The GLE immediately rides better, flattening out the little vertical movement that the suspension in the 300d is susceptible to and making the 400d feel far more confident.
The Active Suspension is a wonderful thing. It works in conjunction with the air-suspension that the 400d gets to deliver a far more polished driving experience. So the GLE has all the party tricks that any of these other air-suspended SUVs have — it can tighten or slacken the suspension depending on which mode it is in, and raise the ride height to give it more clearance and drop it at speed to make it more aerodynamic. Then there’s the active suspension bits. It doesn’t just resist body roll, it actively leans the car in to corners — almost like a motorcycle — to enhance grip by keeping the weight of the car balanced even when there’s heavy lateral loads. I drove the S650 Maybach with this system a few months ago, but that car is low and this lean doesn’t feel too pronounced. In the GLE, though, it is very apparent since you are sat up so high and accustomed to feeling so much body roll in a car like this. The Curve mode also stiffens up the suspension slightly — doing what the missing Sports mode would ideally have done. It is unnerving the first time you turn the wheel, but you quickly recalibrate to how quick the front end suddenly feels and can drive it rather confidently. As for the bouncing, the GLE does that to rock itself free in case it gets stuck while off-roading and you can also control the ride height of each individual wheel manually from the infotainment screen.
The 400d also comes with an engine to back up the dynamic chassis. The inline-six turbo diesel makes 324bhp and a whole 700Nm of torque. Turbo lag is negligible and the throttle pedal delivers bucketloads of torque, hustling the GLE with some intent. I mean, a ton comes up in just 5.7 seconds! I had to recheck that there were no AMG badges on this car. I didn’t feel like the 300d was under-endowed until I drove this — the creamy delivery and character of the engine suit the luxurious-slash-powerful image that the GLE has going for it.
There’s always torque in reserve and you don’t have to work the engine half as hard to get it move. It’s a diesel and there’s no scintillating soundtrack but the refined growl of the six-cylinder does mean business when you really open up the throttle. And again, the nine-speed automatic does a fine job of keeping it exciting.
There’s a rider, though. A big one. The GLE 400d is a very expensive car at Rs 1.25 crore a pop, making it more expensive than a Range Rover Sport even. You might argue that the price can be justified with the sort of performance and technology the SUV offers, but I’m pretty sure anyone walking in to a Mercedes-Benz showroom looking to buy a GLE will most likely put their money on the 300d. The 400d is a brilliant piece of engineering. The engine, the suspension and even the level of kit it offers make it faultless until you add price in to the equation. And that ‘Hip Hop Edition’ suffix.It is then, that the 300d seems like a rather exciting prospect. If you haven’t driven the six-pot car for reference, you wouldn’t even know you’re missing out. The only issue I see with it is the missing features like the Burmester audio and basics like the memory seats that dull the sheen of an otherwise brilliant cabin. The GLE rivals the likes of the BMW X5, the Audi Q7 and now with the 400d, even the Range Rover Sport. With its blend of comfort and presence, the GLE actually has a lot going for it and could possibly replicate what the E-Class did for Mercedes-Benz in the sedan space.