Within the recent updates to Mercedes-Benz’s core lineup, the freshening of the 2020 GLE-class is a big deal. Introduced as the M-class in 1998 and renamed GLE in 2015, the mid-size SUV has long been a key part of the Mercedes range. Although it hasn’t reached the iconic status of the also new G-class, the significance of the GLE’s updates are undeniable and mostly satisfying.
The 2020 GLE comes standard with a 255-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four denoted by a GLE350 badge on its liftgate. But the turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six in our GLE450 test car is a juicier cut. The silky-smooth engine and its 48-volt hybrid electrical system are shared with the Mercedes-Benz CLS450 and will soon spread to other Benz models. Here it develops 362 horsepower, routed through a nine-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive.
The turbo six’s power was more than adequate for our test vehicle’s hefty 5151 pounds, and highway merging and passing maneuvers were never anxiety-inducing. Mat the accelerator and the GLE450 moves off with little hesitation and an authoritative soundtrack, particularly in the Sport and Sport Plus driving modes (along with the default Comfort setting, there are also Eco and Individual modes). We recorded acceleration times that were slightly quicker than those of the outgoing six-cylinder GLE400, but the improvement is incremental. The GLE450 managed a 5.3-second zero-to-60-mph run, which puts it on pace with the Audi Q8 but 0.4 seconds behind the six-cylinder BMW X5. The Benz nearly catches up with the quicker Bimmer in the quarter-mile, however, posting a 13.9-second pass at 100 mph.
On the road, the GLE450 rides less stiffly than the Audi or the BMW, yet with less agility and composure. Our test car came with one of the two different optional air-suspension systems, but it lacked the astute body control over road undulations and in brisk cornering maneuvers that we expected, even considering it’s an off-road-capable SUV. The standard suspension features conventional steel coil springs, but we have yet to experience that setup. The feeling of excessive suspension compliance was borne out on the skidpad, where the GLE450 delivered a so-so 0.82 g of grip versus the BMW’s 0.89 g.
Despite the suspension’s extra pliancy, the GLE’s ride over pockmarked roads was often harsh on our test car’s optional 20-inch wheels; we have yet to drive a version of the standard 19-inches. Stomping on the Benz’s reassuringly firm brake pedal results in a class-competitive 175-foot stop from 70 mph, although the aggressive initial bite from the calipers can be difficult to modulate in stop-and-go traffic.
The new GLE-class’s cabin pushes Benz’s interior design further along while still holding true to the rest of the lineup. Our GLE450 4Matic test vehicle was loaded with options—$18,810 worth, to be exact—and included an in-cabin fragrance diffuser, four-zone automatic climate control, heated front and rear seats, soft-close doors, a huge head-up display, and a 64-color ambient lighting system that flashes the integrated lighting strips either blue or red when adjusting the temperature of the climate control. Our example came equipped with the $1850 Premium package, which adds the ambient lighting system, an inductive charging pad for devices, satellite radio, a 115-volt power outlet, and a 13-speaker Burmester audio system. The upgraded stereo provides rich, crisp sound, but its lower front speakers sent unseemly vibrations into the driver’s-side footwell, even after we adjusted the bass and switched to our local NPR station for the latest episode of This American Life. The faux leather and microsuede seat upholstery in our test vehicle looked attractive, but at an $80,955 as-tested price, we’d have appreciated genuine materials.
Passenger space is plentiful in both the front and back seats; Mercedes is now offering an optional third row of seats in the GLE-class, but our test vehicle wasn’t fitted with the pop-up chairs. Two widescreen 12.3-inch displays float in front of the dashboard as they do in other contemporary Benzes and project Mercedes-Benz’s new MBUX infotainment system that debuted in the entry-level A-class last year. The new interface isn’t as logically laid out as the previous generation’s COMAND infotainment system and requires some initial familiarization. But MBUX can be controlled via touchscreen, voice, or a console-mounted touchpad, the latter of which is far superior to the nominally similar setup in some Lexus models. The system’s voice commands are handy in their responsiveness to simple commands, and it responds much like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, but we can’t help feeling a little silly when summoning the system’s attention with the “Hey, Mercedes” command prompt.