Mercedes GLE 350d 2016 review
Does refresh give the big, bold Mercedes GLE SUV a new lease of life? We find out
The GLE wears a new badge, while its styling has been refreshed and the interior upgraded. The engines are strong, it’s roomy and a new nine-speed automatic gearbox improves the driving experience. Overall, it’s a welcome improvement on the old ML-Class, though unfortunately the updates don’t really go far enough. Newer rivals have made great advances in terms of fuel economy and driver involvement, and the GLE is starting to feel just a little old.
Few car makers know how to make money from SUVs as well as Mercedes does. The German giant has been selling a range of fashionable models for years, and – as the recent New York Motor Show demonstrated – it’s working hard on filling the newest niche of them all; the coupe-SUV. We saw the GLC Coupe in the States, and drove the sleek GLE Coupe late last year, but now we’ve been given the keys to its more practical sibling.
Calling the car ‘new’ is stretching it a bit, though. It wears a badge that subscribes to Mercedes’ new naming structure, but also one that aligns it with the E-Class family. Essentially, however, the GLE is a heavy refresh of the ML-Class – the brand’s first proper exploration into the world of SUVs.
As with any refresh, the styling has had some cosmetic surgery. At the front, there’s a more curvaceous look, with swept-back headlights, a larger and more imposing grille, new bumpers with larger vents and a more rounded bonnet. Along the sides it’s business as usual (save for some fresh wheel designs), while the back has more modern-looking lights and a new bumper.
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The distinctive C-pillar, with windows that wrap around the rear end, is left over from the old ML, though. Clearly Mercedes deemed it was a classy design feature that had to stay, despite the car’s new name.
On the inside, there are even fewer differences; a highlight is the addition of Mercedes’ tablet infotainment screen nestled between the air vents. It’s linked to a rotary controller and smartphone-like touchpad on the centre console, bringing the GLE in line with rest of the range. It controls Mercedes’ COMAND system, but it isn’t quite as easy or intuitive to use as BMW’s brilliant iDrive system.
The engine range has been tweaked, too, and there’s a choice of petrols and diesels, plus a plug-in GLE 500e hybrid. But, in reality, it’s the diesels that’ll interest most – and the six-cylinder 3.0-litre V6 350d is our top pick. With 258bhp and 620Nm, it’s punchy, smooth and a good deal more appealing to drive than the four-cylinder diesel in the entry-level 201bhp 250d.
Whichever diesel you go for, you’ll get a new nine-speed automatic gearbox, meaning changes are fast and slick. Mercedes claims an average of 42.8mpg, and while its 179g/km of CO2 sounds fine in isolation, BMW’s X5 xDrive30d emits only 156g/km. That equates to two lower road tax bands and an annual saving of £45 on VED, not to mention the cash you’ll save if you run one as a company car.
Where the GLE really is starting to feel its age, though, is in the way it drives. The GLE’s closest rival, the X5, manages to combine fun, involving handling, while also coping with some light off-road terrain. The GLE has an impressive range of off-road modes and seems tough when tackling mud and rocks, but back on the tarmac it feels a bit old. The steering is numb and the body sways around on country roads. And while our AMG Line has standard-fit air-suspension, the GLE still fidgets around and crashes into large potholes and big bumps.
For some, the fact that the GLE feels a little old won’t matter. While the dashboard’s design is a bit conservative compared to Mercedes’ newer cars, it’s well made and all models have a strong kit list. Entry-level Sport variants, for instance, get LED headlights, a parking camera and sat-nav, while more desirable AMG Line cars add 20-inch wheels, a more aggressive body kit and heated sports seats.
It’s roomy up front, and in the back there’s space for three adults. The boot is usefully large – it’s noticeably more spacious than a BMW X5’s – but there’s no seven-seat option.