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First drive: Mercedes GLE Coupe hits the autobahn

Drive lines: Mercedes’ new GLE Coupe could have come to market years ago, but Benz prioritised development of its suite of compact models instead.

BMW X6-fighting Mercedes GLE Coupe adds choice to renamed ML-Class range


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23 Jun 2015


MERCEDES-BENZ finally has the large coupe-style SUV to take on BMW’s unchallenged X6, but rather than scrambling to catch up, the German luxury car giant says it deliberately waited to launch a competitor.

When BMW unveiled the polarising high-riding X6 “sports activity vehicle” eight years ago, Mercedes considered introducing a rival model based on its ML-Class large SUV, but instead chose to pursue its A-Class small hatch and related models.

Only after its small-car range – which now extends to a hatchback, crossover, coupe sedan and Shooting Brake wagon – was established, did Mercedes turn its attention to a coupe version of the large SUV, which is now renamed GLE.

Speaking at the international launch last week of the new GLE and GLE Coupe, both of which arrive Down Under in September, Mercedes-Benz SUV and sportscar product group president Wolf-Dieter Kurz told Australian media that the company saw a greater potential in pursuing a small-car family rather than a relatively niche SUV coupe.

“Of course at the very beginning we were looking into such kind of vehicle and thinking can it really be successful?” he said.

“We looked into that vehicle at that time and (decided to) invest the money differently because it will give us the wider portfolio base. On one hand it’s a financial issue and on the other it’s a question of capacity.

“The development of a new vehicle costs the same effort whether you do a vehicle which has just 100,000 in lifecycle or a million and so that’s why the investment decision was taken differently.

“As a company you have to pick your choices in terms of where you are investing and so it was important for us to expand (the) portfolio with the A-Class, GLA, B-Class, CLA and also now the Shooting Brake.”

Mr Kurz explained that while BMW pioneered the large coupe-style SUV segment, the rival German manufacturer was now following Mercedes’ lead in a different segment with its 2 Series Active Tourer.

“We are coming with a model which is the SUV coupe and other manufacturers are coming with vehicles which look similar to the B-Class so that’s a basic trend in the automotive industry,” he said.

“So we had our focus in the past years in expanding the portfolio and I think we were very successful in doing so, and now comes one after the other.”

The new GLE Coupe accompanies its more conventionally styled GLE SUV sibling as part of a line-up that continues the previous ML-Class bloodline, but with a different name in accordance with the new company-wide system.

GoAuto sampled some of the new GLE range at the vehicle’s launch in Germany, starting with an autobahn blast that shot us out of Allgau towards Austria in the mighty Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S Coupe that starts from $198,900 plus on-roads.

Its savage 5.5-litre twin-turbocharged V8 produces a healthy 430kW and 760Nm of torque and the abundant swathes of power become patently clear when presented with one of Germany’s excellent unlimited freeways.

Cracking the milestone 200km/h mark was effortless, and even at twice the Australian speed limit the GLE’s cabin was quiet and composed. Its extensively tuned Airmatic suspension delivers a sublime ride but planted manner on the road.

Even when we added another 60km/h to the speedometer, the pumped-up AMG coupe-SUV did not miss a beat, with positive steering feel and confidence-inspiring brakes should speed need to be scrubbed in a hurry.

The beautiful AMG sports seats kept us in the right place, offering an elevated position and a good view of the surroundings with flexible adjustments.

Flank-squeezing side bolsters offered good support for leaner occupants but are controlled via the information and entertainment screen rather than a switch, which was fiddly.

Acceleration is strong and seemingly boundless with 100km/h coming up from static in just 4.2 seconds thanks to exceptional torque and minimal turbo lag, but even though its BMW rival matches the figure, the X6 M feels more vicious in a straight line.

However, the Mercedes trumps the BMW on comfort, with a silky ride and only slightly fussy handling when faced with sharp-edged imperfections, which were infrequent given Germany’s impeccably maintained roads.

Even running on 22-inch wheels, the GLE Coupe manages a firm but comfortable manner and even when the Dynamic Select mode is set to Sport, the ride is not inexcusably harsh – it was actually our favourite setting with no discernible compromise to comfort.

Feedback through the suede-wrapped (actually Dinamica man-made fabric) and flat-bottomed steering wheel was nicely weighted but perhaps not quite up to the communication levels of a true sportscar.

Pushing the GLE Coupe through a few corners highlighted its accomplished chassis, and despite its unmistakable SUV ride height the vehicle remained flat – thanks in no small part to the Active Curve roll-stabilisation system.

While the rest of the range has nine speeds in the automatic transmission, the AMG version needs just seven, which handles the huge torque capable of hauling the big Merc out of most situations with slick shifts from the 7G-Tronic gearbox.

Flicking through manually using the steering wheel paddles was a pleasure, but the carefully programmed automatic mode was intuitive enough to handle any situation admirably.

As a performance SUV, the 63 S is an accomplished package but we would not recommend it for its fuel efficiency. Mercedes says the big V8 uses 11.9 litres of fuel per 100km on the combined cycle, but with the irresistible autobahn stretched out ahead we managed to double that figure.

As it was when badged ML, the overall GLE AMG package is truly impressive, but without doubt its party piece is the glorious exhaust note.

The un-muted V8 rattle is unapologetic, loud and utterly addictive, and the AMG engineers have done an amazing job to hide the fact its exhaust has two obstructing turbines in the system.

Under part throttle the two pairs of tailpipes create a wonderful phased rumble not unlike an old twin-engined bomber. We found it hard not to smile every time.

Other manufacturers take note: turbocharging does not have to come at the cost of character and, more importantly, piping in synthetic sounds through the stereo won’t ever sound as good as the AMG’s natural note.

Next, we jumped in the mid-range GLE Coupe and the first in Mercedes’ forthcoming AMG Sport line of vehicles, the GLE450 AMG Coupe that comes in at $141,900.

While it does not have a full-fat AMG-worked engine, it does have a beefy 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 and a useful 270kW of power and 520Nm of torque.

Mercedes’ performance specialists have fettled the chassis and added a rude bodykit for a more accessible performance GLE Coupe variant – AMG light, if you will.

We liked the classic AMG looks and accompanying handling, not entirely unlike its bigger, more powerful sibling, and while the steering was a little numb at lower speeds, the variable system results in better feedback and weight at speed.

Acceleration from the six-cylinder is impressive given its relatively small capacity and the exhaust note is satisfying with a dry and typical V6 note across the rev range.

Like the 63 S, even with Dynamic Select switched to Comfort, the exhaust note is still loud and could become intrusive for day-to-day use by people who do not want the full AMG effect all the time.

Unfortunately, the excellent chassis and performance was let down somewhat by a brake pedal that requires too much force, offers little feedback and has more travel than we would prefer, but that’s not to say the braking performance was inadequate when pressed hard.

The GLE Coupe’s raked rear roofline is intended to appeal to an audience wanting a sportier persona from their SUV, but the diving rear has not encroached too much on interior space.

Measuring 188cm, your correspondent was comfortable in the second row with ample headroom and an excellent view of the gorgeous alpine surroundings through both side windows and the large glass sunroof.

The new addition to Mercedes’ large SUV range will no doubt steal a little of the action from BMW’s X6 range with a good balance of sporty equipment, rewarding performance and typical Mercedes quality.

As for the looks? We’ll let you decide that for yourself.

Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe pricing*
350d (a)$121,900
450 (a)$141,900
AMG 63 S (a)$198,900
*Excludes on-road costs.

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