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2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class: First Drive Review

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class isn’t just another premium midsize SUV/crossover. It’s a gateway to the future of this entire class of vehicle. From the use of ultra high-strength steel in its body shell, to a suspension where each shock absorber has its own electric motor, to a voice-controlled infotainment system that springs into action at the mere mention of a name, this all-new generation of GLE-Class is fascinating.

To use its full title, the GLE-Class SUV now leaves behind every vestige of the old M-Class that was the original badge of the previous generation. It became the GLE after a midcycle revamp. There will be a GLE-Class Coupe coming in 2019, which is a 4-door version with a fastback roof line, but Mercedes-Benz is leading with the most important version.

One of several remarkable developments in the new GLE-Class is the availability of a third seating row. This is a first for a midsize SUV/crossover wearing a 3-pointed star. As for the other developments, read on.

A Range of Two Vehicles

When this fourth generation goes on sale spring 2019, the first models will be the 2020 GLE 350 4Matic and the 2020 GLE 450 4Matic. A rear-wheel drive GLE 350 (without the 4Matic suffix that denotes all-wheel drive) arrives in the summer. The inevitable higher-performance AMG variants are no doubt in the pipeline, but there’s no official word yet.

The GLE 350 4Matic is propelled by a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 255 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. This goes to all four wheels through a 9-speed automatic transmission. Power levels are adequate, any lower and there might be some justification to gripe about the engine not being quite up to the task. The new GLE-Class endeavors to keep weight in check, but a midsize SUV/crossover is never going to be a light vehicle.

The engine in the GLE 450 4Matic therefore makes a better choice if the budget allows. Now we’re looking at a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six delivering 362 hp and 396 lb-ft of torque. But there’s an added twist. This engine is enhanced by a 48-volt electrical system that provides a temporary boost of up to 21 hp. It performs another function as well, which we’ll get to in a moment.

There were no official fuel consumption figures for either vehicle at the time of writing this article. Another twist is that the AWD system in the more powerful variant has extra features, with the ability to send 100 percent of available torque to either axle, should conditions demand. Both versions have a feature where the outside wheels can turn faster than the inside wheels, for a more decisive character through turns. The 450 uses the 4Matic system for this, while the 350 achieves the same effect with the brakes.

About That 48-Volt System

There’s much more to this electric enhancement than a bump in horsepower. It activates the engine stop/start system in the GLE 450 4Matic, saving a little fuel at stop lights or when traffic grinds to a halt. One big reason for its existence, though, is E-Active Body Control. We mentioned this earlier. It’s an evolution of an adaptive air suspension, where every shock absorber has its own electric motor for fine and continuous adjustments to the damping. It brings a new feel and control to cornering as well as superb levels of ride comfort. It can also perform feats like "bouncing" the vehicle out of a sand trap. This also hints at some off-roading talents enjoyed by the new GLE-Class.

This is an optional feature, and not an inexpensive one, either. But if some buyers don’t want to indulge themselves to that degree, the standard suspension on both the 350 and 450 is still supple, well-controlled and completely appropriate for a luxury vehicle (the GLE-Class Coupe is expected to have a firmer, sportier suspension).

More Tech

Apple has Siri, Amazon has Alexa and Mercedes-Benz has MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) as standard. An occupant only has to say, "Hey, Mercedes" and the system will activate and await an instruction, like "find the nearest Starbucks" or "call home." During our test, we found that just saying the word "Mercedes" was sufficient to stir this digital assistant from its slumbers. This became slightly irritating when conversation turned to the make of vehicle we were driving. A quick utterance of "Cancel" was enough to make the MBUX system stand down. Gesture control is available as an option.

The navigation system can be enhanced by Augmented Reality, showing the upcoming junction and superimposing the desired route. "Seat Kinetics" is another option that subtly moves the front seats’ cushions to prolong comfort over an extended drive and help combat fatigue.

Two large 12.3-in digital displays — one for driver information, the other for the infotainment system — are standard. So is Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, LED headlights and taillights, Car-to-X communication (ready for when vehicles and their surrounding infrastructure can "talk" between themselves) and five USB ports.

Space Craft

The wheelbase of the new GLE is 3.1 inches longer than the outgoing generation, resulting in plenty of passenger space, certainly in the usual two rows. Cabin space behind the second row, going up to the top of the backrests, is 22 cu ft. Fold those seats down to reveal 72.5 cu ft.

Our test vehicle didn’t have the optional third row of seats that would turn the new GLE-Class into a 7-seater. Mercedes-Benz claims someone as tall as 5-feet 10-in could be accommodated back there.

How to Unbalance Your Checkbook

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class starts at $57,195 for the GLE 350 4Matic (the RWD GLE 350 will be priced from $54,695), while the GLE 450 4Matic starts at $62,145. Considering the least expensive new-for-2019 BMW X5 is around $62,000, the GLE-Class isn’t excessively pricey. Especially when the amount of standard equipment is factored in.

This includes blind spot monitoring and automatic emergency braking. Naturally, the options list is long and includes some partially autonomous features as well as an upgraded audio setup, heated/ventilated/massaging front seats and a cabin air fragrance system.

The new Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class blends the cutting-edge technology, sumptuous feel and lavish equipment of a luxury car and puts it into an SUV/crossover package.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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Colin Ryan
Colin Ryan specializes in writing about new cars. But he has also covered trucks, vans, 3-wheelers, even the occasional motorbike. That’s the kind of thing that happens while contributing to the Los Angeles Times, Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Popular Mechanics, Variety, Mazda and Lexus customer magazines, as well as many enthusiast sites and publications. He was also a staff writer at BBC Top... Read More about Colin Ryan

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