INTERNATIONAL - The homely Mercedes-Benz GLE is so important to the automaker’s well-being that a dip in its sales, as customers wait for the 2020 version, affects the brand’s overall health.
Last month, Mercedes-Benz sold 152,690 vehicles worldwide, down 6.7 percent from the same month in 2018. In the U.S., its biggest market, sales reached 21,660 units, down 12.5 percent.
In a statement accompanying the sales numbers, the company blamed the drop on “model changes” and also specifically the discontinuation of the GLE’s predecessor model.
In an email, a Mercedes spokeswoman confirmed the brand believes buyers are postponing purchases of the GLE, preferring to wait until the shiny new models hit showrooms in March rather than buy last year’s remnants.
That’s a lot of influence for a humble-looking crossover, which is as rectangular and boxy as any SUV from the past decade. It’s not the cool dad, but it’s the dad you can count on to take care of you. And really, that’s what you need in a dad, anyway.
With sales of sport utility vehicles expected to outpace car sales in 2022, and the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek blasting the news that we’ve reached “Peak Car,” sometimes the most innocuous SUVs on the road are actually the most crucial.
A Safe Bet
This serves as an important reminder. It’s easy to get hyper over expensive supercars, million-dollar electrics, and crossover “coupes,” but the $61,150 GLE shows that the fundamental driver for a luxury brand like Mercedes remains midsize, dutiful, gasoline-fueled SUVs.
They don’t have to be flashy—in fact, it’s better if they aren’t.
Minus the general presence of its shiny tri-star grille, it stands quietly behind Mercedes’s lineup of other, significantly sexier, sportier, and, in the case of the G-Wagen, more iconic SUVs. Remove the badges, and I challenge anyone to distinguish among the GLA, GLC, and GLE SUVs. I certainly can’t.
The GLE is not as mind-numbing to look at as, say, the Audi Q5, but it’s specifically designed to be inoffensive and safe to the point of comatose. A band of chrome running from the hood up and over the side windows on some of the model color options softens the body a bit, and the two slim crests running down the hood help add depth, but the hulk of the body simply looks like a 1980s basketball shoe.
Subtle But Significant Updates
The novelties for this new model-year GLE are dutifully subtle as well. The GLE 450 I drove around Manhattan for a week is Mercedes’s second model powered by a six-cylinder engine that’s also periodically electrified with 48-volt technology. (The first was the CLS450 it launched last year.) This is done to stretch efficiency—19mpg in the city, and 24mpg on the highway.
GLE comes with a newly refined driving personality to match. The nine-speed transmission makes it powerful and smooth, with nary a top roll as I weaved through traffic up FDR Drive. The steering is precise and responsive—even at the lower speeds that make other SUVs feel sluggish. (Credit this largely to active body control systems that mitigate how spongy the car feels, as well as the ride height, individually at each wheel.)
As you’d expect with Mercedes, myriad driver-assistance systems such as active braking, active lane chance assist, and blind-spot assist increase the level of active safety. You can also get things like “speed limit assist” and “route-based speed adaption,” which sound like nightmares for anyone preferring to drive their own style and, uh, speed. Air suspension and body control are also recommended for those who want to get the most out of their GLE experience.
Inside, the infotainment system comes with newly enlarged screens and an optional full-color heads-up display. (If you find heads-up displays obnoxious and distracting, you should opt out of this one—it’s pretty pervasive.) The infotainment is set in the most luxurious-feeling interior setup of any luxury car in this class on the market. Where BMW and Porsche feel more engineered and minimal, the Mercedes feels polished, elegant, and beautiful. Where interior systems in Audi are finished and orchestrated to look futuristic and ultramodern, those in this Mercedes SUV retain some trapping of old-world charm: wood tones, if you want them; a few buttons and knobs. (And I’m so glad Mercedes keeps the tiny textured volume scroller to the right side of the steering wheel—I find myself idly feeling for it like a phantom limb when I drive other cars.) A system called MBUX Interior Assistant is also now enabled to recognize hand and arm motions to help control audio and comfort settings.
One note: Do you like nightclub lighting like the kind you might find in a Midtown hotel? Then you’ll love the illumination that lines the GLE’s cabin and changes color in a hypnotizing rotation of pink, purple, and blue. (This can be deactivated for those who find it disconcerting—even I don’t want to be in the romper room all the time.)
My favorite update is that not only can the front seats be heated, but when the seat heater is on, the armrests and center console lid warm up, too. This will now be included in my list of essential things for New York in March; I can’t I haven’t come across it before.
My least favorite is the scratchpad-like surface that lets you doodle with your finger on a horizontal “pad” to select options on the screen in front of you. It’s set in the center of the car, which is augmented with a padded bolster on which to rest your wrist. If you were paralyzed everywhere besides your wrist, it would be great. If you’re not, it seems ridiculously unnecessary.
Also new for the 2020 GLE: Even the second row of seats is electrically adjustable, and a third seat row is now available on request. The rear is thoughtfully designed, somehow pulling off the alchemy to make it more spacious inside than it looks from the outside. The all-wheel-drive GLE SUV will have no trouble pulling its own weight as a true family hauler, easily satisfying the demands of, say, three kids involved in sports or music or light animal husbandry. (Towing capacity maxes out at 7,700 pounds.)
It’s not the fastest SUV in the race, but with a 362-horsepower engine and a zero-to-60 mph sprint time of 5.5 seconds, it’ll more than keep up.
In fact, as every last automaker seems to introduce smaller and/or electrified rigs, the GLE may even be among the last of a dying breed—the big, boxy SUVs that run by internal combustion and get along just fine.
If you’re a fan of the old, more humble square-box SUV like this, don’t worry too much. Time moves slowly in the car world—most models turn a generation every seven years or so—so all of these newfangled electrics won’t happen overnight.
In the meantime, Mercedes’s new GLE remains a gold standard of the old guard.