Johannesburg - To feed the motoring public’s seemingly insatiable love affair with SUVs, auto companies keep conjuring up new variations on the theme – and yea, the coupe-SUV was born: a sleeker, sexier form of adventure vehicle that still delivers the all-important ride height and space, but without the big-bummed look.

Mercedes-Benz’s offering in this playground is the GLE Coupe, sexier sister of the large GLE (formerly known as the ML, if you haven’t been paying attention in class). Much like the BMW X6 it competes against, this Merc’s coupe-like fastback roofline is a case of party on top, workhorse beneath.

It’s available in several versions starting at just over a million rand, and we tested the AMG 43 version selling for R1 354 186. It’s one of the models in the recently-created AMG 43 product line (also available in C-Class and GLC) which falls beneath the fire-spitting V8-engined AMG 63 versions.

Sort of an ‘AMG lite’ option, AMG 43 pairs a fast-but-not-completely-furious turbo V6 engine with chassis, steering and suspension upgrades.
The heart of the package is Merc’s biturbo 3-litre which sends 270kW and 520Nm to both axles via 4Matic all-wheel drive and a 9G-Tronic automatic sports transmission. Like most AMG 43 cars the GLE Coupe rides on adaptive air suspension with driver-selectable comfort and sport settings.

It’s a hearty performer with more than enough pace to satisfy the boy-racer inside, and that V6 turbo engine never leaves you with unsatisfied power cravings. It feels lively across the rev range, without any bottom-end lag, and its 5.7 second 0-100km/h time puts it right in hot-hatch territory. 

Electronically governed to 250km/h, the big Benz is a superb cruiser too, and the V6 makes a hearty howl especially when you select Sport+ mode which adds an appealingly rebellious exhaust crackle.

Sure, you’d still rather want the AMG 63 for ultimate bragging rights around the braai, and if you really do want to go to the drag strip, but those 430kW and 760Nm do come at a nearly R900 000 price premium. 

The AMG 43 will also save you some fuel, though it’s still fairly thirsty with our test vehicle slurping 14 litres per 100km.

Along with turbo V6 power the AMG 43 package comes with special transmission tuning with shorter shift times, AMG-specific axle designs and suspensions, more powerful brakes and an AMG sports exhaust. It’s also distinguished by AMG styling cues like Biturbo badging on the front fenders, a Mercedes-AMG logo on the front diamond grille and, if you happen to peer beneath the bonnet, an AMG logo on the red engine cover.

The vehicle in theory has offroading ability with its all wheel drive and height-adjustable air suspension, but I wouldn’t have attempted any bundu bashing in our test vehicle due to the super low-profile 22” tyres. While those big mags rate high on the pose-o-meter they make the ride quite restless and firm, even causing the body to judder a little. 

Opting for higher-profile rubber might lose some posing points, but for my money it’s the more sensible option in real-world driving.

The petrol versions of the GLE Coupe come standard with variable Airmatic air suspension,with Dynamic Select that softens or stiffens the damping at a press of a button. There’s also an Active Curve System that minimises body roll too, but our test car one day displayed an error message that the system was malfunctioning - which underlines that the more gadgets there are, the more that can go wrong.

The transmission can be configured to five different modes, from an eco-cruiser to a racy Sport+ setting which makes the car feel like it’s on a sugar high. AMG speed-sensitive steering also offers two stages for either a comfortable or sporty feel.

As we head closer towards a future of self-driving cars, the GLE’s semi-autonomous features include lane keeping assist (where the car steers itself back if you start crossing the lane without indicating), and active cruise control (which keeps a safe following distance).

The interior accommodations are typically Benz, with all the luxury trappings. There’s a good choice of materials and it’s all superbly finished, even though the dash looks a little dated against the dual digital screen layout of the latest Benzes (the next-generation GLE will catch up when it’s launched this year). 

Interior AMG-fication includes aluminium pedals, and a racing-style steering wheel that’s flattened on the bottom. The AMG instrument cluster features two tube-shaped round dials with a chequered-flag background, along with a multifunction colour display and racetimer.

That coupe-style roof won’t accommodate tall basketball players in the back seat as comfortably as the regular GLE, but it’s still a roomy and practical vehicle with lots of stretch-out family space. 

The boot’s reasonably large too and the rear seats fold down flat to create a huge loading area for bicycles or other large toys. Easy access is provided by a tailgate that opens and closes electrically.

VERDICT

If money is a mere formality the baddest Benz in the range is the Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S Coupé. But for its power, price and grin factor the AMG 43 is my pick of the GLE Coupe range. It feels fast and powerful without the brutality of the GLE 63.

The price includes a PremiumDrive six-years/100 000km maintenance plan.

FACTS: Mercedes-AMG GLE43

Engine: 3-litre, V6, turbopetrol
Gearbox: 9-speed automatic
Power: 270kW @ 5500-6000rpm
Torque: 520Nm @ 2000-4200rpm
0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng) 5.7 seconds
Top speed (claimed) 250km/h
Price: R1 257 906
Warranty: 2-year/unlimited km
Maintenance plan: 6-year/100 000km

GLE43 COUPE VERSUS RIVALS

Mercedes-AMG GLE43 Coupe 270kW/520Nm R1 354 186
BMW X6 xDrive35i 225kW/400Nm R1 186 392
BMW X6 xDrive 50i 330kW/650Nm R1 421 770
Range Rover Velar P380 SE 280kW/450Nm R1 240 136
Range Rover Sport HSE SCV6 R 250kW/450Nm R1 403 532
Porsche Cayenne S 324kW/550Nm R1 272 000
Volvo XC90 T8 AWD Momentum 300kW/640Nm R1 151 500

IOL Motoring