JOHANNESBURG - When the Mercedes-Benz ML made its debut back in the late 1990s it immediately caught on as a smart alternative to the tried-and-tested estates and wagons that people had become accustomed to as family vehicles throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact by 2001 in the USA alone, Mercedes-Benz was selling around 45 000 MLs a year. Last year, the company sold more than 46 000 units over there. There's been ups and downs in terms of sales, however it has remained a staple for many discerning drivers.

In South Africa, the ML (now the GLE) is quite a popular choice too. Mercedes-Benz won't tell us exactly how many they sell here, however, if you take a look around and search for used models online, you'll see that there are far more Mercs than other makes on the road.

The times they are changin'

As automakers look to reduce their, and your, impact on the environment, there's been this push to get more electric vehicles to market. Now, you can debate the whole emmissions thing around how much energy is used to mine the rare earth elements for electrified cars in the first place, but that's not stopping Merc in particular from forging ahead. 

The GLE not only has to deal with a new-generation BMW X5 and sharp new Q7, as well as the Porsche Cayenne, it also has to fight for sales with the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz EQC, which made it's debut at the Smarter Mobility for Africa conference in Pretoria a few weeks ago. So, what has Mercedes-Benz done to make the GLE a go-to vehicle in the premium SUV class? Let's take a look at the latest version...

It's an all-new model

The latest generation GLE was launched in South Africa earlier this year, boasting an all-new platform (shared amongst Merc's larger luxury models), sporting new styling and some interesting engine choices.

Now, you might think that Merc have gone all soft this time, softening the styling and reducing the number of angles in the exterior design, but you would be pleased to know that the new GLE is one of the most aerodynamic vehicles ever made. Yes, despite its size, the GLE's co-efficient of drag comes in at 0.29Cd, which is better than a 2013 Koenigsegg Agera. Its body is built for slipperiness and when combined with a diesel motor, like the one we tested (GLE400d), you start to appreciate how the form follows function on the behemoth. I like the styling, as it's not too shouty and there's still a bit of sharpness in the design when you look at the LED headlamps and the tailights.

Under the hood

Our test car came with the OM656 six-cylinder diesel engine that offers 243kW of power and 700Nm of torque. Merc's proud of the engine, as it's a particularly 'clean' design, thanks to an extended exhaust aftertreatment with an additional underfloor SCR catalyst. It is actually the first Mercedes-Benz model to be certified to the Euro 6d standard.

Aside from all the marketing talk about it, there's a genuine toughness that comes through in the power unit from the moment your fire it up, all the way to the redline. It's not M50d responsive, but for a diesel it really moves the game forward as far as 'normal' 3.0-litre models go.

I particularly enjoyed the ease with which the car is able to gather speed both from a standstill and when on the go, making overtaking safe and easy even when fully laden with passengers and luggage. The nine-speed automatic box also works well in most instances when cruising, without too much hunting between gears thanks to the massive torque available across a wide rev range. Overall, in its Comfort setting, the car is really a gem to use as a daily and on the long open road. It's smooth, still able to respond quickly when you need to 'go' and it doesn't crash and bang over bumps and undulations.

Offroad, thanks to its honed driver assist systems and smart 4MATIC drive system, you simply let the car do its thing and you gently apply the gas and steer in the direction you need to go. I won't take it on tough offroad expeditions, but it's good to know that if you live on a plot, or you need to get to a hard to reach place, that the car is highly capable on both the tar and the dirt.

Luxurious, but not the best

When I jumped into the GLE400d test car for the first time, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the vehicle's dual widescreen displays for the instrument cluster and the infotainment system. It's like those screens you see in those high-end electronics stores, sharp and bright and very compelling. There's more than just looks to these screens too, as they provide more information than you'll ever need - including G-force measurements...

The screen behind the steering wheel is particularly handy when offroading as you can set it up to show the incline and roll of the vehicle, or you can have it show you how your all-wheel-drive drivetrain is labouring in real-time as you tackle obstacles.

Technology wise, it's really a leader when it comes to offering connectivity and access to information, but it does take lots of time to get used to where everything is situated within the systems. You get a nice interface though, with touchscreen support for the main screen, and the usual COMAND dial between the driver and passenger seat.

Seats, well, while they are comfortable, they don't have that really nice soft touch feel that you would expect in a high-end Merc. In fact, even the material used on the doors and the dashboard have a slightly gritty, cheaper feel to them than the rest of the vehicle. Perhaps, Merc want you to see this when you test drive one in the hope that you will tick a few options boxes to make it a little nicer. 

The practical stuff

The latest GLE offers a longer wheelbase than its predecessor, an increase of 80mm, to unlock more space, especially for passengers in the rear. Legroom in the second row has increased by 69mm to be specific. Headroom in the rear with the standard, fixed rear seat unit and 40:20:40 backrest division has increased by 35mm. Merc say that because the GLE's A-pillar is more upright than before it's more spacious upfront too, making entry comfort in the first row easier than before.

Our car came with the optional second-seat row with full electric adjustment, which sounds awesome until your two-year-old discovers that the buttons are within reach and that he's going to explore the various angles available while you drive. I tried to turn the adjustment buttons off, but couldn't find this function anywhere, even after asking the car to 'Turn off rear seat electric adjustment'.

The other stuff you need to know about the usefulness of the vehicle is that its second-row backrest can be completely folded down electrically, using a switch in the boot. 

The best thing for me, and probably for you if you have many young critters to cart around, is that you can fit three child seats next to one another in the second seat row (the outer seats offer ISOFIX fastening points). 

Luggage capacity is up to 825 litres behind the rear seats, and up to 2055 litres when the second seat row is folded down. A 72mm increase in through-loading width allows bulky items to be stowed more easily too.  

Should you buy it?

So compelling is the GLE, that I actually went to a Mercedes-Benz dealer to sign an offer to purchase, only to be swiftly removed from the premises once they assessed my financial standing. Seriously though, Merc can take my money.

The new GLE is huge, fast, comfy and packed with tech. It's got the five-year maintenance plan that all new Mercs come with for added piece of mind, and you you can rest assured that if you eventually want to sell it in the next half-decade for an electric vehicle, you won't lose as much as you would in terms of depreciation when compared to something from the Jaguar Land Rover or Volvo stable (as nice as those vehicle are as new). Basically, buy the GLE 400d if you're looking in this segment, it's been the class leader and in my opinion will remain so for years to come.

Drive360