Tuesday 22 October 2019

The big picture: Mercedes' new GLE

Price and power are big selling points — but is the diesel engine a turn-off?

Power: The new GLE large executive SUV from Mercedes
Power: The new GLE large executive SUV from Mercedes
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

You can probably guess the one question I asked myself nearly every time I got into - and out of - this week's big diesel SUV from Mercedes. What in the name of God would you be doing driving one of these GLEs when the whole world is gone mad-anti-diesel and feverishly swinging to petrol, hybrid and electric? I'm not sure I have a decisive answer, though I certainly have a few other conclusions that might contribute to it.

This new Merc GLE is a rival for the likes of the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 but they've all had a much higher profile.

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Part of the reason for that can be attributed to its precursor being perceived as a dull-ish workhorse.

Perceptions can differ, however. One previous-model owner was perfectly happy with his as we, coincidentally, parked our old and new models, side by side. "Nice car," he volunteered. I think he'll be back for the new one. It is possible to be happy with a car and still want a better version.

It was easy to pick out what might make him, and much sought-after young buyers, go for this latest model.

It was easier on the eye (strong grille, front design, sharper features but otherwise straightforward). I'd just have one caveat. The design lines were greatly subsumed by the grey, slate colour. Go get yourself something with a bit more colour.

I didn't get into the other car (grey too) but I had a good look. Mine was visibly roomier. And while it passed muster on the outside, it's what's inside that counts, as Mercedes say.

In this case, they are absolutely correct.

There in front of you, as you sit in, is a dash/display/cabin to simply admire. That digital display, across a big sweep of the dash, sets it apart from rivals. I just love the twin-screen effect (12.3 inches each).

Ironic maybe that when I tested the new BMW X5, it had bright leather and felt more warmly luxurious. The GLE had a 'sportier' feel to its interior. It used to be the other way around between the marques. Times are changing.

Under the bonnet of my five-seat version was, surprisingly for such a bulky piece of motor, merely a 2-litre diesel. I expected it to be sluggish and underpowered. But this is from the new Merc engine family (€3bn to develop) and with 245bhp, it was acceptably lively for me.

There is a seven-seat option. Normally I'd leap to suggest it but after hearing several rear-seat passengers compliment the space (70mm more legroom than before), I'll stay quiet.

With an 80mm stretch to the wheelbase you get the lauded cabin space, especially that rear-seating bonus. And a decent 630-litre boot - though it didn't appear mega after the brother lobbed two mid-sized travel cases into it.

The drive was smooth and comfortable. Well, at least it was on the motorways and dual carriageways. Notwithstanding the great in-cabin ambience and strident air of solidity, I was to be temporarily disappointed with one element. I'd driven it in Comfort mode until I turned off the motorway at Kilbeggan and almost straight away noticed a lot of bodyroll on the rougher, uneven roads. As soon as I push-buttoned it into Sport mode, all that disappeared and I got a reasonable taut feel again. It was a bit of an eye-opener though.

So why would you buy it? Money makes one case: Mercedes claim this is €9/10,000 to the good over rivals on equipment, technology etc.

But what about owning a diesel SUV? Does it not clash with everything 'green motoring' is supposed to stand for? Could you live with emissions of 162g/km? Especially in an era of electric zero-emission models?

You can make up your own mind on that. The only thing is: what other sort of power is going to be capable of pulling and dragging as much as this GLE diesel (3,500kg towing capacity)?

That consideration, combined with others, prompts Mercedes to expect that up to 300 people will buy one in a full year.

Besides all that I reckon they will find its roomy and surprisingly accomplished nature helps them overlook downsides. Over a lot of kilometres I grew to like it a lot.

There may not have been a fleet turn of foot, the 'sharpness' of an X5, or the in-your-face styling of a Volvo XC90. Yet once I was inside and on the move, the GLE was a different proposition. So in the absence of an alternative, I didn't fret too much about having a diesel engine under the bonnet.

One revolution at a time, I think.

Facts & figures

Mercedes GLE 300d 4MATIC

1,950cc, 245bhp diesel, 9spd auto, 4WD, 162g/km, €570 tax. Price from €78,395; On test, AMG Line; €90,159; 20ins alloys, MBUX multimedia system, 2 x 12.3ins cockpit displays, auto lights, speed limit assist, AMG styling in/outside, electric front sports seats, reversing camera, electronic traction, dynamic select. Extras: Nappa leather, multibeam LED headlights and AMG Line.

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