Since the 1990s, the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class (previously called the M-Class) has slowly helped convert luxury sedan buyers into luxury SUV buyers. It’s not hard to see why, either — people love sitting up high, and wrapping that experience in a traditional Mercedes-Benz shell means no sacrifices in terms of feeling fancy. The 2020 GLE-Class builds upon everything that’s come before with a continued focus on the places that count, and the result continues to be worth your time.
- Comfortable ride
- Excellent interior design
- Great tech
- Not the smoothest transmission
- Overwhelming options list
New outside, but that interior…
The GLE-Class may have changed its name, but its modus operandi remains the same. Thus, there’s not much in the way of wild revolution outside. It looks much like every other flashy new Mercedes SUV from the front, while the rear maintains a connection to GLEs and MLs of yore. My tester gets a little extra visual punch by way of the $2,900 AMG Line exterior package, which adds a unique grille, special wheels and body-colored fender flares, all of which combine nicely with the $720 paint job, a color called iridium silver. A $300 Night Package eliminates most of the exterior chrome, making it a must-have in my book.
The best part of the GLE’s new look is inside, where just about every panel has been given a massive makeover. The result is like a smaller, and I love it. The center console’s grab handles hint at some underlying off-road capability, while I just really like the layout of the squared climate control vents and the recess that houses both dashboard screens.
While I think the oversized mottling on the black leather seats ($1,620) looks a little iffy in execution, the general attention to detail in the GLE350 is impressive. Whether it’s the knurled metal on the steering wheel or the satisfying way the climate control keys feel when pushed, it’s clear that Mercedes put a lot of thought into the GLE’s new interior. The glossy wood trim is present only in small doses, keeping it from being overwhelming. At night, the SUV turns into a discotheque with the best multicolor ambient lighting in the industry, part of a $1,000 Premium Package that also adds wireless device charging and satellite radio.
The GLE350 doesn’t just look good. The leather seats are comfortable, offering up a commanding view of the road through the tall, plentiful glass on all sides, although it’s a bummer you have to shell out $350 for a power passenger seat with memory. My time in the GLE350 has been made even more comfortable by the addition of the $2,100 Energizing Comfort package, which adds front seat ventilation and a massage function. The rear seats might not get all that frippery, but they’re still comfortable, with plenty of space for heads and legs.
Instead of a third row on my tester, there’s a sizable cargo area behind the liftgate, although one is available as a paid option. I find 33.3 cubic feet to be enough to handle a family’s quantity of groceries or suitcases. Sure, it’s a whopping 0.6 cubic foot less capacious than a BMW X5, but you won’t notice a difference that small.
The GLE350 is technically a “base” model, slotting beneath, and while it might not have the same forward-motion hustle as beefier, more expensive variants, it definitely carries the same kind of comfort, which is exactly what potential GLE350 buyers are demanding.
Despite this tester not being outfitted with a cushy air suspension, the GLE350’s ride errs on the supple side, with its static dampers doing a great job of minimizing motion in the cabin. There is still some feedback making its way through the body, but passing over my tester’s 21-inch wheel upgrade ($1,000) should only continue to iron the wrinkles out of that shirt. A bit of wind noise sneaks its way in around the window seals, but otherwise, the cabin stays nice and quiet on the road.
Even though “350” on a Mercedes badge used to denote a V6 engine, times have changed. Now, the GLE350 rocks a 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 gas engine making 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Aside from a traditional I4 engine note, I have a hard time realizing there’s a downsized engine in here. It pulls like I’d expect a V6 to — a 7.1-second sprint to 60 mph isn’t the quickest, but it’s plenty in daily use, with usable torque down low in the revs to keep things moving along during a morning commute.
The only sore spot with the powertrain is the nine-speed automatic transmission. The interplay between cog swapper and engine isn’t my favorite — some shifts seem too arrive too early, causing acceleration to drop precipitously, while other times I’m stuck depressing the pedal and waiting for something to actually happen. The shifts themselves are smooth, though. The brake pedal is dead simple to modulate, making for smooth stops every time.
Ditching a couple cylinders means the GLE350 has a crack at better fuel economy figures. The EPA estimates that this SUV will achieve 19 miles per gallon city and 26 mpg highway. A smooth foot that keeps the engine out of boost should, by my experience, reward a highway economy closer to 30, with the city economy figure seeming a little more accurate, if not a little optimistic.
Pleasant, functional tech
With a new body comes a whole bunch of new tech, and Mercedes-Benz’s latest infotainment system stands at the forefront of the GLE350’s technological freshening. MBUX has been slowly creeping into every revised Mercedes, and I think it’s a fantastic system. It eliminates the submenu hell of Comand, with vastly improved responsiveness whether you’re using the touchscreen itself, the touchpad on the center console or the thumbpad on the right side of the steering wheel. Its natural-language voice recognition works nearly flawlessly for me, turning on seat massagers or adjusting any number of components with a simple request.
It’s annoying that it enters the conversation anytime you so much as utter the word “Mercedes,” but that’s MBUX’s biggest drawback.
MBUX is ready for the 2020s. Aside from all the stuff I mentioned above, it also includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, embedded navigation and connected car services. MBUX also hides a fun little innovation that asks for your height and puts the seat and steering wheel in what it believes to be the optimal position. If you don’t have a USB-C cable for your device yet, I suggest picking one up, because that’s the only way you’ll get a wired connection in the front row. Between both rows of seats, there are an impressive five USB-C ports standard.
While there are some safety systems standard in the 2020 GLE350, the vast majority of them remain (like so many creature comforts) locked behind an optional package. The GLE350 comes from the factory with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and an active parking assistant. The remaining kit comes by way of the $2,250 Driver Assistance Package, which adds full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, lane departure warning and traffic sign recognition. As far as hands-on systems go, this is one of my favorites. It operates smoothly in just about every scenario, reducing the tedium of commutes and offering a little extra peace of mind at the same time. A surround-view camera array is also on offer for the surprisingly affordable price of $400.
How I’d spec it
If you noticed how many dollar signs were scattered around this review, it’s not hard to pick up on the idea that building a properly luxurious GLE-Class requires more than just a base model. My tester’s $56,200 starting price is pretty solid, but the as-tested price of $72,685 (including destination) can be a little eye-watering.
I can save some cash by ignoring the $3,200 in AMG Line-specific exterior enhancements, and ditching the 21-inch wheels knocks another $1,000 off the bill. MB-Tex vinyl is a fine standard seating material if you want to avoid spending $1,620 on leather. I will, however, drop $250 for a heated steering wheel and $1,100 for thicker windows and more sound insulation.
I’ll retain the $1,850 Premium Package for its Burmester sound system and 64-color ambient lighting, in addition to spending $580 on heated second-row seats and $450 for front-seat ventilation. My final option is a $1,710 upgrade to air suspension, bringing us to a much more palatable $62,690 conclusion.
Down to brass tacks
The Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class is part of a very busy field. If you want more focus on driving dynamics, theand Porsche Cayenne are similarly priced and sized, while technophiles (and third-row addicts) will like the space and slick screens in the Audi Q7. The Volvo XC90 offers its luxury in a more staid-looking wrapper, but I don’t think it’s as comfortable as the GLE-Class. If you’re big on American metal, the Lincoln Aviator packs more wagonlike looks while carrying fancier appointments than ever before.
Yet, despite standing in the middle of a thick crowd, the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class continues to impress. The 2020 GLE350 aims to keep things efficient without sacrificing one iota of the luxury that buyers have come to expect from a three-pointed star on the grille. For as long as it’s been kicking, the GLE feels fresh as a daisy.