It was born with the ML name, became the M-Class and then GLE. But whatever badge appeared on its tailgate, Mercedes’ full-size luxury SUV has always been an object of desire thanks to its strong image and technical excellence.
The original M-Class (W163) made its debut in 1997 with the ML320 and ML500 models, powered by the M112 V6 and M113 V8 three-valves-per-cylinder motors respectively, both mated to a five-speed automatic. The ML320 CDI turbo-diesel V6 was launched in the European market, and soon became the mainstay model there. Eventually an ML55 AMG joined the range, powered by a 367hp naturally aspirated 5.5 litre version of the M113 V8.
The second generation ML (W164) made its debut in 2005. Looking more butch with flared wheel arches, this was the first ML to have an AMG version designed into the range from day one, and the powerful 510hp 6.2 litre M156 AMG V8 motor helped it go toe-to-toe with the 521hp Porsche Cayenne Turbo S.
Sleeker looking and with more car-like cabin appointments the third generation ML (W166) bowed in during the summer of 2011, its name later changing from ML to GLE in line with a new model naming system. The first Mercedes SUV in this series to feature optional Airmatic air-suspension along with active anti-roll bars, the GLE’s more high-tech approach to chassis engineering significantly improved ride quality and overall refinement.
Unlike the manufacturers of ‘soft-roaders’ Mercedes is keen to show that the GLE is capable of heavy off-road work, albeit at a level below the redoubtable G-Class. So as of the 2013 model year, they offered the option of a dedicated Off-Road package featuring a two-speed dual range Magna powertrain transfer case with reduction gearing, centre differential lock, six-mode terrain driving programme, and underbody protection.
However, unlike the G-Class with its lockable front, centre, and rear differentials, the ML has open diffs, with the Off-Road package utilising four-wheel electronic traction system (4-ETS) to simulate the action of locking front and rear diffs.
SIZE IS EVERYTHING
Scheduled to go on sale this autumn, the all-new GLE has its wheel arches drawn out enough to give it a subtly muscular look with a more purposeful stance. It is also larger all round than its predecessor, and has a seven-seat option that bridges the gap between the old model and the larger GLS.
The new car carries the internal designation V167 rather than W167, which seems odd since the V prefix is normally used to denote long wheelbase versions of any Mercedes model.
“The project actually began with the W167 designation,” explained development engineer Stefanie Schmitz. “But as things progressed we realised that an 80mm longer wheelbase was required to create the roomy interior envisaged. The prefix was then changed to V167 without actual SWB and LWB variants of the new car existing.”
While the new GLE kicks off with a range of 2.0 litre four-cylinder and six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, the petrol four will only be sold as an entry-level model in the US and China, both of which are petrol only markets. They are also the only markets that will offer a choice of RWD or 4Matic all-wheel-drive on the base 2.0 litre petrol four. Elsewhere every motor is combined with 4Matic.
While a four-cylinder engine is adequate for owners who do not need any more power and also value fuel economy, the true potential of the GLE’s sophisticated package does not become fully apparent until you drive the straight-six powered GLE 450 4Matic.
The all-new 2,999cc twin-turbocharged i6 motor introduced in the face-lifted S-Class last year benefits from a partial 48-volt electrical system with starter/generator. The base engine makes 367hp from 5,500-6,100rpm and 500Nm of torque from 1,600-4,500rpm, which is less horsepower but the same torque compared to the 435hp as installed in the S500.
The EQ Boost from the starter/generator provides an extra 22hp and 250Nm of torque at low revs, with the first stage electrically driven turbocharger spinning up to boost low-end torque. By this time the big exhaust gas driven turbo is up to speed and boosting hard to provide the mid and top end power.
On the basic steel suspension paired with 20-inch wheels and 275/50ZR20 rubber, the GLE ride and handling experience is good but nothing special in a class where standards are very high. The compliant ride has a firm edge to it that results from the roll stiffness required for safe handling at speed. Thus, the usual diagonal rocking movement you experience in any tall vehicle when traversing dips in the road at low speeds is there.
Things smoothen out at higher speeds, and the highway ride is supple and composed in the front and quite satisfying in the rear. I was not unhappy to give up the steering wheel and move aft for a while where the ride felt more absorbent thanks to the long wheelbase.
RIDING ON AIR
If the steel suspension is an old fashioned compromise, and the Airmatic suspension a good halfway house, the subjective difference the new E-Active Body Control (E-ABC) suspension option that builds on Airmatic makes to the new GLE’s ride and handling behaviour is magnitudes greater than the gap between the steel and air spring set-ups on the outgoing W166 model.
Where air suspension smoothened out the ride of the old GLE but did not do enough to control roll in fast cornering the E-ABC system has a truly transformational effect on the GLE’s dynamic behaviour.
Using Road Surface Scan and the curve inclination function, this is the only system on the market that can individually control the spring and damper forces on each individual wheel.
E-ABC turns the GLE into a sublime riding and handling SUV that in some respects emulates the much vaunted ride quality of the S-Class. This means that an E-ABC equipped GLE approaches world-class levels of low and high speed bump absorption for a vehicle of any type.
The GLE with E-ABC is peerless in its ability to soak up small imperfections at low speeds, while retaining iron fisted body control when you pick up the pace on a twisty road. It certainly has the edge over other full size air suspended SUVs like the Range Rover Sport, Audi Q7, and Porsche Cayenne in this respect.
However, that is not the full extent of E-ABC’s abilities and it has one more party trick that involves the curve inclination technology first seen on the current C217 S-Class Coupe.