A world-class interior, and an experience near the top of its segment.
Since its inception in 1998, the US-built Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport utility was always a strong seller for the German automaker. After being renamed to the GLE-Class after 2015, it has continued to be in high demand. An all-new fourth generation has recently hit showrooms, and previously, we attended the first drive event (reviewed here) for a sneak peak of what was to come. More recently, a 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 4MATIC found itself in our stable for a full week of testing, and its big first impression seemed to go beyond just skin deep.
As the entry-level model, the GLE 350 4MATIC features the same big body styling and huge road presence of its more loaded GLE 450 siblings. Standard features include power heated front seats with memory, a heated steering wheel, a power tailgate, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power sunroof, power-folding side mirrors, LED headlights, 20-inch wheels, two 12.3-inch screens for infotainment and the gauge cluster, navigation, and five USB-C ports. Pricing is $64,000 to start, and the GLE on test had a handful of options to augment the regular feature set.
The $2,900 Premium Package features Active Parking Assist (autonomous parking), an integrated garage opener, mid-level Burmester audio, a panoramic sunroof, a foot activation sensor for the powered tailgate, and KEYLESS-GO (lock and unlock by touching the door handles, and pushbutton start). Building further on this, the $1,200 Premium Plus Package adds rapid heating front seats, heated armrests and upper door panels in front, and heated second row seats. Climate controlled cup holders were $250, a trailer hitch was $800, and a wood-leather steering wheel was $650. Rounding out the options list was a set of 21-inch wheels for $1,000, bringing the as-tested total to $70,800.
Arguably, the best part of the 2020 GLE 350 is the interior – the attention to detail is formidable and is a major improvement over the last generation. The Espresso Brown/Magma Grey colour combination of the test car really allowed the brown open-pore walnut wood trim to stand out, and the brushed metal finish of the Burmester speaker grilles complement it all perfectly. For the last four or five years, many would say that the best-in-industry crown for interior design was held by Volvo, but with this new GLE, this distinction now belongs to Mercedes-Benz.
In the GLE, seat comfort and space is ample, and families of four who might have been a little cramped in the smaller GLC will find themselves more at home in a GLE. Even with the base synthetic ARTICO leather, long road trips are not an issue for people of all shapes and sizes. The Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment is controlled by way of a centrally mounted touch pad, and while the initial novelty is neat and is better than things used to be, the overall interface still needs work. Users can still touch the 12.3-inch central screen to work their way around, but both the pad or touch screen are more sources of driver distraction than necessary – hard buttons and easier-to-use dials would be preferable here.
The “Hey, Mercedes” voice commands can be useful for basic commands like setting temperature, but many of the more common commands are typically faster and easier to do with the buttons that do exist. Thankfully, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone pairing interfaces are standard equipment and work well to cover up any of the cumbersome interfaces at play. The Burmester audio as part of the Premium Package is a must-have, with amazingly clean and clear audio across the entire frequency range.
Powering the Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 4MATIC is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine, which is a big change for this generation. Historically, the base GLE and M-Class models always had a six cylinder engine, but this has given way to more stringent fuel economy and emissions regulations that necessitate a smaller displacement engine. Peak power output is 255 horsepower between 5,800 and 6,100RPM, paired with 273 lb-ft. of torque between a low 1,800 to 4,000RPM. This is lower than the outgoing GLE 400’s 3.0-litre twin turbo V6 making 328 horsepower and 354 lb-ft. of torque, but comes with a slightly lesser starting price ($64,000 versus approximately $66,000).
As far as turbo-fours go, the GLE’s 2.0-litre unit is a decent one, and the turbocharger allows for a considerably lower torque curve than a naturally aspirated V6. It does come at the expense of smoothness and refinement however, and things can get a little gruffer when the engine gets worked hard. A curb weight of 2,130 kilograms (4,696 pounds) means that the engine has to operate in its less refined range more often, but the 9G-TRONIC nine-speed automatic transmission does help with picking out the most favourable gear for all three of performance, economy, and comfort. This transmission also isn’t the smoothest as it shifts, but gets the job done and doesn’t hunt for gears as it goes about its business.
Rated fuel economy numbers for the 2020 GLE are not available at the time of publication, but observed economy came in at 10.8L/100KM in mostly highway driving. The outgoing GLE 400 with its twin-turbo V6 was rated for 13.5L/100KM in the city and 10.3L/100KM on the highway, so expect the new four cylinder engine to be a bit better here. Premium fuel is required, and tank capacity is 85 litres.
On the highway, the GLE 350 4MATIC features a very quiet cabin and excellent road isolation. On the other hand, ride quality suffers more around town, and while many small to medium road imperfections don’t make it far past the base coil spring suspension, larger ones are more impactful on body motions. There is excessive lateral movement of the front end when driving on rougher roads and when only one wheel hits a depression, which can be unsettling for passengers. Those concerned with the utmost of ride quality would be smart to consider the optional AIRMATIC air suspension, which improves things somewhat. For those who don’t want the complexity and cost of air, sticking with the smaller diameter base 20-inch wheels would allow for more tire sidewall for cushioning and less unsprung mass at each corner, making things a little better for city cruising.
For active safety features, the 2020 GLE comes standard with most of today’s popular technology. In addition to the federally-mandated stability control and anti-lock braking systems, there’s forward collision warning with autonomous braking (Active Brake Assist), driver alert assists to detect fatigue and drowsiness, and a blind spot warning system. Optional features not equipped on the test car include a $3,000 Intelligent Drive Package, which adds, among other things, lane keep and collision avoidance steering assist, cross-traffic alerts, active blind spot steering assist, autonomous lane change assist, adaptive cruise with stop-and-go function, and route-based speed adaptation (using the navigation system to understand and control vehicle speed based on locale).
All in all, the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 4MATIC represents a reasonable value in terms of getting into a luxury mid-sized sport utility with either two or optional three-row seating. The interior is world-class, and the overall experience is certainly near the top among its peers. The base and as-tested price come close to the likes of the Volvo XC90, for which the Mercedes compares quite favourably. It also undercuts the BMW X5’s $71,500 starting price by several thousand, but this comes at the expense of ride quality, two less engine cylinders, and less sharp driving dynamics. The 350 works well with what it has, but with a better engine and other options providing a ton more power and technology on the GLE 450, the upper echelon of the lineup is where the real fun starts.