Saturday 14 December 2019

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Cork Independent

Motors

Big can be beautiful

Wednesday, 7th August, 2019 4:35pm

It’s funny, but I don’t look at the new Mercedes-Benz GLE and instantly think ‘workhorse’.

I do think ‘big, luxurious, probably searingly expensive SUV’ and then immediately and subsequently think ‘who buys cars like that these days?’

Apparently, quite a few of us do. Certainly Mercedes Ireland’s sales manager Ciaran Allen reckons not only have buyers not deserted big, pricey SUVs such as the GLE in favour of their smaller, more cost-effective brethren, but that this version could actually double sales of the big Merc SUV.

“There is still a customer that needs this style of vehicle,” Allen told The Cork Independent. “A traditional customer base that needs a workhorse to do a certain job, whether that’s just down to interior space, or whether it’s towing heavy loads or what have you. While the market has moved, I think that actually this GLE has even greater potential in the market.”

Double the potential in fact. In a good year, the old GLE (which began life as the third-generation ML-Class) sold around 120 units a year, out of a roughly 1,000 strong market in Ireland for large, luxury SUVs. Allen now reckons that the new GLE could find up to 250 owners a year, even with prices starting from €78,395.

That’s actually a good bit cheaper than the GLE’s most obvious rival, the BMW X5, which starts at just over €87,000. There’s a reason for that — compared to the current cheapest X5 (cheap being a very, very relative term here, of course) the GLE 300d 4MATIC is missing a couple of cylinders. It’s a four-pot engine (Merc calls it the OM654 unit, and it’s closely related to the engine you’ll find in the E-Class saloon).

Down on cylinders, it’s also down on power. The 300d (an evocative Mercedes badge for those of us of a certain age) has a power output of 245hp (20hp down on the BMW) and 500Nm of torque (a full 120Nm less than the X5).

That said, you probably won’t feel the difference overmuch on the road, and a €9,000 saving is still a €9,000 saving even when you’re talking about a stratum of customer who’s not overly worried about spending the cash…

The GLE, as the old ML-Class always was, is big — a chunky slice of SUV real estate that, even with the styling of the smaller GLC transposed onto it, remains imposing and impressive looking as you approach it.

Climb inside (you need slightly less of an athletic jump up than you would have in previous models) and you’ve got the latest version of Mercedes’ MBUX digital dashboard. It’s the big, widescreen version that you’ll also find in the E-Class, and it’s as brilliant here as it is in the saloon, giving Mercedes a serious lead when it comes to interior design and layout.

I reckon you could happily use a day just flicking through the various menu and display options, so it’s a tech-head’s paradise.

Elsewhere, there are four chunky, square air vents in the centre of the dashboard, plus two arched grab handles, and the slightly fiddly laptop-style track pad that controls the infotainment system (using the little touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel is a much better way of doing that).

Overall quality is excellent, with not a single bum note in the cabin. It’s spacious, too, with an extra 69mm of rear legroom compared to the old model, even if the folding third row in the boot is still at the ‘occasional use’ end of the spectrum.

The sheer size of that boot, a whopping 825 litres, does seem to confirm the GLE’s workhorse status. Mind the carpet, though; it looks expensive.

From behind the wheel, I think you’d be hard-pressed to notice a major shortfall between this engine and the six-cylinder BMW unit. Okay, so the GLE 300d’s four-cylinder powerplant is down on power and torque, but in everyday use you’re not going to find it wanting.

It’s even very refined, not always a given when it comes to Mercedes diesel engines, and the GLE cruises in almost perfect silence and comfort.

It’s pretty decent when the road becomes more challenging, too. The X5 has sharper, more responsive steering, but the GLE actually seems to do a better job of controlling its body weight and bulk — roll is progressive is and well-controlled, and it feels exceptionally steady and sure-footed.

There’s not much point in selecting Dynamic mode from the menu — the steering does weight up a bit, but on a twisty road the GLE feels happier in Comfort, where its suspension does a better job of soaking up road imperfections. That smoother ride quality means you spend less time bouncing from bump to bump which actually makes back-road progress all the swifter.

Options abound. There’s a 48 volt active suspension system option, and a special off-road mode that can even rock the GLE back and forth, to find traction, if it gets stuck in soft mud. Needless to say there’s a full suite of optional safety gear from fully active cruise control with active lane-change assist, to an autonomous braking system that can prevent you from having a head-on collision when turning across a busy junction.

While the 300d is the base engine, there are others available, from 350d, 400d, and 450d to the petrol-engined 450. Later this year, there will also be a plugin-hybrid diesel variant, which boasts a claimed 100km one-charge electric-only range, a model that could be something of a game changer.

Thankfully, though, the GLE 300d isn’t a game-changer. In fact, it plays exactly the same game as the original 1997 ML-Class.

It really does feel like a rugged workhorse, albeit one with a deep veneer of luxury, befitting a car of its status.

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