Mercedes beat its rivals to the premium SUV segment. Does it still have a lead?

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An early arrival to the premium SUV scene has worked out rather well for the car that was latterly redubbed the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class.

In its first-generation form, the Mercedes M-Class – as it was formerly known – was shown to the public as far back as 1996, when the BMW X5 was still only a designer’s sketch and before either the Audi Q7 or Range Rover Sport had even been thought of. Over three and a bit model cycles, and after a mid-life nomenclature change intended to better identify the car as Mercedes’ middle-sized luxury 4x4, the GLE has become one of the brand’s best-selling SUVs, rivalling and even out-selling the smaller and more affordable GLC at times over the past decade.

The way the GLE’s design conceals its D-pillar – with a bold diagonal C-pillar and wraparound rear window – is a styling cue that’s been a feature of every GLE and M-Class Merc since the 1996 original. Still stands out.

This week we’re seeking to find out exactly where first-to-the-party status has left this car, which is now on sale in fourth-generation form – and particularly so now Mercedes has added the kind of variety and choice to the GLE’s showroom range that only the marque’s biggest-selling models tend to enjoy.

After a motor show debut two years ago, the W167-generation GLE went into production in Alabama at the very end of 2018, but its derivative range has hardly stopped swelling since. Buyers can now choose between a traditional SUV and the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe. There are both petrol-electric and diesel-electric plug-in hybrid powertrains on offer, with availability particular to market territory. And for UK buyers there are three conventional diesel engine options in the car besides, as well as a 48V mild-hybrid petrol model.

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And that’s before you’ve even made it far enough down the price list to take in the Affalterbach-tuned Mercedes-AMG performance versions – which brings us to this week’s test subject. The lesser – and cheaper – of two Mercedes-AMG GLE derivatives, the new Mercedes GLE 53 4Matic+ is a performance SUV in a particularly modern mould. Read on to discover if it has both the makings and the execution to be the high point in a complicated model range.

The GLE line-up at a glance

As is the case with practically all of Mercedes’ models, the GLE is available with an exceptionally broad spread of powertrains. In the UK, the four-cylinder diesel 300d represents the entry-level offering, although there are six-cylinder diesels, a diesel plug-in hybrid and a couple of six-cylinder petrols to choose from, too.

The outlandish AMG GLE 63 S model crowns the range, of course. Its 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 makes a substantial 603bhp, but you’ll pay an equally substantial price to put one on your driveway.

Price £80,485 Power 429bhp Torque 384lb ft 0-60mph 5.4sec 30-70mph in fourth 8.2sec Fuel economy 24.0mpg CO2 emissions 248g/km 70-0mph 46.5m



Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 2020 road test review - hero side

Across all versions of Mercedes GLE, there are no fewer than five suspension configurations a buyer might choose from, depending on where they live and which engine and options are chosen. UK buyers get a choice of six powertrains (there are more in other global markets). Likewise there are two different transmissions fitted to the car depending on derivative, and that’s before considering whether or not you want low-range transfer gearing for more hardcore offroading and towing.

This new fourth-generation GLE is fully 105mm longer overall than the model it replaces and more than a foot longer than the original Mercedes M-Class, which discarded its ladder-frame chassis more than a decade ago.

Smoked exhausts come as part of the AMG Night styling package, along with privacy glass, black window trim and grey roof bars. All are standard on Premium Plus cars. If you don’t like the blacked-out look, you can have a Premium pack car without them.

Seven seats are optional on most versions and a couple are five-seat only, but the AMG GLE 53 gets seven seats as standard. Underpinned by its maker’s SUV-specific Modular High Architecture (MHA) platform, the car has a monocoque chassis constructed from a mix of aluminium and high-strength steel, with a double-wishbone suspension set-up at the front and a multi-link axle at the rear.

UK customers who buy the cheapest four-cylinder GLE 300d get fixed-height steel coil suspension as standard. Neatly enough, if you have a range-topping 603bhp Mercedes GLE 63 S, you get fixed-height steel springs, too (although the spring rates and wider specification and tuning of the two set-ups are predictably different).

Every version of the GLE in between those two extremes comes on height-adjustable air suspension as standard, although even among air-sprung cars there may exist considerable mechanical differences between particular derivatives.

In some markets (although not here in the UK), six- and eight-cylinder non-AMG-branded versions of the car can be bought with Mercedes’ E-Active Body Control system, which uses cameras and secondary hydropneumatic actuators to spot and then proactively adjust spring and damper rates in advance of hitting bumps in the road, and also tilt the car’s body into corners.

The Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 has a different active air suspension set-up all of its own. Based on Mercedes’ three-chamber Airmatic+ system, it has been redeveloped and retuned by AMG with the addition of a fast-acting 48V active anti-roll cancellation system. And while it doesn’t manipulate the car’s mass like the E-Active Body Control can, it uses the same sensing technology to pre-emptively adjust lateral suspension stiffness depending on what the system’s forward-facing cameras tell it about the road ahead.

Like other AMG 53-branded models, the car is powered by a 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six petrol engine with both an electric supercharger and 48V hybrid drive assistance. Its transmission is AMG’s nine-speed TCT automatic rather than the 9G-Tronic automatic fitted to lesser GLEs, the TCT set-up alleged to be a quicker-shifting ’box.


Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 2020 road test review - cabin

Despite the connotations the Mercedes GLE’s AMG badging might conjure, opening its large, heavy doors doesn’t reveal the orgy of carbonfibre and Alcantara you might find in some of Affalterbach’s full-fat V8 models. For the Mercedes-AMG GLE 53, Mercedes has instead elected to subtly complement the standard model’s luxurious credentials with a few modest sporting touches, in order to gently elevate it above its more workaday range-mates.

So the quartet of rectangular air vents that populate the central dashboard fascia are still set within a stretch of tasteful dark veneer panelling that also covers the centre console, while abundant chrome brightwork and customisable ambient lighting continue to provide an alluring visual contrast against the darker elements of the Mercedes GLE’s interior. The dual screens that comprise the MBUX infotainment system add a welcome splash of technological sophistication to a cabin that already looks and feels suitably plush and expensive.

Electric tilting second-row seats should make third-row access easier, but they’re slow to move, and folding a backrest over rather than tilting it can trap the headrests underneath the second-row cushions

The only real visual cues that hint at the 53’s performance status are bright-red seat belts, discreet AMG badges and the generously bolstered bucket seats to which they’re affixed.

For the most part it’s a tastefully appointed and suitably luxurious place in which to spend time – although some of our testers weren’t so enamoured of the synthetic Artico leather upholstery that covered the top of the dash.

From a functional standpoint, the GLE works very well indeed. The front seats and steering column are both electronically adjustable, while the seats themselves are suitably supportive and comfortable over longer distances. The view out over the GLE’s expansive bonnet, with its peaked power domes, is as commanding as you’d expect it to be.

Passenger space is good for the class, too. The second row of seats slides back and forth to reveal up to 800mm of typical leg room, while head room is respectable if not outstanding at 940mm. This latter figure is no doubt a product of the panoramic sunroof that comes on Premium Plus cars. The third row of seating is best reserved for small children, but with the middle bench pushed forward, adults of slightly shorter stature should find reasonable comfort over shorter hops.

Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 Infotainment and sat-nav

The GLE 53 comes as standard with Mercedes’ flagship MBUX infotainment system, which comprises two touchscreens (one for digital instrumentation, the other for infotainment) measuring 12.3in diagonally. The screens look sharp, with rich graphics and minimal latency once it has properly booted up.

Operation via the centre console trackpad requires a little more concentration than you might like, but it soon becomes intuitive. Alternatively, you can give the screen itself a good prod with your finger and it will respond accordingly.

As slick as the system is when working properly, it isn’t totally bug-free. On more than one occasion it refused to play music or tune into any form of radio station, be it DAB or otherwise, and phone conversations via Bluetooth or Apple CarPlay simply weren’t possible. It sorted itself out after a hard reset, but our testers have encountered similar issues with the MBUX system in other Mercedes models.


There’s a surprising feeling of understatement about the Mercedes GLE 53.

It’s mixed in with the vast breadth of ability that so typically lies at the core of the dynamic brief of fast, luxurious SUVs, but here it’s the driving experience’s sense of restraint that lingers in the memory longest.

The GLE’s engine note at low speeds and part throttle could be a bit subtler. At low revs it can sound somewhat unmelodic, and I’d rather not have to hear it all the time.

The truth is, this multi-faceted modern luxury vehicle has so many hats to wear and roles to play that you almost forget to stop and properly take each one in. Although not quite breathtaking for outright pace, it’s certainly fast enough, and judiciously rousing in its temperament when you dial up the sportiest drive modes.

Our timing gear proved it capable of cracking 60mph from rest in 5.4sec, within a tenth of a second of Mercedes’ official 0-62mph claim, while a standing quarter mile came up in 13.9sec – which is within half a second of the 12-cylinder Bentley Bentayga we tested in 2016. The GLE 53’s lightly hybridised engine doesn’t seem to break new ground for instant torque delivery or throttle response, but it has plenty of available roll-on performance even in the higher gears. It’s never fast enough to dilate your pupils, then, but it’ll certainly get your attention.

The car’s drive modes allow you to dial in as much or as little six-cylinder exhaust warble as you want. It’s quite a sweet and natural-sounding engine and apparently light on digital sound enhancement at its loudest. But it can also be really refined, smooth and reserved at its quietest, helped a lot by how gently the car’s 48V hybrid system can stop and restart the engine automatically in heavy traffic and around town.

Mercedes’ TCT automatic gearbox is at times guilty of hunting for just the right ratio to deal from its nine-speed hand when you leave it in D, but it delivers shifts quite quickly in manual mode and it seldom refuses a downshift at the first time of asking, even if it means dropping into the last 500rpm of the rev range.


Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 2020 road test review - cornering front

Bump the Mercedes GLE 53 up into its sportier drive modes and the nonplussed manner in which it will then tackle a faster, narrower stretch of road is impressive.

This is clearly anything but a small or light car, but the way the Mercedes works to keep its body movements tidy and composed when travelling reasonably quickly inspires surprising confidence and respect. Provided you keep within the car’s adhesive limits, the process of hustling it down a more technical stretch of road is a fairly straightforward one.

The GLE 53 is swift and confidence inspiring along a challenging road, but its stability control and chassis systems render the driving experience a somewhat detached one.

As reassuring as the outright grip and stability that it can undoubtedly conjure when driven at eight-tenths may be, however, you never feel particularly encouraged or engaged by the GLE on the road. When driven at speed it is, in fact, a pretty inert and monotone thing. Its electronic stability systems and chassis certainly do a fine job of controlling so much mass and inertia, but there isn’t much in the way of driver reward to be found by exploring the margins of this car’s capabilities.

You remain aware of and, to be fair, relatively impressed by the massive amount of work such systems are undoubtedly doing on your behalf, but never are you absorbed in the process of doing your bit in return.

This disconnect is exacerbated by steering that can feel unnatural, even a bit lumpy, depending on the selected drive mode. There’s a soupy quality to the way it responds to lock being wound on, with a seemingly inconsistent build-up of resistance that can switch from feeling quite viscous at one point to slack and thin in the next. Several testers posited that this ‘lumpiness’ could have something to do with the predictive adjustments being made to the GLE’s suspension in advance of corners or bumps in the road. At times, often on entry to tighter corners, the car’s body weight seemed to be proactively braced by its anti-roll bars, making the steering seem sticky, heavy or reluctant over the first few degrees – only to lighten up again thereafter.

Suffice to say, a car like that isn’t one you feel inclined to drive particularly keenly. That said, at least the GLE 53’s moderate tuning and ease of operation make it very pleasant to take in at everyday pace.

Assisted driving notes

Like a great many modern luxury performance cars, but Mercedes’ driver’s cars in particular, the GLE 53 has a contradiction at its heart, because for much of the time you hardly need to drive it at all.

Our test car included Mercedes’ Driving Assistance package as standard, which added most of the brand’s semi-autonomous functions. With them active, the car barely required driver input to continue safely on the motorway, just a deadweight hand on the wheel. The Speed Limit Assist, Active Steering Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist and Distronic adaptive cruise control combine to allow it not only to regulate its own speed but also to automatically adopt posted speed limits, and to pull into an overtaking lane automatically when it has established it’s safe to do so.

So complete is the way the systems work together that you begin to wonder if they’re driver assistance systems at all or rather an invitation for the driver to switch off.

Comfort and isolation

The GLE 53 is largely successful as a laid-back, long-distance tourer. There’s enough stoutness about its suspension to keep that sizeable body under control on faster stretches of road, but it’s encouraging to find that this is complemented by a healthy dose of pliancy when passing through larger dips and troughs.

Mercedes’ active ride system is clearly very clever in some ways, then, if not quite ‘magic’ as was once suggested. At lower speeds, the ride of our GLE did betray its 22in alloys and athletic underpinnings a little more clearly than other quick SUVs might have. It thumped over rougher patches of Tarmac with an audible ‘sproinginess’ that’s largely absent from the likes of the Audi SQ7. It’s certainly far from uncomfortable even when the car’s secondary ride isolation is put into question, but those looking for the most refined fast SUV they might be able to afford would still be wise either to avoid really sharp edges and bumps or the 22in wheels of our test car.

On smoother motorways, the GLE 53 does a rather good job of sealing its occupants off from the outside world. You’re aware of the engine humming away in the background and there’s a degree of wind flutter around the door mirrors, but neither is even close to draining over the course of a longer drive.

At a sustained 70mph cruise our microphone recorded ambient noise at 65dB, which is a match for both the old diesel-engined SQ7 we road tested back in 2016 and the original Bentley Bentayga. AMG-tuned or not, then, this is a pretty refined car.


Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 2020 road test review - hero front

Value could be an unusually potent selling point for the Mercedes GLE 53. It costs only about £7500, or 12%, more than the petrol-engined GLE 450, and it offers a near-£35,000 saving over the full-house Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S. It isn’t in quite the same league as that car, but the GLE 53 represents 90% of the usable pace and performance appeal of the bigger AMG for quite a lot less than 90% of the price.

The GLE 53 is available in a couple of trim levels, the cheaper allowing it to undercut its direct rivals in the form of the Audi SQ7, BMW X5 M50i, and the Range Rover Sport P400e HSE Dynamic. It’s the pricier Premium Plus version that is likely to be the more popular, though, bringing with it mostly driver assistance systems and styling tweaks for its £6000 premium.

Proportionately, the Mercedes fares better than the Volvo XC90 but worse than the Range Rover Sport regarding residual values



Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 2020 road test review - static

This Mercedes GLE is the second 53-branded Mercedes-AMG to undergo a full road test. We’re rating it less generously than the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 two years ago because, despite having an equally well-defined and pleasingly subtle performance character, it doesn’t quite impress as a driver’s car in the same way.

The Mercedes-AMG GLE 53’s wide range of dynamic qualities makes it a versatile modern luxury SUV, but in among those qualities its driver appeal doesn’t shine particularly brightly. It is spacious and generally refined; comfortable and composed; technologically sophisticated, luxurious and supremely easy to drive; and dynamically adaptable and versatile. It is also fast, secure, adhesive and agile enough, although more often than not – and partly as a result of slightly inattentive fine-tuning of the handling – it fails to inspire you to drive it particularly keenly or to savour the experience when you do.

Remarkable dynamic versatility but lacks some driver appeal

That it can at least begin to melt into the background makes the GLE 53 easier to imagine as part of your daily motoring life than certain rivals make themselves. But there’s a clear limit to how much it might enrich that life – and, for us at least, it leaves just a little too much room to be underwhelming.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 First drives