Good: very competent on the road, hugely spacious, great transmission
Not so good: electric rear hatch operation not standard
In case you missed it, Mercedes-Benz announced a widespread change to its model naming strategy last year, including the adoption of the prefix 'GL' for all its SUVs (G-Wagen excluded). The third letter in the name then aligns the SUV with the regular model line it shares its size and - supposedly - its componentry with. So the new GLE reviewed here is the Mercedes E-Class of SUVs, if you like. Or, put simply, it replaces the old M-Class.
And though the GLE looks a little different inside and out (emphasis on the word 'little' in that sentence...) to the ML, it's effectively a mild makeover rather than an all-new vehicle. While I wouldn't say I am enamoured by its exterior style, neither am I offended by it - and I will concede that it looks modern and unmistakably a Mercedes-Benz. It's also quite imposing looking, which will appeal to many.
As will the elevated driving position. You have to noticeably lift yourself up into the driver's seat from the ground and from there you get a good view of the world around you. The view inside isn't bad either, even if the 'Comand' interface and switchgear don't appear to be the latest generation available in Mercedes-Benz cars. Making up for that is a large display screen for the infotainment and (Garmin-supplied) satnav. The buttons and switches are all well-damped and everything is unquestionably of high quality, while the leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel is a tactile highlight. What stands out most though is the sense of space. There's a wide centre console separating the front passengers, which holds a lot of junk, as do the simply cavernous door pockets. Rear seat occupants won't feel as if they're in Second Class either, as they get loads of legroom in all three seats - though the middle perch is less moulded and not likely to be as comfortably over a long journey.
The seat bases tilt forward before the backs fold down, creating a vast flat space that apparently accommodates 2,010 litres of cargo. That's a lot by any measure, and even with five people on board there's room behind for 690 litres of luggage. Unlike most of its competitors, the GLE is only sold as a five-seat car, which may reduce its appeal. We're also a little surprised to discover that an electric-opening rear hatch is not standard. First world problems and all that, but when you're spending €70,000 on a large SUV, surely you shouldn't have to open the boot door for yourself when you're laden down with Brown Thomas shopping bags?
Thankfully the GLE is well-equipped otherwise, with leather upholstery, heated and electrically adjusted front seats, satnav, cruise control, Bluetooth, Active Park Assist, dual-zone climate control, electric windows all-round, auto lights and wipers, 17-inch alloy wheels and metallic paint all standard. The line-up is quite restricted for Irish buyers, starting at €65,665 (or from about €772 a month on 'Star Finance' PCP) for the two-wheel drive GLE 250 d that resides in Band B2 for tax. The four-wheel drive 4Matic version tested here uses the same engine and costs €71,750, while the only other variant on the Mercedes-Benz Ireland price list is the GLE 350 d 4Matic, at €80,650.
Under the bonnet of the GLE 250 d models is a 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel unit, which has been around for a while now. Its gruff nature is somewhat isolated from occupants of the GLE so it never intrudes and though performance is hardly sparkling, it's certainly adequate, with 0-100km/h taking a respectable 8.6 seconds if you're really in a hurry. Naturally this version of the car is at its best at a cruise on the motorway, where its soft suspension makes for a comfortable journey, but we found it surprisingly adept when it comes to tortuously poor road surfaces and challenging corners. It stops short of being fun, but it'll soak up any abuse you care to throw at it. The steering is pretty lifeless, but the nine-speed automatic gearbox is exceptionally well-calibrated, never betraying the fact that it has so many ratios to manage, instead slickly choosing the right gear for every situation, whether you want full performance or you're happy to maximise economy.
In our time with the car, we never had the opportunity to take it on a long motorway schlep so it's difficult to assess how economical it could be in that situation. We averaged about 10.0 litres/100km (28.2mpg) over a week of mostly urban driving with a blast into the Dublin Mountains at the end.