A few years ago, Mercedes-Benz phased out its existing V6 engines in favor of the inherent smoothness of all six cylinders in one straight line. The 2019 GLE-Class was the first to receive such a powertrain, which quickly became one of the Motor1.com staff’s favorites. Three years after my first experience, I’m back in a GLE 450, and although the midsize SUV could use a few updates here and there, it’s still an excellent luxury vehicle.
The Mercedes-Benz GLE 450’s softly contoured styling, refined highway demeanor, and approachable in-car technology help it stand out among fussier rivals. As with anything wearing a three-pointed star, you’ll have to pay a fair amount for the privilege of ownership, but you’ll be rewarded with one of the smoothest luxury SUVs on the market.
The GLE (née M-Class) has always looked swoopier and less boxy than other SUVs since its 1998 debut, and today’s model takes that to an extreme. Softly contoured bumpers, sweeping rear quarter windows that blend into the hatch glass, and a rounded greenhouse with lots of tumblehome make today’s Mercedes-Benz sleeker than ever. My tester’s gleaming Cardinal Red paint and 22-inch wheels ensure it won’t get lost in a parking lot, and the AMG Line styling package’s trapezoidal grille, aggressive bumper vents, and gloss black body jewelry help toughen up the genteel overall design.
Inside, the GLE gets Mercedes’ one-generation-old screen layout, comprising a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel and a matching touchscreen center display housed in a single tablet-style unit. Surrounding that is a funky nacelle with vent-like horizontal accents. The center console features chunky grab handles that recall the GLE’s off-road heritage – both the body-on-frame first-generation ML and the legendary G-Class – with plenty of matte-finished wood trim throughout the cabin. Materials are good, and although the design feels a little dated, the GLE is still a nice place to spend time.
To the surprise of no one, the Mercedes GLE is a pretty comfortable SUV, with a serene highway ride and more than enough room for four adults and their stuff – in fact, rear passengers have more legroom than the folks up front. The optional AMG-branded sport seats on my tester came upholstered with supple Nappa leather, although the front buckets never felt particularly cosseting, with a perch-like seat bottom that took some getting used to. Otherwise, there’s little to complain about from a comfort perspective.
The ride is exceptionally smooth, thanks in part to the optional Airmatic suspension with air springs and adaptive dampers. As with many air suspension setups, the GLE is prone to some floaty, bobbing sensations over undulating pavement, but it still feels impressively composed and comfortable. Furthermore, a $1,100 Acoustic Comfort package brought along better sound insulation, an infrared-absorbing windshield, and acoustic- and infrared-absorbing side glass for a nearly silent driving experience – impressive given those meaty Pirelli P-Zero tires filling out the wheel wells.
The GLE’s MBUX infotainment system is still one of the best in the industry, even three years after its debut. The reconfigurable digital gauge cluster comes standard and offers plenty of information and customizability, while the center infotainment display is easy to use thanks to logical menus and a responsive touchscreen. And the “Hey Mercedes” voice commands are as easy to use as ever, with natural speech recognition and a variety of functions. The only fly in the ointment is a lack of wireless smartphone mirroring – using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto requires a USB-C cable.
Under the hood is Mercedes’ corporate 3.0-liter inline-six that appears in products as varied as the AMG GT53 four-door and the S500 sedan. In 450 guise, the single-turbo engine is tuned to produce an easygoing 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet, with an “EQ Boost” system providing smoother engine idle stop and faster throttle response thanks to an integrated starter-generator. This little electric motor helps fill in small gaps in power delivery – before the turbo has spooled or during gear changes, for example – keeping engine behavior slick and predictable.
In spite of my tester’s AMG styling extras, it’s not much of a handler. The GLE won’t shove you off a cliff for cornering too hard, but there are a few too many body motions for it to be truly inspiring on a twisty road. Approach it like the luxury SUV it is and you’ll enjoy the ride more. If you simply must set the road ablaze, there’s a GLE 53 in the lineup with 67 more ponies and far more exciting handling, but for the rest of us, the GLE 450 is torquey, smooth, and comfortable.
The GLE 450 comes standard with automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, and active parking assistance, among other features. My tester’s Driver Assistance Package Plus includes Distronic adaptive cruise control, lane keep assistance, active lane centering, traffic jam assistance, and active lane changes rounding out the upgrades.
While I continue to be frustrated that now-basic features like adaptive cruise are optional on such a pricey car, at least it all works together rather seamlessly. Traffic-clogged commutes are no match for the driver-assist technology, which keeps the GLE spaced well and applies a steady hand to the steering and brakes when other drivers encroach on that buffer zone.
With a starting price of $57,200 with destination for the base, rear-wheel-drive GLE 350, the mid-sized Mercedes is a cheap option in a class that includes the $62,595 BMW X5 and the $56,645 Genesis GV80 2.5T. However, if you want the smoother inline-six (trust me, you do), then you have to be prepared with a $64,550 check. That is, unless you load it down and balloon its price to nearly 84 grand. The color is a $1,750 add-on, and the wheels are $2,450. A $400 Night package includes gloss-black exterior trim, the stylish AMG Line exterior is a cool $3,250, and if your leather simply must be Nappa, then you’re on the hook for a $2,990 bill.
Exercise a bit more restraint with the options and you can have a GLE 450 with advanced driver assistance, an air suspension, and a comfy leather interior with a stitched dashboard for $77,665. That would compare nicely to a hard-loaded GV80 3.5T Prestige that costs $76,770, or there’s always a nicely equipped BMW X5 xDrive40i M Sport for $79,795.
But even at $83,925, the Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 is proof of the old saying, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of a low price is forgotten.” Fret not, reader: The GLE never, ever tastes bitter.