Merc’s GLE leads the way for damn good reason
There’s an old adage that tells you that the first people to do something are normally those who succeed the best. Like Cole id to Cola, Kentucky to Fried Chicken or Mercedes-Benz to cars. But Benz is not only strong because it was the first carmaker - it makes sure it stays there by reinventing itself and the success story behind the latest GLE is a case in point.
Initially known as ML, the first generation was first designed to replace the G-Class on a badge-engineered former Merc partner Mitsubishi Pajero platform. Those plans were however abandoned, leaving Mercedes-Benz to press on with in-house developed 4x4.
But Stuttgart soon also realised that there was clearly room for both and that the street-biased off-road ML appeal to a completely different market alongside the G wagen, so the great original lived on and ML was soon also in production at Daimler’s new Vance, Alabama US plant.
ML hit the road in 1997 and little did it realise, but Mercedes-Benz had hit the Sport utility nail straight on the head — quite significantly, ML stood alone in its cool new market niche and immediately started selling like proverbial hotcakes......
The first of a brand new breed of street-oriented Sport Utility Vehicles, M-Class made its debut in the Jurassic Park movie as a mid-sized body-on-frame SUV with seating for five, or seven with optional third-row seating. It was the first luxury SUV to be more street biased than just chasing mud and featured electronic stability control and front and side-impact airbags with advanced occupant detection to earn the W163 the highest safety ratings.
The 1998 North American Truck of the Year ML came in a 4.3-litre V8 430, the 3.2-litre petrol V6 320 and the 2.7-litre five-pot ML 270 CDI turbodiesel, which were later joined by the flagship 5.4-litre V8 ML 55 AMG. All came with 4Matic permanent four-wheel drive, a two-speed dual range transfer case and Mercedes' new electronic T4-ETS four-wheel traction system, which braked one or more spinning wheels, rather than employing differential locks.
The W163 ML was face-lifted with new head and taillights, bumpers and alloy wheels in 2002, while the V8 grew to 5-litres in the ML 500, a new 4-litre V8 turbodiesel ML 400 CDI joined the range and the V6 grew to 3.7-litres in the ML 350, but the cramped rear bench seven seater ML was later discontinued and replaced by the larger GL-Class.
The pioneer was however soon copied as BMW and Audi among others rushed the X5 and Q7 to market in response to the Mercedes’ exploding ML market success. Merc has clearly lit the SUV touch paper...
The second generation W164 was already well into its development and the all-new Steve Mattin styled sport ute arrived in 2006. Sportier and more aerodynamic with a much improved coefficient of drag, 71mm wider, 150mm longer and 71mm and 5 mm lower, the new M-Class is shared its heart with the bigger GL-Class in a new unibody platform in place of the W163’s body-on-frame chassis, with seven-seater needs now catered for by a special long-wheelbase version.
Packing options the likes of Active Curve Bi-Xenon headlights and adjustable-height air suspension, the all-wheel drive newcomer dropped its low range 4x4 and added limited-slip to its centre differential and 4-ETS in response to some sharp new even more road-oriented rivals. An Off-Road Pro package however retained the two-speed transfer case and added a rear differential locks and adjustable ground clearance for the dirt lovers.
W164 came with the same engine line-up from W163 turning Merc’s all-new 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, but the range soon gained a new flagship in the 375kW 6.2-litre ML 63 AMG in 2007. A minor 2008 facelift brought new lights, bumpers, wheels and a larger grille and the ML 450 Hybrid joined in the fun a year later.
By now ML’s sport ute spell had enchanted the world and not only had Mercedes-Benz added new SUV models left, right and centre, but so had BMW, Audi with all their Qs and Xs and even Jaguar, Lexus and others were contributing to the explosion. Anyone not playing in the niche was meanwhile desperately scrambling to make up lost ground...
In 2012, the third-generation W166 ML arrived boasting E-Class design quirks and a platform shared with the soon to be divorced Jeep Grand Cherokee, even more rear seat legroom, adjustable rear pews and an the latest 7G-Tronic Plus gearbox in search of the new buzz-word — fuel economy. Most of W164’s options were now standard, but owners could now tick boxes to include the likes of Adaptive Cruise, Active Lane Departure Warning and Active Curve height adjustable air suspension.
In 2016 there was a bit of an ML revolution when the face-lifted W166 was renamed GLE and an all-new five-door coupé arrived too. The ML badge was ditched is part of Mercedes-Benz's revised global naming strategy in keeping with Stuttgart’s A, B, C, E and S class sedans. The GLE-Class is basically the E-Class SUV and like the E sits between C and S in the sedan world, GLE fits in the middle of GLC and GLS in an SUV range topped by the 410kW 750Nm 5.5-litre biturbo V8 AMG.
Now the latest V167 ML has just been launched in South Africa and it seems if you are not playing the SUV game that this car started back in ’97, you are not a carmaker. Today even Lamborghini, Maserati, Rolls Royce and Bentley offer SUVs and soon even Ferrari and Aston Martin will join too - the world has gone SUV crazy!
But there is only one original and that is the Mercedes-Benz GLE, nee ML and the new one once again sets the trend. Already available as a traditional wagon, this one comes with a real seven-seat option thanks to its longer wheelbase and far more spacious cabin. GLE V167 will soon be joined by the latest coupé in a broad range of modern, downsized engines.
So do not be surprised when you realise that the latest GLE range starts with a shockingly capable 180kW 500Nm GLE 300 d four-pot and steps up to a splendid turbo straight-six pair of the 243kW 700Nm 400 d diesel and 270kW 500Mn EQ Boost 450 petrol with an additional 250Nm electric hybrid boost on demand. The range will soon to be joined by the similarly endowed all-new 320kW 521Nm EQ Boost AMG GLE 53 — all Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG GLEs get 9-speed 9G-Tronic automatic gearboxes auto and 4Matic all wheel drive.
New GLE cuts through the wind in record low aerodynamic form, riding on optional Active Body Control suspension with 48 volt electrics and best Mercedes safety. Longer, wider and lower, that considerably longer wheelbase not only delivers a bigger, more spacious and more comfortable cabin, but it also now comes as a proper 7-seater too, with boot space up to 825 litres, or a mammoth 2055 litres when the 40:20:40 split second seat row is folded down.
Packing Starship Enterprise-like latest generation artificial intelligence MBUX infotainment with a stunning brilliant large screen cockpit comprising 12.3-inch and 31.2 cm screens, optional Interior Assist also allows intuitive gesture control over and above voice, touch and latest generation steering controls, while mood lighting brings a fine ambiance too.
So there you have it; while the whole world will try to sell you an SUV like this Mercedes-Benz today, remember, there is only one original and GLE is it. Never mind that boasting an extra generation over any of its rivals, is a Mercedes-Benz advantage none of them can match. Mo matter what the propaganda says, the evolution you have just read about will always keep GLE a step ahead… — Michele Lupini
Mercedes-Benz GLE Base Pricing
GLE 300 d 4Matic - R1.21M
GLE 400 d 4Matic - R1.35M
GLE 450 4Matic - R1.33M