► Mercedes GLE: a new name for M-class
► GLE500e is first Merc plug-in hybrid SUV
► Electric motor + 3.0 V6 = 434bhp, 76.4mpg
It’s bye-bye ML, hello GLE as Mercedes’ new naming logic kicks in to deliver its first round of potential confusion. Yep, Stuttgart has renamed its long-standing premium SUV rival to the BMW X5, Range Rover Sport and Porsche Cayenne. We’ll get on to the reason in a moment.
The name change comes with a facelift, which does its best to bring this angle-happy off-roader into line with Mercedes’ latest, more rounded design language. The changes continue inside and under the bonnet, where the GLE500e variant driven here becomes the marque’s first plug-in hybrid SUV.
There’s also a new GLE Coupe, inspired by the BMW X6, but we’ve dealt with that in a separate review.
So why has Mercedes chosen GLE as the new name for the M-Class?
Skip this part if you’ve heard it already, but simply put: from now on all Mercedes’ SUV and crossover models will start with the letter G and end with the letter that coincides with their closest counterpart in the conventional Mercedes range. We already have the GLA – the A-Class based crossover; renaming the M-Class the GLE is intended to align it with the E-Class.
In case you’re wondering, the choice of G is a direct reference to the G-Class; this is the equivalent of Land Rover renaming all of its models so that they start with D for Defender. The L is just there to make the new names easier to pronounce and remember.
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What’s new about the Mercedes GLE beyond the name?
The visual update for the GLE comprises new headlights, grille, bonnet, bumper and wings at the front – it’s as if the engineers sliced the face off a C-Class and the designers pumped it full of collagen – but gets rapidly less dramatic the further you go towards the back of the car. Eventually you’ll find another new bumper, LED taillights and a different bootlid, but from most angles it is quite clearly the preceding M-Class in disguise, and nowhere near as transformative a process as that undertaken during the creation of the GLE Coupe. The hybrid is treated to a few blue accents to distinguish it.
Major change inside is the adoption of a tablet-style infotainment screen, a trend that first reared its head in the A-Class. Kinda worked in a compact car aimed at attracting a more youthful audience, but in the GLE is just looks a little… cheap. Same goes for the strange choice of plastic that surrounds the main secondary controls. There’s a large slab of this around the other new addition, the Dynamic Select knob.
Depending on your perspective this either looks like a cut-price knock-off of the Range Rover Terrain Response controller or a poor attempt at an alternative to the BMW Drive Experience Control rocker switch. Regardless, with its strange combination of pictograms and partially abbreviated (yes, you read that right) text, this looks decidedly out of place in a premium product.
What does Mercedes’ Dynamic Select do?
Pretty much what you’d probably expect – it’s a simple method of switching between different driving modes. Comfort, Sport, Slippery and Individual are standard fare, with Sport+ offered on more powerful models and an Off-road setting added as part of the optional Off-road Package. Depending on the exact model, switching between these modes alters the characteristics of the steering, the gearbox, the engine mapping and the Airmatic adaptive air suspension.
All very worthy functions – crank it up to Sport from Comfort to reduce the body roll in the corners, reduce it back to Comfort to improve the ride quality around town and on the motorway – but surely there was a better activation solution? Ditto the rather scattershot approach to the button position of various other functions. Activating manual gear selection, turning on the external cameras and changing hybrid mode requires a good memory in addition to a precision digit. Ho hum.
What’s the Mercedes GLE500e hybrid like to drive?
A combined total output of 434bhp and lashing of instant electric motor torque makes relatively light work of the 2.5-tonne kerbweight in a straight line – 0-62mph takes just 5.3sec, which is nearly half a second faster than the new Civic Type R - but doesn’t do it any favours when it comes to agility. Still, considering this and the high centre of gravity, the combination of standard-fit adaptive dampers and self-levelling air suspension keeps it neat and tidy. It’s hardly a thrilling drive, but nor is it a demanding one.
There are four hybrid system modes. Hybrid is the default setting. This uses the 114bhp electric motor to reduce the strain on the 330bhp BiTurbo 3.0-litre petrol V6 as much as possible, either by switching the engine off whenever it can or by using the motor to boost performance. The pure electric E-Mode deactivates the dinosaur oven altogether; with batteries fully charged, E-mode gives you a range of up to around 18 miles, and can comfortably achieve motorway speeds – though doing so will inevitably give that ultimate range a swift thumping.
The most efficient way to juice the batteries is to plug the GLE500e into a public charging station or wallbox, but you can use a regular domestic socket if required. Failing that you can also use the petrol engine as a generator via the Charge mode, at the cost of some mpg. Porsche’s system in the Cayenne S E-Hybrid has a similar function, and is future proofing against urban centre EV-only zones; the final E-Save driving mode will help with this too, as it stops the GLE from calling on the electric motor at all.
Switching between these functions is basically seamless, though you will notice the engine coming in as it’s a little gruff sounding, and as ever, Mercedes seven-speed automatic gearbox isn’t always the smoothest or snappiest.
Should I buy the GLE hybrid or a GLE diesel?
With a little bit of proactive energy-regeneration via the brakes that electric capability will go a fair way, but we doubt many will ever see the claimed 76.4mpg from the GLE500e. Maybe if you’ve got a shortish commute, and the option to charge the batteries at both ends.
And while being a plug-in hybrid is good for the electric range, it’s also bad for the boot space, as the need to find storage for the battery pack means the floor of the luggage compartment is higher than the lip and the available volume drops from 690-2010 litres to 480-1800 litres. Your dog will need to jump a bit higher, too. This is not a problem for either diesel alternative.
Starting at £64,995, the GLE500e is around £8,700 more expensive than the GLE350d 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, and at least £13k more than the entry-level GLE250d 2.0-litre turbodiesel. The hybrid is faster, comes in at a lower tax rate, and functions as a viable EV for useful periods, so has its appeal as a company car. But as an everyday real world proposition tasked with carrying out a variety of journey types and distances that will see the hybrid system turn into inescapable additional weight, presently diesel still makes more sense. Nasty NOx emissions aside.
Verdict: Mercedes GLE500e
If you really wanted a plug-in hybrid M-Class, well, now there is one, and it works just fine. But the new GLE doesn’t match rivals from the driving seat, and more importantly, elements of the interior really don’t seem premium enough for a car of this type. Sitting on the fence? Buy the Cayenne hybrid instead – or the smaller-engined, less expensive and more nimble BMW X5 xDrive40e. Or maybe wait for the Volvo XC90 Twin Engine.