The rural Austrian mountain roads are damp after a light sprinkle of rain, yet we are bombing along at a high clip, taking corners at speeds that might seem unwise considering the lofty perch of the driver?s seat.
We are at the helm of the new Mercedes-Benz GLE450 AMG coupe, a new hatchback version of the mid-size crossover formerly known as the M-Class, and it is doing what vehicles of German pedigree do best: sticking to the road as if the wheels were giant rolls of tape.
The GLE450 AMG is but one of several new additions to Mercedes? expansive family of crossovers, all of which are set to adopt ?GL? prefixes moving forward (To make things clear, we break down Mercedes? new naming strategy in a separate post.)
For 2016, the GLE-Class family (n?e M-Class) grows to six traditional SUV variants and two new coupe models. The SUV models are essentially refreshed M-Classes wearing a more streamlined face, new taillamps, and other minor trim changes.
Engine choices include a fuel-sipping diesel (GLE300d), a gas-powered V-6 (GLE350), a turbocharged gas-powered V-6 (GLE400), a slick new plug-in hybrid (ML500e) and two muscle-bound AMG models powered by big turbocharged V-8s producing from 557-hp (GLE63 AMG) to 585-hp (GLE63 AMG S). The coupe models are motivated by the aforementioned turbo V-6 (GLE450 AMG) or the 585-hp turbo V-8 (GLE63 AMG S).
If that seems like a lot of ways to season the same dish, you?re right?in our two-day trip to Austria, we only had time to sample the diesel, the hybrid, the coupes, and did a short stint off-road in a GLE400. Mercedes expects that somewhere in the alphabet soup will be at least one combo that perfectly suits any luxury crossover buyers? fancy.
The interior designers have stepped it up in a big way inside the GLE-Class, replacing the M-Class?s dull infotainment screen with a larger, crisper unit that stands up between two giant air vents. It is controlled by Mercedes? latest iteration of COMAND, a dial-type controller just in front of the armrest that is capped by a touch-sensitive wrist rest that allows easy character input, pinch-to-zoom, scrolling and other capacitive functions to facilitate the use of the radio, navigation, and myriad more functions. If scrolling and spinning a control knob isn?t your thing, the GLE-Class makes most functions accessible other ways, including hard keys, steering wheel controls, or voice activation.
Materials, too, have become truly sumptuous. The interior of the most recent M-Class was always a nice place to be, but the leather, wood, and quilting patterns used in the GLE-Class, particularly the higher-spec models, have more in common with the iconic S-Class luxury sedan than workaday SUVs. Rear seat room is good if not great, especially in the headroom-limited coupes. The rear bumper liftover is also mighty high in the coupe variants.
You may have noted that two of the SUV models, and both coupe models, have ?AMG? in their names, and alas, that indicates they?ve been touched by Mercedes? in-house tuning division, AMG.
In the case of the V-6-powered GLE450 AMG coupe with which we led this story, AMG?s blessings involve a more buttoned-down (though hardly rough-riding) suspension and steering, brakes, wheels, tires, and interior/exterior styling that all lean toward the sporty end of the spectrum. We appreciated the wonderfully precise steering in the GLE450, which helped it drive smaller than it is on narrow Alpine roads.
The GLE63 SUVs and the GLE63 AMG S coupe ratchet up the performance even higher. Their monstrous turbocharged V-8s deliver neck-snapping acceleration and tickle your ears with throaty exhaust notes. The performance suspensions compromise ride quality a bit, as noted in the GLE63 AMG S Coupe we drove, but its ability to stay glued to the road was truly astonishing.
Most GLE buyers will opt for the standard SUV, which is why we spent plenty of drive time in two efficiency-minded variants: the base diesel-powered GLE300d and the plug-in hybrid GLE500e. Both of which we found a bit more aloof, though eminently stable and low and high speeds. The 201-hp diesel packs plenty of shove-in-the-back torque (369 lb-ft of it) and whisper-quiet (clatter-free!) operation, and for the money, will be an attractive option to money-conscious buyers.
Then there?s the plug-in hybrid, which, with its 442-hp and 479 lb.-ft. of torque from its combined V-6/electric powertrain, can accelerate like the GLE450 AMG coupe when summoned, yet cruise for up to 19 miles on electricity alone at speeds up to 81 mph. Given the vehicle?s power and technology, it will be among the most expensive GLEs in the family and should give the upcoming Tesla Model X a run for its money.
Got a cabin nestled deep in the woods? You?ll be happy to learn that the GLE400 will be made available with a dexterous off-road package (for $3,500) with low-range gearing, an adjustable suspension, and cool graphics that show you fore/aft and side angles, in case you can?t gauge them for yourself. We tested the limits of a GLE400 so equipped on a very challenging off-road course allegedly used to train Austrian law enforcement, and it?s really, really good (and your author is a relatively experienced off-roader). And for the record, the GLE looks pretty cool with knobby tires.
Prices for the GLE family start at $52,025 for the rear-drive GLE350 ($54,525 for the 4Matic model), $53,425 for the GLE300d 4Matic, $65,525 for the GLE400 4Matic, and further up the line, $100,875 for the stonkin? GLE63 AMG and $108,025 for the even faster GLE63 AMG S. Prices for the all-new coupe models and the GLE550e have not been announced, but expect the coupes to add a slight premium of about a grand or two over the SUVs both in GLE450 AMG 4Matic and GLEAMG 63 S AMG forms, and a price somewhere around $80K for the GLE550e.
All models are due in dealerships by early August, save for the hybrid, which will come to the so-called ?green? states (California, New York, Connecticut, et al) about a month later.