New Mercedes GLE prototype ride review

We get an early taste of the forthcoming Mercedes GLE, as it eyes up the BMW X5 and Range Rover SportVerdictThe premium SUV market is hotting up. The VW Touareg is on sale and there’s a new BMW X5 on the way. Mercedes wants to win the race with the slickest tech and a class-leading chassis. First impressions are good.

Like the latest A-Class hatchback, the all-new Mercedes GLE is a masterclass in cutting-edge tech. But the digital cockpit is not our main focus here. Today, we’re sitting alongside chief engineer and head of testing Rüdiger Rutz for a ride in the new SUV – ahead of its launch at the LA show later this year.

First, the facts. The previous GLE (factory code: W166) came into the world as the M-Class. It underwent a facelift in 2015 and from then on it was called the GLE. But this was an old car, and far from dynamic, especially alongside rivals like the BMW X5 and Range Rover Sport.

• New Mercedes GLE interior sketches

This new GLE (codename V167) has no more in common with the W166 than “two or three bolts – that’s about it”, according to Stefanie Schmitz, project manager for the GLE development.

It’s a big beast, though; at 4.93 meters long, it’s 80mm longer than its predecessor. You notice it most in the rear, where even taller adults are now able to sit comfortably.

But we want to see what the car is like on (and off) the road. As we head to a purpose-built off-road test track at our base in Alabama, USA, Rutz chooses the Off-road Plus setting, which raises the chassis by 50mm. While ascending a 45 per cent incline, he says: “It was always a thorn in our side that the Range Rover performed better than us off-road.”

Now, the car moves up the pitted slopes at a precarious 28 per cent sideways tilt, and continues interminably onwards even though the front left and back right wheels are completely off the ground. Rutz and his team have refined the Active Body Control (ABC) chassis so that four independent suspension struts in the EABC system ensure nothing slips. It’s a surreal experience.

The GLE comes as standard with steel springs, but – from the passenger seat, at least – the superior air suspension and the active EABC system will be options worth selecting. On the road, with the right drive mode selected, it allows you to throw the GLE into a bend with real confidence.

Even as Schmitz takes the corner at full tilt, you get the feeling that the vehicle is a lot easier to handle than before. The ride is excellent, too, thanks to the camera in the windscreen that scans the road for imperfections and primes the suspension accordingly.

With the new car still a few months from being officially revealed, it’ll be some time until we get official prices, specs and engine info. Our 362bhp GLE 450 is unconfirmed for the UK, and despite the diesel backlash, it’s likely the 250 d and 350 d will remain the biggest sellers. As before, a mighty 4.0-litre V8 Bi-turbo will feature in the range-topping AMG GLE 63, while a Coupe model will arrive later.

Key specs

  • Model: Mercedes GLE 450
  • Price: From £60,000 (est)
  • Engine: 3.0-litre 6cyl turbo
  • Power/torque: 362bhp/500Nm
  • Transmission: Nine-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 5.8 seconds (est)
  • Top speed: 155mph (est)
  • Economy: 31mpg (est)
  • CO2: 200g/km (est)
  • On sale: Early 2019

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