First Drive: Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupé

First Drive: Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupé

Every now and then a vehicle comes along that gets the industry talking — from motoring journalists to the creatives sitting around boardroom tables in advertising agencies, from manufacturers themselves to, ultimately, the consumer.

Which is a good thing, because it gets us interacting about something we are all so passionate about: cars. The new Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupé falls in to this category, and at its launch last week just outside Knysna in the Western Cape, it had those assembled vigorously debating this new offering. The main talking point with the GLE Coupé will undoubtedly relate to its styling. A combination of two classes of vehicle make up this new model and it’s a mix with some interesting results. Its main competitor will undoubtedly be the BMW X6 — a vehicle launched five years ago that was also the result of the merging of various design elements from its range of vehicles. Today, it still has just as many detractors as fans. But there is no doubting that the X6 has done very well for BMW, and its German rival will be hoping for the same success with the GLE Coupé. As we know, much research goes into future design trends, with input from clients and the public.

This is something Mercedes took into consideration when it came to the styling of the GLE Coupé. The GLE range will consist of three vehicles. There is a diesel in the form of the GLE 350 d (190kW) and a petrol GLE 450 AMG delivering 270kW of power. Finally, we have the bad boy of this trio — the top-of-range GLE 63 S Coupé, which packs an arsenal of 430kW of power and 760Nm of torque courtesy of an AMG 5.5 litre V8 biturbo engine straight out of Affalterbach. A bit more about the design, though, as this is a core feature of this vehicle. What we have is a combination of the typical attributes of a coupé (sportiness and agility), with the versatility and robustness of an SUV.

Or, to steal from the press release, “the vehicle demonstrates almost ideally how this bridge between intelligence and emotion, between tradition and modernity, blends into an attractive symbiosis”. Once again it is going to be a case of “beauty lying in the eye of the beholder”. Some will love it. Others? Well, exactly! The GLE Coupé joins the portfolio of other coupés in the Mercedes-Benz lineup — the two-door C, E and S-Class models and the four-door CLS and CLA. A company representative summed it up when he said: “It will enable us to win new customers for our brand.” Make no mistake, this is a big vehicle. A fraction under 5m long and just over 2m wide, the GLE Coupé weighs 2.3 tons and up, depending on the model.

But despite its size, it also has some pretty impressive performance figures to its name. While all three vehicles were available for a test drive at the launch, I only managed to get behind the wheel of two of them. First up was the GLE 450 AMG. Now, if I was forking out R1 099 900 on a vehicle, the last place I would want to take it is through metre-high pools of water, down rutted tracks with deep indentures and scrubland reaching out to the new metallic paint. But that’s exactly where we found ourselves — deep in the Knysna forest. It was a case of getting a feel of what these classy vehicles are capable of off-road, and I walked away at the end of the day suitably impressed of its capabilities. With 21-inch wheels, there was certainly no shortage of traction, and the Air-matic air suspension meant we could increase the normal ground clearance of 250mm by a further 45mm.

Normally, in the driving conditions we found ourselves in, you end up getting thrown about so much that your kidneys begin to ask for mercy. In this particular vehicle, you still get thrown about, but the landing is definitely a lot softer, thanks not only to the sports seats —which are heated, by the way — but also to the double wishbone suspension up front. The 450 AMG obviously comes with the AMG body-styling package that includes special front and rear aprons, and a body-colour rear spoiler.

Standard also are the 9GTronic nine-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive (as it is in the diesel also). Dynamic select — which includes settings for comfort, slippery, sport, sport+ and individual is accessed via a dial on the centre console — and handles a whole host of functions depending on the terrain you find yourself in. Out on the open road, you appreciate that raised driving position and the willingness of the biturbo engine — and the nine-gear automatic transmission comes into its own.

The V6 sends out a particularly nice baritone rendition, while the interior lives up the exclusivity one would expect for a R1-million-plus vehicle. Next up was the one vehicle everyone wanted to get their hands on — the AMG GLE 63 S Coupé. Costing nearly R800 000 more than the 450, the 63 S is for those who get their kicks from a super-high-performance vehicle and have bucks to burn. Beating under the bonnet sits an AMG 5.5 litre V8 biturbo engine that churns out a whopping 430kW of power and 760Nm of torque. Serious figures indeed.

This particular vehicle comes equipped with sports car acceleration (0-100km/h in just 4.2 seconds) and tops out at a governed 250km/h. There’s an unmistakable sound to the V8 (especially in sport+ mode) and it’s best to play with the steering-wheel shift paddles to hit the right notes as you whip through the 7G-Tronic gearbox — all the while impressed by the tremendous pulling power. Pushing the envelope, the handling is perfectly assured and the air suspension system is speed sensitive, lowering the body at higher speeds in order to minimise drag while increasing stability.

It’s all very well setting things alight when behind the wheel of a “63”, but putting out the fire, you also need something special, and the ventilated and perforated brake discs (attached to 22-inch rims) with silver-painted brake callipers with AMG lettering does just that. This top-of-range vehicle comes pretty well stocked with everything that opens and shuts, but if you need extras such as an engine cover in carbon fibre (I kid you not), then be prepared to fork out some extra cash.

Bruce Fraser