Updated 1 year, 3 months ago

2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE450 AMG review: Killer crossover coupe?

Body style is an enigma, but there's useful power below

The Mercedes-Benz GLE seems to be an answer to the question, “Shouldn’t Mercedes have something to compete with the BMW X6?”

I’m not sure who asked that question, or why, but here we are. Still, after a few days with the bubble-shaped AMG450, I have a little better sense of what this car is truly for.

I had the AMG for our first weekend of snow here in Michigan, and on those aggressive Pirelli P-Zeros, things got a little dicey. On my first expressway jaunt, when there were just a few slippery inches on the ground, the car felt sloppy. I looked at the window sticker and didn’t see the 4Matic notation, which made me even more nervous. I ended up putting the car in snow mode, which softened up the throttle, allowing me to use my normal pedal force without flying off the road. When I found it was 4Matic-equipped, I got a little more aggressive and found the 4WD and traction control system working in unity, no matter what I did with the right pedal. The porky curb weight of nearly 5,000 pounds surely helped it push through the slushy mess.

Output from the twin-turbo V6 was more than adequate at 362 hp and 384 lb-ft. My main complaint was with the gas pedal in any mode but sport plus. Like a lot or Mercs these days, there's a tiny hesitation at tip-in before  takeoff. That’s only amplified when the stop/start system is active, which makes the car take two beats before moving forward. Sport and sport-plus modes seemed to mitigate that, the latter mode tdoing an even better job.

The other thing the car does in sport-plus mode is give a little brap-brap from the exhaust in between shifts. Now, I’m a fan of those noises most of the time, but it didn’t seem to fit this car, even though it’s a mid-grade performer thanks to the AMG tuning. I love the backfires, and I let it pop a bunch of times in traffic just to be a hooligan, but I’m not sure the average GLE customer (whoever that might be) will be into that.

One more semi-gripe with sport plus: it shifts gears aggressively, both up and down. That means it’ll hold a gear until 4,000-5,000 under normal circumstances, and downshift to the same points when slowing down. That’s good for a consistent lurch every time it drops from second to first. It’s annoying, and it doesn’t happen in regular sport mode, but still. I guess sport-plus is for driving with spirit, and not for stop-and-go traffic.

Steering is on the heavy side, and with those big, wide tires grabbing the grooves in the road, I had to use a steady hand to keep it straight. I think the weight changes with the drive modes. At slow speeds, it’s nice and easy.

The GLE doesn’t lean much in corners or lift on acceleration, but the cabin still stays smooth and quiet during most driving. I never found a pothole that made me wince, but these tires are so damn big, I think it just rolls over them. Road and wind noise are minimal.

Now, the big questions for a crossover: How’s the back seat, and how’s the storage space?

Even with the coupe-like roof, there’s space for an average-sized adult. I put two guys back there on a recent Saturday with no complaints. As for the cargo space, there’s way more than I would have guessed. After our 6-or-so inches of snow, I realized that I was again without a blower for the season. I called up Craiglist and found a good one 40 minutes away, which I went and picked up immediately. Surprisingly, all I had to do was fold the push handle down and the 5-hp Toro fit without folding the seats down or taking the chute off. I’m not sure if you could fit four sets of golf clubs back there, but three? Definitely.

The interior is up to Mercedes’ standards with tight panel gaps, expensive-looking surfaces and seats, and matte finished wood, which I love. The screen looks like it belongs in there and it has one of the best G-meters in the business. Hit the little button that looks like an SUV and a picture of the car comes up with drive modes, steering angle and a little red dot in the center that moves around as you accelerate, brake and turn. It’s cool, and probably a little distracting, but if you’re learning about the “traction circle,” it would be very useful. The sound system is loud and crisp, and it hooked up to my iPhone immediately, which is always a nice bonus.

The GLE450 AMG is closer to 90K than 80. That’s a monstrous chunk of change for a four/five-seat crossover that can’t really fit anything tall or help a friend move. It can tow 7,700 pounds, though. The 300-hp base BMW X6 is about $60,000; the X6 xDrive50i, with a 445-hp V8 is about $75,000 and the X6M is $102,000. This AMG is only 362 hp, so buyers might feel a little underwhelmed against their Bavarian brothers, but Bimmer can’t touch Mercedes in interior quality. Looking at the options sheet, we could probably knock off 10 grand, too.

So, if you’re looking for a coupish crossover SUV -- and we're betting that one or two of you are -- and want something that swings to the more luxury side of things, check out the GLE. If you want something more sporty, check out the X6. If you want something more useful, get a damn Grand Cherokee and save yourself $60,000.

OTHER VOICES:

"The GLE, like its obvious inspiration, the BMW X6, is an answer to a question that never has been. An SUV with the cargo space lopped in half? Wherefore, then, an SUV? Of course, maybe the problem lies with me; the thing certainly gets a lot of attention from passersby, with more than the occasional driver of some luxury-leaning sedan or other hovering a little too long in adjacent lanes to check it out, so it might behoove me to recalibrate my what-makes-for-a-cool-car bearings.

"From a driver-only perspective, the GLE certainly does many things very, very right, from its eager powertrain to a cabin appointed in tasteful and wholly functional fashion. But I’m not entirely sure what the suspension was tuned for. It feels constantly nervous, and even the most benign road imperfection seems to send it crab-walking for a few feet before it all settles down again. Very odd." -Natalie Neff, Autoweek editoral content editor

Autoweek | Jake Lingeman