Mercedes GLE 400 Malaysia 008

Few cars must work as hard as a premium SUV. Supercars can be forgiven for having a boot the size of a credit card, small hatchbacks are not expected to feel rock solid through rough patches and MPVs aren’t judged for their opposite lock entertainment.

But SUVs, especially the premium offerings, must be masters of all trades: feisty performance, a cossetting ride, impeccable refinement, athletic handling, generous accommodation, vault-like safety and strong versatility. And all this, in an aesthetically pleasing package, both inside and out.

Life isn’t easy for such a vehicle, then. The latest Mercedes-Benz GLE 400 4Matic, part of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia’s SUV blitz this year, claims to do all that and more. We took a couple of GLEs on a road trip to Kuantan with our contest winners, Hafizan Mk and wife, to see if the big SUV is really that good of an all-rounder.

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So, all eyes on the refreshed GLE here. Previously the ML, the renamed, facelifted version has rather polarising looks, but it has undergone an extensive bout of enhancements to transform its appearance and dynamics. This isn’t quite the safe evolutionary design path for Mercedes, especially in this full AMG Line guise.

The modern, more-rounded approach of newer Mercedes models have been grafted on to the front of the previous ML, with mixed results. While this writer, familiar with the pre-facelift SUV’s looks, thought that the mild updates look a little contrived, new-age fellow Mercedes owner Hafizan loved it, both inside and out.

It all depends on your own particular familiarity with the outgoing version, plus your affinity or lack thereof towards the “new Mercedes” look. Think of a Mercedes, and what comes to your mind first: the stately old W126 S-Class or the latest W222? Swing either way, and so will your opinion of this W166 SUV.

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On to the driving experience. Buyers want the best of both worlds – the ride should perfectly balance comfort and sportiness, the handling should be dynamic but not too demanding, and the steering should be alert but not nervous. Difficult compromises, but in this case, it ends with impressive results.

If you’re expecting this Mercedes, inherently tall and heavy, to have a combination of soggy chassis, marshmallow-soft suspension and unruly, savage turbo power delivery, making it a white-knuckle experience on anything other than a dead-straight road, you’d be wrong. It’s not the crude, original ladder frame ML we’re talking about here.

By and large, it’s a hugely competent car to drive, fast or slow. It feels far more agile and pointy than Mercedes SUVs of the past, responding to inputs with fluid and well controlled movements. Upping the sporting stakes is the adjustable Airmatic suspension with Dynamic Select – fitted as standard here – that instantly firms up upon request, reducing cornering roll.

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This is brilliant on carpet-smooth roads and through long, sweeping corners, but on acned tarmac and tightish bends, the ride quality deteriorates, becoming brittle and jittery, for sure not helped by the massive 21-inch wheels. Here, the chassis flounders when asked to make snap decisions, wallowing untidily through corners.

Though it can still be hustled surprisingly quickly through bends, it’s not really a particularly athletic offering. Not quite, at least.

The GLE always feels like it’s tolerating the driver’s demands rather than joining the fun. A Porsche Cayenne, this is not. There’s certainly plenty of grip and poise, but smart changes of direction tax the fundamentally soft suspension set-up.

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Take it a little easier in full Comfort mode, like you should in a vehicle like this, and everything feels pleasingly taut. Above all else, the Mercedes is smooth, refined and cocooning. Driven in relaxed fashion, it has a superbly damped ride quality that allows the big SUV to float over all but the most abrupt intrusions.

Over moderate speeds, it manages to achieve close to S-Class-like magical ride comfort levels that feels effortlessly keyed into the road while also floating above its irregularities – insulated by not isolated. Bumps that would catch out less composed SUVs leave the GLE driver and passengers undisturbed.

Under the long, wavy hood is Mercedes-Benz’s 333 hp/480 Nm 3.0 litre twin-turbo V6 engine, and its character, throttle response and delivery is truly unique, even within the brand’s own range. It’s velvety smooth, for one, losing and gaining revs with a speed that’s unlike the smaller blown fours.

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It zings up to its 5,250-6,000 rpm power peak with such enthusiasm that it’s no wonder AMG used this motor as a base for its mid-range 43 line-up. For a twin-turbo set-up, its power delivery is beautifully linear, from idle right up to its peak rev point of just under 6,000 rpm, at which point the slick 7G-Tronic automatic transmission calls for the next gear seamlessly.

Throughout the range, there’s punchy and gutsy acceleration, the smallest of ankle flexes bringing out a change in revs, speed and exhaust note. On full pelt, it gets the GLE 400 to 100 km/h in just 6.1 seconds, which would beat most hot-hatches off the lights. This, remember, is a 2,130 kg behemoth.

Best yet, it’s terrifically refined too – wind the engine up and barely any vibration reaches the driver, with only a hint of wail audible. When it does make itself heard, the V6 sounds far better than Merc’s dull and anonymous-sounding four-cylinder units.

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Behind the wheel, the refreshed cabin builds upon the W166’s existing conventional and thoroughly effective dashboard. The previously flush screen has been brought out, tablet style, to match the rest of the Mercedes range, though the rest have been left largely intact.

The driver faces a wide and inviting dash, which is now equipped with the latest interface, up to W205 and W222 standards. Some will like its symmetrical layout with tightly grouped controls and updated COMAND system. Others, meanwhile, may find it impersonal and spartan, and criticise it for neither looking nor feeling as expensive as Mercedes’ more recent, leather-rich haute couture interiors.

Conventional as it is though, there’s no denying it has a spot-on driving position with its supremely comfy seats, chunky steering wheel with nice perforated grips and space-saving column-mounted gear lever, all perfectly located.

Mercedes places the emphasis squarely on comfort here. You’re geared to sit very high and upright, and there’s a simplicity and ergonomic cleanliness to the layout of the controls. It looks and feels a touch old-fashioned after the stark modernity of the latest Mercs, but the GLE’s cabin is an object lesson in how to pamper the driver with superb seats, first-rate fit and finish and intuitive controls.

Meanwhile, rear passengers are served with near limousine-like levels of legroom and a pair of eight-inch monitors with matching wireless headphones. The cabin environment feels light, airy and spacious – especially so with the light cream interior option pictured here. It’s without doubt a comfortable place from which to watch the miles pass by, with large windows all around.

It’s a proper five-seater too, as the long trips to and back from Kuantan in the vehicle – which was fully loaded up with our crew, photographer, videographer and yours truly – proved. The rear bench’s centre seat is suitably comfy too, and accompanying the contest winner in the second car from this perch was a delight, with plenty of on-board toys to show and in-car features to explain.

Right behind is a massive 690-litre boot, expandable to 2,010 litres with the rear seats folded flat. Throughout this road trip and the second photo-stop journey, it swallowed all our photo/videography equipment, complete with a few full-size tripods to boot, with plenty of space to spare. Amazingly spacious and practical? Check, and then some.

Next up, safety, and again the GLE 400 absolutely shines. It gets nine airbags as standard – rear side airbags and driver kneebag on top of the usual six. Collision Prevention Assist Plus (autonomous braking system) with pedestrian-detecting Pre-Safe Brake, BAS Plus with Cross Traffic Assist, Rear Impact Warning and Protection System, Active Blind Spot Assist and Active Lane Keeping Assist are all fitted as standard.

Less essential but useful features include the full LED Intelligent Lighting System, which impressed Hafizan thoroughly on a quiet night drive back to the hotel, in this case the Mangala Resort and Spa. The lights adapt and react to the surroundings, automatically turning on high beam where necessary, pivoting the throw to light oncoming bends and best of all, intelligently dipping specific portions to avoid glaring other traffic users.

The Driving Assistance Plus pack, which adds Distronic Plus with Steering Assist was also a highlight of the journey, making long highway jaunts exceedingly relaxing rather than a tiring affair. The steering assist works remarkably well on Malaysian highways, autonomously tracking the lane curvature accurately.

With it active, the driver is allowed to loosen his/her grip of the steering wheel, as the system follows the lane securely. It takes some getting used to, of course, with a lot of faith in the system needed. Take the time to do that, though, and the system works as advertised, relieving the driver from making minute steering corrections to stay within in the lane. Less taxing to the driver, more relaxing for all.

At the end of the day, anyone forking out the RM568,888 asked for a car like this has every right to expect high levels of safety, luxury, materials and craftsmanship. In the case of the Mercedes-Benz GLE 400 4Matic, it qualifies on all the essential fronts, with a generous level of comfort and convenience to boot.

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It also helps that the Malaysian-market GLE 400 is equipped with a bewildering array of options fitted to match its price tag, especially the safety and autonomous driving modules.

In the premium SUV sector, value is determined in large part by intangibles such as presence, status and image. The cheapest option with the most kit is not necessarily the best buy – it must look the part too, giving the driver some of that elusive critical feelgood factor while simultaneously instilling envy in others.

The GLE’s graceful lines and sleekly balanced proportions will have a lot of admirers, despite its age. In isolation, it defines understated elegance with textbook clarity. Combined with the striking AMG Line exterior kit and eye-catching alloys, it has real distinction on the road.

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With that crucial visual flair and panache, it has the expensive, want-one looks that so many people demand for this sort of money.

That, and its blend of superbly comfortable and safe cabin, faultless ergonomics and devastating pace make it quite the SUV. It’s a multi-talented one too, as it’s also a rapid and sumptuous highway cruiser offering a very competent dynamic package.

Car manufacturers are great storytellers, especially with stories written to sell products. The yarns told about how good of an all-rounder the GLE is, however, is not unfounded, because it is indeed a great do-it-all machine. Is it a master-of-all-trades? Not quite, but in the ways that matter most, the GLE is exceedingly compelling.