No car sector is changing faster than that populated by premium SUVs. Not only is the category expanding at big-bang speeds, as supercar and luxury manufacturers (bar McLaren) fall over each other to see who can come up with the most ostentatious wealth statement ever to direct power to all four wheels (a contest won by the Rolls-Royce Cullinan), but those who once occupied the cheaper seats are now also racing upmarket.
The Mercedes-Benz GLE (or ML, or M-class as it has been variously described in the past) is now 20 years old, and it is extraordinary to consider this latest model’s plushness even compared to the one it replaces, let alone the inexactly assembled, agricultural original. Peer through a side window and, save the fact it resides a little more distant from the planet’s surface, in all other respects you’re looking into a world hitherto populated by limousines.
Yet what’s impressive about this new GLE is that Mercedes has not forgotten whence it came. So long as you’re prepared to pay, this elevated luxury carriage can be specified with full underbody protection, hill descent control and, that rarest of rare SUV options these days, a low-ratio transfer box. If you still find yourself up to your axles in sand, the GLE 450h can detail its 48-volt mild hybrid system literally to make the car jump up and down and bounce its way back onto firmer terra.
The only problem is that no one uses these cars that way. The most extreme off-roading almost anyone will do is tow a horsebox across a muddy field at the local gymkhana. Which is why, for all this optional hardware, at its heart the GLE is far more street machine than off-roading hero. When you drive it, there’s an inescapable sense that Mercedes has first designed an SUV and then done everything in its power to disguise the fact. The GLE 450h hybrid is quite quick and commendably comfortable. It is surely also the quietest SUV in its competitor set. If this is the kind of car you want, it is as good as any out there.
But it still suffers from all those unavoidable attributes of such cars. At more than 2.2 tonnes, it is enormously heavy and, even with suspension so clever it can not only eliminate roll but lean the car into corners, its heft is inescapable. It is thirsty, too. And you find yourself asking whether you’d not really be rather better off (in every sense of the term) spending less on a perhaps less fashionable, but far more effective, E-class estate.
There are of course those who genuinely like the higher driving position, will use the seven seats all bar the most basic of GLEs now have as standard and might even put a tyre off the asphalt from time to time. But the truth is that far more will be sold to people who just like the image. And I understand that.
I just hope they also understand that while this is Mercedes’ best SUV to date, and one of the best SUVs of any kind you can buy, it’s still not a patch on the type of car it is so rapidly coming to replace.
Price £62,300 Engine 3.0 litres, 6 cylinders, turbocharged Power [email protected] Torque 369lb [email protected] Weight 2220kg Power to weight 163bhp per tonne Transmission nine-speed automatic, four-wheel drive 0-62mph 5.7sec Top speed 155mph Economy 33.6mpg CO2 191g/km