FIRST DRIVE | 2019 Mercedes-Benz GLE comes out guns blazing

Regarding aesthetic qualities, as a sales mainstay of Merc’s SUV range, there was little doubt that the evolution from previous to current would be a conservative one. Save for the rear, which seems to mimic elements from certain eastern brands, the latest GLE-Class offers strong nods to the cues of its forebears. Mercedes-Benz appears to be struggling lately with peculiar, derivative rears.

Inside is where the starkest revelations between old and new are seen. The bulky and button-intensive fascia of the W166 was beginning to look its age compared with the cleaner, digital-focused setups of some alternatives.

In the new W167, bountiful technology and ease of use converge to a point where consumers a tad less inclined to future-forward innovations may feel at home. Following the A-Class, this is the second offering to use the Mercedes-Benz user experienceMBUX interface. Most notable is its comprising of an artificially intelligent on-board character à la Siri or Alexa. Among the arsenal of talents is a catalogue of scathing ripostes. Like when we asked her what she thought of the rival products. “The same thing as you, otherwise you would not be sitting here,” she said almost curtly. An interior assistant function enables driver and passenger to control certain features with the motion of a hand. This is nothing new, although the dexterity of its responses is proof of impressive progress.

One can programme selected commands. Point your hands at the screen in a manner not unlike the Vulcan salute and it will call up the navigation screen with your home destination already set. If the passenger tries the same, the in-seat massage facility does its thing.

How the concept of luxury has changed. The first-generation W163 unit from 1998, available for our inspection, made for an amusing contrast with its cassette player and faux wooden inlays.  When the GLE-Class is introduced to the South African market in the first quarter of 2019, two derivatives will be available initially. A nine-speed automatic will be used across the range.

First up is the 300d 4Matic with its 1,950cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-diesel, which is good for 180kW and 500Nm. The manufacturer claims a sprint time of 7.2sec for this entry point in the line-up.

Next up is the 450 4Matic. The 2,999cc, six-cylinder, turbocharged-petrol unit proffered its momentum in a manner far silkier than its smaller counterpart. With an output of 270kW and 500Nm, it will dispatch the 0-100km/h dash in an expedient 5.7sec, according to Mercedes-Benz. Its might is further complemented courtesy of a 48-volt battery that can offer short boosts of up to 16kW and 250Nm. This is in addition to the standard 12-volt system that powers the displays, windows and other ancillaries.

This 48-volt system is also partly responsible for the wizardry of the optional e-active body control. In a nutshell, it enables the independent regulation of the suspension at each wheel. So, it will compensate at the necessary corner to keep things level under hard acceleration, braking and over less-than-ideal surfaces.

But the system also aims to offset body roll by leaning into a curve, as one would atop a motorcycle. Try and get your head around that one for a second. For the driver, the effects are quite novel, feeling the car tip its nose either left or right in a rather pronounced fashion. My driving partner found the sensation less thrilling, begging me to switch out of the special curve setting and back into comfort, with its predictable handling characteristics.

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