SAN ANTONIO, TX – An old brewery, once the largest in Texas, sits at the heart of a trendy neighbourhood just north of San Antonio’s downtown core. Known as the Pearl district, its name came from the beer that was once brewed there until its operations were permanently shuttered in 2001.
Meticulously and painstakingly restored, many of the original historic buildings have been given new life, converted into storefronts, restaurants, and urban living spaces. The area feels modern, vibrant, and alive with activity, a stark contrast to the typical semi-deserted suburban landscape surrounding the grounds.
The brewery itself has been transformed into a 146-room boutique hotel with much of the original architecture and gritty industrial roots preserved. Old, defunct brewing equipment is strewn throughout, artfully incorporated into the restoration. The steampunk vibes add to the charm of the place and it’s easy to see why this is quickly becoming a tourist hotspot.
While this is an American brewery, the story of Pearl beer actually began in Germany. The recipe was brought over to the US, and the name was changed from “Perle”, the German word for Pearl into its English form. The beer was brewed there for 118 years.
Fittingly then, this was the place chosen by Mercedes to introduce their new 2020 GLE SUV. And as Stefanie Schmitz, Head of Development SUV, so eloquently put it, “We couldn’t think of a better place to show off our new Mercedes-Benz GLE, an American made SUV with strong German roots and the pearl of our SUV lineup.”
Yes, these SUVs are made in the US. Tuscaloosa, Alabama to be exact. In fact, Mercedes proudly showed us the very first M-Class built in Alabama signed by every person responsible for designing it. Sitting in that late 90s Mercedes, really puts into perspective how far cars have come.
One of the first premium marques to build a luxury SUV back when sedans still ruled, the Mercedes M-Class was soon followed by BMW and Porsche with their own versions. The segment has grown ever since with Mercedes adding models in all sizes from the compact GLA to the full-size GLS. Easily outpacing the shrinking sedan market, SUVs now account for one-third of their total global sales.
The M-Class was renamed GLE in 2015 and has been completely redesigned for the 2020 model year featuring a host of new technologies that wouldn’t have been out of place on an S-Class launch. While the GLE is not a flagship per se, it’s a volume model and an important one for the brand. And with the SUV trend here to stay, the GLE is the perfect candidate to showcase all the latest new gadgets that Mercedes can sell you.
Just like its major competition, the BMW X5, and Porsche Cayenne, the styling of the new GLE largely echoes the previous design, especially when viewed from the front and the side. Smoother surfaces and softened lines result in one of the most slippery shapes in its class with a drag coefficient of just 0.29.
An octagonal grille, redesigned bumpers, new LED headlights and taillights, and new wheels up to 21 inches in diameter are all clues that this is the new model. The rear taillights see the biggest change mimicking those on the new Mercedes CLS, they’re also kind of like an upside-down version of the old ones. Weird.
The overall design is typical corporate Mercedes: conservatively handsome, but not that exciting.
The wheelbase has been lengthened by 80 mm allowing for an optional third row that’s able to accommodate two adults that are up to 180 cm in height. I was unable to verify this claim as none of the test models I drove were equipped with it, and although the cargo area was pretty big, I couldn’t see how a third row would be anything but cramped. Some of the provided media pictures told a different story, but there’s no better test than actually sitting in them.
Second-row passengers will also benefit from additional leg and headroom and cargo space behind the second row has grown to a sizeable 825 litres.
Having been around since 2011 the previous model was beginning to show its age, even with a mid-cycle update. Nowhere was this more apparent than the interior. The tacked on screen and button-heavy design was ergonomically sound but completely unfashionable.
Screens rule the day and the new GLE has gone fully digital with two gorgeous 12.3-inch displays set side by side in a roofless alcove of sorts. The A-Class was the first to get the new MBUX operating system, and now the GLE has it, and using it is quite frankly a joy. You can swipe, pinch, and poke and it just responds instantly going from your music to your navigation to selecting the new wave massage that slowly works its way down your entire body as you drive blissfully along.
The system is highly customizable and features natural voice recognition AKA “Hey Mercedes” that’s always listening. Maybe a little too closely though as any mention of the word “Mercedes” would get her going, usually at a most inconvenient moment, and my driving partner and I would have to yell expletives to get her to scram.
I found that it works sometimes, but like most of the voice recognition devices out there, there’s a bit of a learning curve.
The augmented reality navigation, on the other hand, is the bee’s knees and I think every car should come with it. Rather than just tell you a turn is 200 meters away, the nav screen flips into a camera view of your surroundings and a graphical turn indicator points to the street you need to turn into. It works brilliantly, especially in areas where proper street signage is lacking.
It’s a proper Mercedes on the inside, lined with nice leather, and metal, and perfect stitching, a great sound system, and all the safety nannies you could think off including new short and long-range sensors that help the vehicle to “see” all around it and far ahead too.
An improved traffic jam detection system can spot jams up to 500 metres ahead and automatically slow you down to prepare for the congestion and the resulting stop and go traffic.
A boon for Toronto cyclists are the new sensors that will alert you if you’re in a situation where you’re parallel parked and haven’t looked behind you before opening the door. If a cyclist is approaching a warning chime sounds, the mirror blind spot indicator turns on and the ambient lights on the door glow red. Hopefully, this clues you in to keep the door closed and let the cyclist pass avoiding what would have surely ruined their day (and yours).
Rural Texas was not what I expected. Unseasonably cool temperatures and a rain-soaked couple of days made it feel a bit closer to the fall we were having back in Toronto. As we made our way through Texas Hill Country the roads were anything but straight, with frequent elevation changes, a good mix of smooth and rough undulating tarmac, and a few shallow river crossings. Nothing too challenging for the GLE, and its optional torque on demand AWD system that can seamlessly distribute the torque from 0 to 100 percent between the front and rear axles.
E-Active Body Control
You always expect something new at a Mercedes launch and the GLE has one of the coolest suspension systems on a road car today. They call it E-Active Body Control, and it’s one of the few vehicles in the world that can control the spring and damping forces at each wheel allowing them to move completely independently from each other.
It does this by using electronically controlled hydropneumatic dampers at each corner augmented by air springs that bear the brunt of the SUVs weight. An electric motor/pump unit for each of the dampers pumps hydraulic fluid in creating an active force allowing the ride height and damper stiffness to be controlled in real time.
A large amount of processing power, software, and algorithms are required to make a system like this run. Each of those motor/pump units gets a 3-core processor of their own and those are all governed by a main central processor.
“It’s a very, very complex system,” explained Stefan Cytrynski, the lead boffin that spent the last eight years designing this suspension. He explained the need for more energy than a traditional 12-volt electrical system could provide. They knew 8 years ago that a 48-volt electrical system like that on the new CLS would need to be employed to provide the necessary power to make all this work.
“We use this to control roll behavior,” said Stefan as this innovative suspension system does away with traditional anti-roll bars. Because the dampers are fully computer controlled and thanks to the power of 48 volts, driving the GLE equipped with this E-Active Body Control is a completely new experience.
During the drive, I detected no body roll. None whatsoever. And the ride quality was remarkable in all of the different driving modes from Comfort to Sport, keeping the cabin and all its occupants completely isolated from the road. A new “curve” driving mode was something that I have never seen before and selecting this will make the GLE lean into corners. The complete opposite of what every single car I have ever driven has done. Like a motorcyclist, the big SUV will dive into a corner leaning at an angle of up to 3 degrees helping mitigate the lateral forces felt during cornering. All so your passengers remain comfortable no matter what you’re driving through.
The GLE can also bounce itself free if you find yourself stuck in deep sand (or snow). That’s right, it bounces! Performing a type of bunny-hop that gets the body moving up and down, helping to rock itself out of sticky situations.
Two engine choices to begin
E-Active Body Control and the 48-volt electrical system are only available on the GLE 450 that uses the new 3-litre inline 6 rated at 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. An electric motor-generator between the engine and transmission provides an additional 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque in short bursts.
Like many new German cars, the GLE can seem overly complex. Just ask Stefan. But the way everything works together provides for a seamless experience, one where you can just get in and drive and not bother about what’s happening underneath the skin.
Two other suspension systems are offered as well if all of this is a bit much. The base GLE 350 will come with standard steel springs and you can add the AIRMATIC suspension as an option. A 2-litre 4 cylinder powers the 350 and it produces 255 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. It has a meaty mid-range but the 4 cylinder runs out of steam quickly as the revs rise, and will feel underpowered when compared to its competition.
How does it stack up?
I also happened to be on the media launches for the new BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne and the new GLE easily wins on the tech front. It has the nicest interior too, in my humble opinion. The new active suspension is literally a game changer and there’s nothing else like it on the market. If handling and perfect driving dynamics are what you look for in a mid-size SUV then the Cayenne might be the best choice. The X5 falls somewhere in between the two: not as comfortable as the Benz, and not as fun to drive as the Porsche.
It seems that while many things have changed on the new GLE, a lot has also stayed the same. The average Mercedes client, especially those shopping in this segment, is looking for supreme luxury, comfort, and isolation from the road and the GLE delivers that perfectly while pushing the innovation boundary further than it ever has.
The 2020 Mercedes GLE will arrive in dealer showrooms somewhere in the middle of 2019. Prices at the time of this writing have not been announced.