Mercedes beat its rivals to the premium SUV segment. Does it still have a lead?

An early arrival to the premium SUV scene has worked out rather well for the car that was latterly redubbed the Mercedes GLE-Class.

In its first-generation form, the M-Class – as it was formerly known – was shown to the public as far back as 1996, when the BMW X5 was still only a designer’s sketch and before either the Audi Q7 or Range Rover Sport had even been thought of. Over three and a bit model cycles, and after a mid-life nomenclature change intended to better identify the car as Mercedes’ middle-sized luxury 4x4, the GLE has become one of the brand’s best-selling SUVs, rivalling and even out-selling the smaller and more affordable GLC at times over the past decade.

The way the GLE’s design conceals its D-pillar – with a bold diagonal C-pillar and wraparound rear window – is a styling cue that’s been a feature of every GLE and M-Class Merc since the 1996 original. Still stands out.

This week we’re seeking to find out exactly where first-to-the-party status has left this car, which is now on sale in fourth-generation form – and particularly so now Mercedes has added the kind of variety and choice to the GLE’s showroom range that only the marque’s biggest-selling models tend to enjoy.

After a motor show debut two years ago, the W167-generation GLE went into production in Alabama at the very end of 2018, but its derivative range has hardly stopped swelling since. Buyers can now choose between traditional SUV and ‘coupé’ bodystyles. There are both petrol-electric and diesel-electric plug-in hybrid powertrains on offer, with availability particular to market territory. And for UK buyers there are three conventional diesel engine options in the car besides, as well as a 48V mild-hybrid petrol model.

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And that’s before you’ve even made it far enough down the price list to take in the Affalterbach-tuned AMG performance versions – which brings us to this week’s test subject. The lesser – and cheaper – of two Mercedes-AMG GLE derivatives, the new GLE 53 4Matic+ is a performance SUV in a particularly modern mould. Read on to discover if it has both the makings and the execution to be the high point in a complicated model range.

The GLE line-up at a glance

As is the case with practically all of Mercedes’ models, the GLE is available with an exceptionally broad spread of powertrains. In the UK, the four-cylinder diesel 300d represents the entry-level offering, although there are six-cylinder diesels, a diesel plug-in hybrid and a couple of six-cylinder petrols to choose from, too.

The outlandish AMG 63 S model crowns the range, of course. Its 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 makes a substantial 603bhp, but you’ll pay an equally substantial price to put one on your driveway.

Price £80,485 Power 429bhp Torque 384lb ft 0-60mph 5.4sec 30-70mph in fourth 8.2sec Fuel economy 24.0mpg CO2 emissions 248g/km 70-0mph 46.5m

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe

First drives