The cheapest form of vehicle customization long has been done with a hair dryer and a plastic ruler. Prying off a badge and replacing it with that from something more potent is the easiest way to suggest your car is more exciting than it is. Unsurprisingly, most proponents of this ignoble art quickly fall victim to overreach. A scruffy BMW 320i is never going to convince as an M3, especially when the badge has been applied at a slight angle. While such deception goes too far, the 2020 Mercedes GLE350 4Matic makes us consider a crime of omission rather than commission—simply taking the badge off entirely.
This entry-level GLE-class model does a remarkably good job of hiding both that it sits at the bottom of Benz's GLE range and that it is powered by a turbo inline-four. Granted, our test car's classiness was enhanced by the $2900 AMG Line Exterior package, which adds body colored fender arches, a "diamond block" grille treatment, and 19-inch AMG-branded aluminum wheels. An additional $1000 went to upgrading those wheels to 21-inchers and another $300 on the Night package and its black exterior trim. But it doesn't look like a car powered by a four-banger, does it?
That turbocharged 2.0-liter four makes 255 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, neither of which seems like a huge amount given the GLE's 4794-pound curb weight. Yet acceleration is impressively brisk, if a ways off from what the 362-hp six-cylinder GLE450 manages. A 6.6-second zero-to-60-mph time would have made the 350 a rather quick SUV not very long ago. While that effort notably trails the GLE450 4Matic's 5.1-second effort, the 350 is 0.3-second fleeter than the Audi Q7 2.0T, although, as with the Audi, the Benz's acceleration trails off quickly once that benchmark is dispatched. The 19.2 seconds that the GLE350 needs to reach 100 mph is identical to that of the Q7 yet nearly six seconds behind the six-cylinder GLE450 4Matic.
But while that Audi feels and sounds every bit as if it only has four cylinders, the GLE does not. Its engine has enough low-end torque—peak twist starts at 1800 rpm—to give a convincing impression of a bigger, brawnier powerplant when under gentle use. It also seems to enjoy being worked harder, producing a muscular noise under acceleration and eagerly spinning to its 6250-rpm redline. You aren't going to mistake it for a V-8, but it sounds purposeful in a way that the Q7 does not. The 25 mpg we recorded for the GLE350 4Matic on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test was 2 mpg better than what the more powerful GLE450 posted, yet it fell 1 mpg shy of the Benz's EPA highway estimate.
The rest of the dynamic experience feels similarly grown up, albeit not as athletic as a BMW X5's. The GLE350 is not an especially sporty sport utility vehicle, but it does roll along with a sense of solidity that feels entirely appropriate for a Mercedes-Benz. The standard nine-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively at regular speeds, yet quickly when haste is required. The brake pedal is firm, and our test car's 169-foot stop from 70 mph is slightly better than the 357-pound-heavier GLE450's.
Steering weight also has a satisfying heft to it, and although there is little direct feedback, the GLE turns well considering its size and weight. Lateral grip from its Michelin Primacy Tour A/S all-season tires—sized 275/45R-21 in front and 315/40R-21 in the back—is impressive, with our example recording 0.92 g of stick around the skidpad. That's a substantial improvement over the 0.82 g that the GLE450 managed, albeit while riding on 20-inch Cooper Discoverer SRX LE all-season rubber. The Mercedes's 4Matic all-wheel-drive system ($2500) has no difficulty in finding traction, and the GLE resists understeer well, with only the combination of tight corners and slippery conditions causing its front end to push wide.
While more expensive versions of the GLE ride on one of two different versions of Benz's Airmatic air-spring system, the GLE350 uses conventional steel coils. These feel firmer than the air springs, and although ride quality is normally quite compliant given the 21-inch wheels, bigger bumps tend to produce some vertical jolts as the dampers fight to keep the body's motions in check.
While there's no doubt that the basic GLE cabin is a nice place to spend time, our test car sported a serious options workout well beyond what most buyers are likely to go for, including the $1050 Warmth and Comfort package that brings heaters to the seats, armrests, and door panels, as well as the $2100 Energizing Comfort package (fragrance system, ventilation to the front seats, plus a massage function), the $1000 Premium package (an AC power outlet, satellite radio, wireless device charging, and 64-color ambient lighting with illuminated door sills), an $850 Burmeister surround-sound stereo, and more. All told, our $57,195 GLE350 4Matic swelled into a $71,835 showboat.
Yet, without such extravagance, the GLE's cabin already feels plenty classy, getting pretty much all of the basics right. Twin 12.3-inch displays for instrumentation and Mercedes's MBUX infotainment system are standard, and front-seat occupants enjoy a good range of seating adjustment. Space is good in front and reasonable in the rear. A third row is available as a $2100 option, but that was one of the few extras our test car did not have. Most of Mercedes's materials feel impressively high in quality, although we were a little disappointed to find hard plastics on the dashtop and door panels beyond the areas covered by wooden trim.
Our natural instinct is to decry the greater automotive trend for downsized powerplants, but the GLE350 proves that the move towards smaller engines can be an almost painless one. We'll fully understand if you still aspire to one of the brawnier and more expensive variants, and Mercedes has no shortage of those to offer, but this is all the GLE most people actually will need.
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