Mountain Wheels: Hey Mercedes: Say hello to the SUV of the future
My first fully legitimate experience in a time machine came as I got a Christmas Day sneak peek during a typically challenging I-70 ski trip in the not-yet-available 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450.
The ultra-futuristic SUV, for sale in spring next year, pretty much takes the cake when it comes to modern tech, with artificial intelligence squaring off with just-about-drives-itself capability. It has a two-foot-wide video screen for a dash, is loaded with electrified boost and suspension and has about ten million safety and convenience features at the ready.
At its core, the GLE — essentially the redubbed version of the long-popular ML SUV — still feels like it’s right on the edge of being too big for its own good. The 2020 version has indeed been upsized, with more than three inches of additional wheelbase, resulting in considerably more rear legroom and headroom — so much so that a third row is now an option, accessed by the most sophisticated, self-leaning seats I’ve ever seen in an SUV.
But get aboard and head out on a legitimately twisty road and the new magic totally happens. Order it with E-Active body control and the bulky SUV corners absolutely flat, like a small sports sedan, for real. No tossing heads, no sliding luggage, no flying pets; it stays planted, eerily so, in pure defiance of nature.
The same system allows the vehicle to squat for easy access or, as you should totally look up on YouTube, literally bounce like an L.A. lowrider to get you unstuck from sand or maybe even snow. I did not try that, but it looks cool on TV.
That hydropneumatics system is integrated with a 48-volt electrical platform that also kicks in as much as 21 horsepower in extra boost, on top of the 450’s 362 horsepower, provided by a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder. Opt in and you’ll also get super-subtle but definitely noticeable micro-corrections to steering and lane-keeping, all facilitated by a camera-driven system — not quite self-driving, but incrementally closer. Cruise control systems will navigate traffic jams for you, possibly an I-70 weekend warrior’s dream come true.
You’re definitely going to want the dealer to help you learn the ropes on that oversized instrument and navigation/entertainment/control panel as you’ll easily miss dozens and dozens of features that can subtly change the experience.
Or, just curse at traffic as I always do, and the AI-infused Mercedes-Benz User Experience will listen you and start asking you questions, like a four-wheeled version of Alexa, which is totally not creepy at all. Turns out if you say “Hey Mercedes” (or curse in a fashion close enough, like Darren McGavin in “A Christmas Story”), the MBUX system will get into a full back-and-forth conversation and handle lots of those tasks, hands-free. The system also recognizes hand gestures — maybe not the ones aimed at Coloradans who tailgate and then brake check you if you’re sporting out-of-state plates — for additional computerized control. The world’s largest and brightest heads-up display includes an option I really hoped was a laser cannon aiming system, but was sadly just a G-force and torque meter. We are not there yet.
All of that’s a little intense, really, but it’s just part of the shock and awe experience as you first step inside the new GLE. A new and thankfully adjustable ambient LED lighting system glows like a disco, especially in the arches of a set of “holy crap” handles in the center console — bookending a totally inexplicable (but easily learnable) touchpad, palm rest and rocker switches that really control much of the vehicle’s functions, minus the talking or tiny thumb-operated touchpad balls on the steering wheel.
I couldn’t tell if the whole effect would seem less alien after a few days of ownership, especially with a swath of so-real-it’s-synthetic-looking woodgrain and the heavily-bolstered, reptilian leather seats and cabin trim. It is simply way too far out there. It has heated door elbow rests and refrigerated cupholders.
All that jazz comes in sharp contrast to the vehicle’s newly hyper-sculpted flanks, whose smoothed and slick roundness make it actually a little less imposing — especially if you have jet black paint job that’s absolutely covered in mag chloride. Aerodynamic vents on all four corners help contribute to much-improved air flow and ultimately better gas mileage.
Pricing starts at $53,700 for a 255-horsepower 2.0-liter engine version; my 4Matic all-wheel-drive-equipped 450 begins at $61,150, but was clearly much, much higher than that with all of the bells and whistles.
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