2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE53 First Drive: Fantastic Formula
Formulas are helpful things. For example, we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that combining two hydrogen molecules with one oxygen molecules makes water. We also know that if we add an additional oxygen molecule, we get hydrogen peroxide. When it comes to chemistry, putting A plus B together is always going to equal C.
The same is generally true for cars. Take the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE53 Coupe, a vehicle that marries several familiar bits and bobs, from its mild-hybrid 53-series powertrain to the sleek new body of the GLE Coupe to the redesigned underpinnings and smart technology of the standard GLE. We had a pretty good idea the result of this particular formula would be quite appealing before we even turned a wheel.
After two days of puttering through the Austrian Alps, tackling snow-covered terrain and icy roads, and enjoying a few blasts on the Austrian Autobahn, our prediction was quite right: the new GLE53 Coupe is a welcomed addition to the redesigned GLE-Class family.
A Known Quantity
We’ve sampled Mercedes-AMG’s 53-series powertrains in a number models in the past year or so, and it’s consistently stood out at as a star in the AMG line. Driving the GLE53 simply reinforced that feeling: the combination of a 48-volt mild-hybrid architecture; a lagless, turbocharged straight-six engine; and an excellent nine-speed automatic transmission yields the best powertrain in the Mercedes-AMG stable since the legendary M156 6.2-liter V8 went out to pasture.
Yes, that’s right. With all due respect to the twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 and the most powerful production four-cylinder in the world, this right here is the current pinnacle. Maybe not of power or torque, but certainly of refinement, versatility, and likability.
Admittedly, the engine (cover) isn’t much to look at, but the engine itself is a gem on the road. We won’t dig into the nitty gritty here – it’s been done before – but there are a few things that make this engine so great. For a start, it’s simply a 3.0-liter straight-six that makes wonderful noises. This engine sounds delicious and revs eagerly, with the best noises reserved for the tippy-top of the 6,500-rpm rev range. Without its supplemental power sources, this engine alone is good for 429 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque. Honestly, we’d probably be crowing about it even without its mild-hybrid architecture.
With a starter-generator, dubbed EQ Boost, mounted between the engine and the nine-speed automatic transmission, the GLE53 gets an extra 21 hp and a massive 184 lb-ft of torque. Not only does this system and its 48-volt architecture power the aforementioned compressor, it also provides ample assistance to the gas engine, as well as seamless start-stop functionality and engine gliding, both of which improve fuel economy without damping performance.
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On the mountain roads sprinkled between Munich, Germany and Hochgurgl, Austria – a route that started at 1,500 feet and ended north of 7,100 – elevation never hampered the setup. The GLE felt eager and engaged, whether going uphill, down, or around a bend. The gliding function was especially good on the mountain roads, decoupling the engine from the transmission to save fuel, and then combining the two again without any perceptible lag in acceleration.
But settle down and ask the GLE to simply commute, and the powertrain is all too willing to oblige. Power is predictable and ample, with seamless acceleration that’s always on deck. The sonorous sounds of the straight-six – adjustable independent of drive mode with a rocker switch on the center console – fade in normal driving unless you really bury the accelerator pedal. If you’d like your AMG to simply shut up and play the everyday driver, the 53 series is the way to go.
The standard nine-speed automatic transmission was equally at home on the mountain roads. In Comfort mode, it managed shifts unobtrusively, holding gears as needed while we climbed steep inclines, but kicking down eagerly when the engine was tasked with max acceleration. Despite the presence of a torque converter, the gearbox was plenty fun in manual mode or in the Sport and Sport Plus driving modes too, firing off rapid upshifts and willingly dropping multiple gears with a few pulls of the wheel-mounted paddles. Best of all, in manual mode, the transmission won’t automatically upshift at redline, giving drivers a smidge more control over proceedings.
Unsurprisingly, the roads of the Alps are cold, slick, and snowy in early December. But a Slippery drive mode is available at a twist of the drive mode knob mounted at the steering wheel’s five o’clock position or a tap of the rocker switch on the center console. Along with Trail and Sand driving modes (which join the usual Comfort Sport, and Sport Plus), the GLE has more than enough capability in inclement conditions to satisfy most drivers by adjusting the engine’s power output and torque curve, transmission behavior, suspension firmness, steering weight, and stability control systems. Aided by a set of Pirelli Scorpion winter tires, the GLE provided sure-footed performance on ice and packed-in snow on the climb toward Hochgurgl.
The tricky mountain roads also proved an apt testbed for the GLE53’s new, optional AMG Active Ride Control system and the familiar, standard Airmatic air suspension. The new ride control setup uses independently operating electric sway bars on each axle that better balances the lateral suspension load, effectively quashing body roll. The result, in conjunction with the air suspension, is an impressively comfortable and stable ride. But while Mercedes-AMG says the system can adapt to situations 1,000 times per second, we noticed that it controlled roll almost too well while exiting some of the tighter switchbacks. The body simply didn’t respond as predicted on corner exit, exhibiting a sensation that made us think we were using too much steering angle and bleeding momentum.
We were able to safely judge grip levels, even on slippery roads, through sensations from the steering and through the seat.
That minor gripe aside, though, the overall handling ability of this roughly 5,100-pound vehicle (Mercedes hasn’t released a curb weight yet) is impressive, and conquers twisting roads as easily as mall parking lots. But it also inspires confidence with its high level of feedback, particularly through the steering. We were able to safely judge grip levels, even on slippery roads, through sensations from the steering and through the seat. In better conditions, we’d have no reservations hustling the GLE53 down roads far more challenging than what most consumers would encounter.
The 53 model enjoys improved brakes, too, with 15.8-inch rotors and two-piston calipers in front and 13.6-inch rotors and one-piston calipers in back. Controlled via a properly weighted, communicative brake pedal, the GLE is as eager and predictable to stop as it is to go. The brakes were so easy to modulate that, even on a snowy, icy mountain pass that’s normally closed to commuters during the winter months, we managed to bring our speed down without triggering the throbbing sensation of the anti-lock braking system.
Look At Me Now
Ultimately, the reason most consumers may select the GLE53 is to get a taste of the AMG lifestyle without going for the pricier, full-fat GLE63. This car certainly looks the part of an AMG, with standard 21-inch wheels and optional 22s; an AMG-specific grille, fascia, and rear bumper; and the appropriate badging. It’s not an ostentatious look, but it is purposeful and plenty attractive.
The cabin boasts the usual AMG accoutrements as well, with a leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel, metal paddle shifters, and pleasantly bolstered seats that also boast long-haul comfort. Beyond those touches, though, this is the same familiar GLE-Class cabin, with a pair of 12.3-inch displays in a slab-like housing mounted atop the dash. AMG models feature more buttons and switches behind the control dial for the MBUX infotainment system, but this cabin layout is still anything but cluttered.
That said, if you like the mild-hybrid powertrain but aren’t as keen on the swoopy coupe-like body, we have some bad news: at the moment, Mercedes-AMG will only offer the GLE53 with the sleeker “coupe” body and not on the standard GLE SUV. That said, we’ll readily admit to liking the new GLE-Class Coupe’s look more than its predecessor, much as we prefer the latest generation of the standard-bodied model over the older GLE.
Mercedes-AMG hasn’t released pricing for the GLE53 yet, but if we make a few safe assumptions, it’s not hard to guesstimate. The first is that this car will likely supplant the gas-only GLE43, just as the E53 sedan replaced the E43. The lack of a GLE43 for model year 2020 seems to support this statement. The second is that there’s no way in hell the mild-hybrid will approach the $113,000 starting price of the GLE63. Instead, it will likely represent a modest premium over the likely discontinued GLE43, which starts around $73,000. Our educated guess would put the starting price of this vehicle in the $75,000 to $77,000 range, with a well-equipped example cresting $90,000 and a fully loaded vehicle ending up at $100,000 to $105,000.
That is, frankly, a very large sum of money for a vehicle. But the GLE53 Coupe, much like the E53 Coupe, Sedan, and Convertible, stands out from its slim set of competitors with a powertrain that’s satisfyingly engaging and powerful. That it’s also so far removed from any competitor in its character – both dynamically and in everyday conditions – makes the GLE53 Coupe a smart buy for premium customers aching for performance in a more advanced form than a fire-breathing V8.