MALIBU, CA – With buyers across all segments opting for utility vehicles instead of cars, it’s no surprise Mercedes-Benz has imbued the new 2021 AMG GLE 63 S and GLS 63 with the kind of supreme luxury once reserved for the S-Class large sedan.
Clocking in at $114,000 and $132,000, respectively, these all-wheel-drive 2- and 3-row CUVs, both on Daimler’s unibody Modular High Architecture platform, are aimed at the well-to-do family man or woman who feels the need for speed (174 mph!) and leave no stone unturned. Roomy? Check. Posh materials? They’re here. Ridiculous power? Oh yes.
Thanks to Mercedes’ 4.0L BiTurbo V-8 under their hoods, engine output for both is a whopping 603 hp. If you don’t plan on screaming down the highway at wide-open throttle, torque is similarly monstrous: 627 lb.-ft. (850 Nm), and that peaks as early as 2,500 rpm.
But the muscle doesn’t stop there. Adding to the engine’s brawn is Mercedes’ 48V lithium-ion EQ Boost starter-generator, placed behind the engine and in front of the 9-speed automatic transmission. It makes the AMG GLE and GLS technically “mild hybrids,” and provides an additional 184 lb.-ft. (249 Nm) of torque and 21 hp in certain conditions. Important to note is EQ Boost serves many roles, powering infotainment and HVAC systems when the engine is shut down, plus it assists in energizing the CUVs’ active front- and rear-axle antiroll bar system, additionally aiding in regenerative braking and making for a smoother stop-start system.
As you may expect for a 6-figure vehicle, a high degree of personalization is possible in the AMG GLE and GLS. Drivers can choose between Comfort, Sport and Sport+ settings, with an Individual setting allowing custom suspension, transmission, drive- and exhaust-system calibrations.
Should anyone care to take their AMG GLE 63 S or GLS 63 off-road, there also are Trail and Sand modes, both raising the suspension roughly 2 ins. (51 mm) higher at speeds up to 44 mph (71 km/h).
There’s also Race mode on the GLS 63 S, designed for “highly dynamic driving” on closed race circuits.
Frankly, Sport and Sport+ should be plenty of performance for the mom or dad looking to let loose. Faster acceleration and downshifts, plus a stiffer suspension, are a hallmark of the former, while the latter does the above while sharpening steering and creating “targeted torque interventions” on upshifts.
Both AMG CUVs have active engine mounts for the first time, which automatically change between hard and soft settings for performance or cruising comfort.
We put both of these lux-mobiles through their paces on varied terrain throughout Southern California, from twisty mountain roads near Malibu, to traffic-choked streets around Beverly Hills, to relatively wide-open interstates and state highways closer to Orange County.
Power is delivered in a linear manner and it doesn’t take long during one canyon run in the GLE to get to 600 lb.-ft. (813 Nm) on a real-time performance display in the digital gauge cluster. Unreal.
The ride is compliant and comfortable, even in aggressive cornering, no doubt thanks to the active stabilization system.
Steering is a little light and artificial feeling in our GLS tester and we’d prefer a heavier sensation with more resistance, especially at higher speeds.
Upshifts and downshifts do come quickly, as promised, and with minimal jerkiness. But braking is another matter.
Because these are powerful vehicles, they need powerful brakes, but the AMG GLE and GLS disc brakes, 15.7 ins. (399 mm) up front and 14.5 ins. (368 mm) in the rear, are difficult to gently engage – grabby by varying degrees when slowing or stopping, causing some mild motion sickness. Carbon-ceramic discs, which can elicit this sensation, are optional on the GLE, but we experience grabby-ness too with the GLS, which doesn’t offer them.
While you can debate its worth in a modern auto industry focused on environmentalism, the exhaust tone of a V-8 is joyful and appeals to our primate brain.
The Sport and Sport+ drive modes in each model immediately eager up the accelerator for an exhilarating experience…when possible. Driving the GLS in horrendous L.A. traffic has us wondering how often each mode will ever get used, especially as AMG’s top markets are major metros with lots of gridlock.
Over-the-top creature comforts abound inside the new AMG GLE and GLS. There’s a giant (2-ft. [0.6-m] wide) display merging the digital cluster and main touchscreen, 64-color ambient lighting, exquisite trim (metal, wood, synthetic suede) galore, some heated and cooled cupholders, a power-fold function for the GLS’ third row and, available in both, massaging seats, which we accidentally stumble upon when trying to adjust our lumbar. The rolling “wave” massage is relaxing, perfect after a long flight and boasting good intensity, better than the weak massaging seats many OEMs install.
The artificial-intelligence-infused Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) system, which helped the Mercedes A220 win a Wards 10 Best UX trophy last year, continues to impress. It is industry-leading for its understanding of and responsiveness to voice commands. The edict, “Hey Mercedes, change to 80s on 8” results in a lightening quick station switch, no typical wording like “tune to” or “SiriusXM” necessary. And if you prefer not to use voice, the touchscreen and two touchpads – one on the center console and the other a miniature variant on the steering wheel, are perfectly capable.
Both CUVs’ interior materials are of the utmost quality. Their sumptuous leather seats, stitched with crisscrossing vertical lines and perforated in stacked crescent shapes, are strikingly beautiful. A glossy technical trim decorates one GLE we spend time in.
But sometimes style disappointingly trumps substance, as is the case with the vehicles’ engraved aluminum buttons. They’re attractive, but not always user-friendly. In bright sunshine their type is rendered unreadable, which can be dangerous when trying to adjust the vehicles’ adaptive cruise control settings while driving.
We try to use as many of the optional advanced driver-assist systems as possible and find them above average. The lane-keeping in both the AMG GLE and GLS brakes and steers us back into our lane, as we impressively experience on a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway. In one instance we intervene and apply brakes, as it seemed automatic braking was not strong enough to prevent a collision. Better safe than sorry.
We experience Mercedes’ active brake assist with cross-traffic function when pulling into Zuma Beach to do a turn around. A white van approaching from the left as we come up to a stop sign causes our GLE’s brakes to automatically engage.
While much about both vehicles is impressive, their fuel economy isn’t. It’s a throwback to the 1990s, when Mercedes helped create the luxury utility-vehicle segment with the introduction of the GLE’s predecessor, the M-Class, in 1997.
Even with EQ Boost and the added muster of a cylinder deactivation system on the new AMG variants of the GLE 63 S and GLS 63, which shuts down cylinders two, three, five and eight in Comfort drive mode, we never saw better than 18 mpg (13.1 L/100 km) during our time behind the wheel. That’s a smidge better than the 17 mpg (14 L/100 km) the ’98 ML320 averaged. For this eco-focused reviewer, plug-in-hybrid variants of the GLE are necessary in the U.S. They’re presently, sadly, only available overseas.
Despite our displeasure with the fuel economy, both CUVs are technical masterpieces filled with refinement and, should you have the means and the need to haul a lot of people and gear, speedily, worth a test drive.
Both models, assembled in Tuscaloosa, AL, are due to go on sale this summer at Mercedes-Benz AMG dealers in the U.S.