The new Mercedes-Benz GLE kicks off an SUV model onslaught from Stuttgart, with no less than seven new SUVs headed to South Africa in the next 12 months.
For now, the focus is on the latest GLE which I drove at the media launch in Gauteng this week. The range consists of three models for now: 300d, 400d and a petrol model-badged 450.
Pricing for the new model is starts at R1 210 500 (300d), R1 351 200 (400d) and tops out at R1 329 400 (450).
Marketing director Selvin Govender confirmed that a high-performance AMG 53 and 63S models will arrive in 2020. It's also the first GLE to offer optional third row seating, in a two + three + two configuration.
The 400d 4Matic is powered by the automaker's most powerful diesel engine yet, a 3.0-litre in-line six cylinder producing a healthy 243kW and an impressive 700Nm. Power is sent to all four wheels via a 9-speed automatic gearbox.
And Mercedes claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 5.8 seconds. The wheelbase has been increased by 80mm, its 231mm wider and 24mm lower than its predecessor. The automaker claims its the slipperiest SUV in its segment with a drag coefficient of 0.29
Inside, there's a large 31cm digital screen as standard that extends from the instrument cluster to the infotainment section in a sweeping fashion.
It looks positively sleek and clean; everything from navigation, music and important data can be accessed and viewed.
What's it like to drive?
The GLE's predecessor has always been strong in the off-road department and the new car is no different: boasting all-wheel drive, low range and a diff lock to make sure the GLE never gets bogged down. The off-road package is priced at R32 300 and well worth it.
From testing the GLE's wading depth through a muddy river man-made river bed to a side slop activity the GLE performed admirably. For the record, the GLE can wade in 500mm of water and has can climb up a 35 degree gradient.
We took the GLE down some pretty steep declines and with the ease of its downhill speed regulation system, the car simply braked itself and safely made its way down without me having to touch the brake or throttle.
A transfer case is fitted as standard to the 400d and 450 models to allow a variable transfer of drive torque from 0-100% (torque on demand) between the axles.
On the road the GLE was confident, quiet and effortless in the way it goes about its business. The diesel engine has enough grunt to make overtaking easy, albeit with a bit of lag, while the optional air suspension (R29 000) with active damping does a fine job of superior ride comfort.
The 9-speed automatic does a good job of working away in the background without breaking a sweat. Mightily impressive. Claimed fuel consumption is 7.5-litres per 100km.
There are several driving modes to choose from including eco, comfort and sport.
Roomier interior and loads of tech
Inside, the GLE boasts 69mm more legroom (thanks to a longer wheelbase), while headroom in the rear has increased by 35mm. If one opts for the third row of seats, they can be adjusted electronically.
Boot space is claimed 825 litres behind the rear seats in the five-seat version, increasing up to a massive 2055 litres when the second seat row is folded down.
For the driver, the user experience system can be prompted by the now familiar "Hey Mercedes"command to access music, navigation etc.
In an effort to attract buyers in the luxury SUV segment (BMW X5, Volvo XC90, Volkswagen Touareg and Volvo XC90), the Mercedes offers trailer maneuvering assist that uses cameras and tugs the steering wheel to do the best job.
Tick the optional active distance assist distronic and it syncs with the radar and camera sensors detect the hold-up. The GLE will even brake automatically when heavy traffic is detected, once the congestion subsides the system returns to the speed that the car reads from speed signs.
There's the usual lane-keep assist feature and the car provides a helping hand with active steering assist for a period of time before prompting the driver to take control of the steering.
With a new heads up display unit and windscreen wipers that use 50% less water compared to the old model, Mercedes have made big strides in ensuring the GLE can compete with its fierce rivals.
And with a growing number of customers opting for smaller models like the GLA and GLC, the GLE will remain a luxurious way of getting from A to B, but a damn rewarding one at that.