2024 Mercedes-Benz GLE First Drive: Life Is A (Hybrid) Highway

Modern American society is built around the automobile. Our many cities, dotted around four million square miles of land, are often connected solely by highways. Our homes' biggest rooms are frequently garages, built to protect our cars. Our main status symbols are the cars that we park in those garages. It is no surprise, then, that the Great American Road Trip has ascended from a simple A-to-B excursion and become a secular pilgrimage. 

But the very nature of our auto-centered culture is why the Road Trip is mythology, for the most part. We must drive to get places. Most "road trips" are composed of blurred mile markers and exit signs as we bomb down interstates from one major city to another. We eschew the spiritual for the utilitarian—the destination becomes the only goal. Only in the margins of these long stints, seeking a break from monotony, do we experience the road trip as God, nature, and automakers intended.

I spent a day road-tripping in the refreshed 2024 Mercedes-Benz GLE, and it shines in those margins. 

Everything to everyone

The biggest change that's come to the GLE line is the 2024 GLE 450e 4MATIC plug-in model, although the overall number of drivetrains still on tap are slightly dizzying. There are now the GLE 350, 450, 580, 450e, AMG 53, and AMG 63 S available, all with either a mild hybrid or a plug-in hybrid system backing their various gasoline powerplants. All are sold with 4MATIC all-wheel-drive drivetrains.

The aforementioned 450e 4Matic plug-in, which can function both as a traditional hybrid or as an EV in city and off-road driving, boasts a combined 381 horsepower and whopping 479 ft-lbs of torque, thanks to its powerful electric drivetrain. The AMG models offer the highest-performance experiences, with both the turbo inline-six AMG 53 and the top-trim, 603 horsepower, V8-powered AMG GLE63 S available. The GLE 580 offers V8 power with off-road prowess, with optional underbody shielding, extra off-road computing power, and additional ride height for those seeking to blast down desert roads in their 'Benz.

If this dizzying array of options still isn't quite enough, all of these are available in a traditional SUV body style as well as in what Mercedes refers to as a "coupe" (a streamlined fastback with four doors). No matter what buyers want in a mid-size SUV, the GLE probably offers it.

Making a choice

When confronted with this dizzying array of choices, I chose the AMG GLE 53 in traditional SUV form; 429 horsepower seemed plenty for a road trip, and it came with a price somewhere around $40,000 less than the eye-watering $120,000-ish sticker on the AMG GLE 63 S.

Plus, I liked the paint (the striking Twilight Blue Metallic). I'm tired of silver luxury SUVs.

Regardless of the trim I'd chosen, it's indisputable the refresh makes every version of the GLE look brawnier; the biggest difference to me are the new headlights, which eliminate the awkward inside-lid eyeliner LEDs in favor of more aggressive DRLs. Overall, it's handsome for its segment, although I believe it lacks the curbside gravitas of some competitors such as the Genesis GV80.

Creature comforts

Inside, all buyers now receive a 12.3" digital instrument cluster and 12.3" center touchscreen that have a seamless look in a single, wide glass panel running the length of the dash. The system runs the newest second-generation version of Mercedes' infotainment software package, MBUX, and it's clean and quick no matter which of its medley of modes and displays drivers choose.

Wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, as well as a wireless phone charger, are also now standard. Mercedes' latest version of Attention Assist—to help combat driver fatigue on those long, boring stints of freeway—and Pre-Safe, a collision-detection system designed to minimize injury in a crash, are also equipped for all buyers.

Blurred mile markers

The majority of my time in my test GLE was on Interstate 20, driving from Birmingham to Atlanta (with a small detour at the birthplace of all Mercedes-Benz SUVs, the massive assembly facility in Tuscaloosa, Alabama). This was, to put it mildly, the mind-numbing part of the Great American Road Trip. Traffic was minimal, the cabin was (pleasantly) silent, and I had a lot of time to muse on my AMG 53's strengths—and weaknesses.

The strengths, of course, are typically Germanic in nature: My AMG had incredibly low noise and harshness when cruising, despite its optional 22-inch AMG wheels and 240-treadwear, high-grip Advan Sport V107s at each corner. The newest iteration of Mercedes' infotainment software made the massive two-foot-wide slab of screens in front of me a welcome addition, rather than a distracting or cluttered one.

A handful of carefully-chosen buttons for climate control and often-used touchscreen capabilities kept me from glancing away from the road too often to adjust the cabin temps or check my navigation. The hybrid powerplant cruised quietly but still maintained more than enough power for quick passes of semi trucks and merges on short ramps, although throttle response was heavily dampened in Comfort mode to help keep the ride placid. The Burmester stereo bumped with audiophile-tier clarity. The seats were sublime.

Annoyance in paradise

But the peaceful silence of my GLE's cabin as I zipped past those semi trucks on endless miles of I-20 also revealed that I also found a lot to be frustrated with it, too. The steering wheel buttons—not buttons at all, but a combination of capacitive-touch press-and-swipe touchpads on the steering wheel spokes—were difficult to use, and the swipe functionality for volume and cruise control were impossible to use with precision. The center console still has a redundant touchpad for infotainment controls, which took up a lot of prime real estate that could be used for buttons (or my arm, or storage).

The seat-massage functionality was uncomfortable. The touchscreen was just a little bit further away than I prefer. Even the dashboard vents—a quartet of old-school ones slapped in the middle of the car—felt like a bit of an afterthought. The refresh has done the GLE favors, mind you. It just still has some flaws.

Blurred double yellow

But the monotony of I-20 is not where the fun of the Great American Road Trip manifested for me. Instead, it was the stunning Talledaga National Forest that I took a detour through, in the hopes of snapping a few photos. There, I happened to find some of the best roads east of the Mississippi.

Perfectly paved, glassy two-lane blacktop undulated and twisted through the hills of the Talledaga rainforest; even better, there was not another soul to be found on the roads. Here I cranked the steering-wheel setting dial, put the AMG GLE 53 into its Sport+ mode, and let the inline-six stretch its legs. The performance exhaust opened up, the suspension stiffened, and throttle response went from dawdling to breakneck. I expected some mild tweaks to ride comfort and a little extra grunting from the inline six, but it was vastly more transformative.

The roughly 5,000-pound heft of my AMG became an afterthought. It cornered flat; its anti-roll capabilities combined with its remarkably sharp and informative steering and the always-stable 4Matic all-wheel-drive to make it feel more like a tall grand tourer than a quick SUV. It had more braking power than I could possibly know what to do with. The nine-speed transmission—happiest left to its own devices, rather than having me attempt to outsmart the computer with the paddle shifters—fed me gears with more than enough haste on upshifts; downshifts were delivered with a delightful staccato of engine burble that transformed the entire drivetrain from tranquil to thunderous.

The interstate may have dominated my day, but my twenty minutes in Talledega was where the magic of the road trip—and the AMG GLE 53—revealed itself.

Open the silencers

Granted, the AMG experience won't be for all buyers. Some will just want a pleasant mid-size SUV; I have confidence any GLE will do the trick for plenty of them. It's quiet, comfortable, and its standard hybrid drivetrain is well-integrated and a boon to efficiency, and the biggest complaint I had—the capacitive-touch steering wheel—likely won't bother some shoppers at all. It handles boring miles with grace, and that is what most of our lives behind the wheel consist of, after all.

But, if you dream of seeking moments of respite from the monotony of the interstates, commutes, and traffic jams, the AMG GLE 53 and its one-click-away transformation into a burbling tourer will definitely do the trick.