I barely had the chance to drive the Mercedes-Benz GLE 350de Coupé crossover home and park it up before the Government dropped its bombshell that it was going to drop the grant given to those buying a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).
I guess, as bombshells go, this was more firecracker than tallboy. PHEVs have been squarely in the eco-crosshairs for some time now, with arguments raging over whether or not they should have been allowed grants in the first place; given that while they can potentially cover vast cumulative distances on electric power, it requires the owner to make the effort to plug them in and charge them up regularly.
Squaring that circle is, in part, the whole point of the GLE 350de. Mercedes continues its current electric-vehicle-iconoclasm by mating electric drive with diesel power. From one point of view, that’s an ideal combination: zero emissions electric power for driving around town, where diesel pollution is at its worst, and a diesel vehicle for long motorway hauls when you need to. To add an incentive electric carrot to the whole plan, Mercedes has boosted the GLE 350de’s electric range to as much as 100km on a full charge.
Then again, there’s another point of view: one that asks why waste the development funds and factory build times on yet another car with dirty diesel power, no matter how big its battery might be?
Very big battery
Its battery is very, very big by the way: 31kWh, which is almost as big as that of the original Nissan Leaf. Not only will it take you a very long way solely on electric power (we saw an easy 80km, even with some dual-carriageway driving mixed in) but you can even quick-charge it. The 350de will charge to 80 per cent power in about 20 minutes from a 50kWh rapid charging point, although you will have to suffer the death-dagger stares from electric car drivers when they see you hogging a charging point with one of these.
I guess the bodywork doesn’t help in that regard. A regular Mercedes GLE is large, clearly expensive and certainly doesn’t look caring and sharing. This coupé version is all of that, but with an added v-sign to the rest of the world that says, “Yeah, I wanted a big SUV but I didn’t need it to be practical”. To be honest, it’s not a car I felt especially comfortable driving, in that respect.
Nor in respect of its overall comfort, to be equally honest. With massive 21-inch wheels, you’d expect even the clever air suspension to struggle, but throw in the weight of that battery (more kilowatts means more kilograms) and the result is a ride quality that’s just too firm and fidgety.
Around town, the GLE 350de feels lumpy and unhappy. On twistier roads, it feels unwieldy and rather too top-heavy, groaning and heaving when asked to corner with enthusiasm. It’s really only happy when cruising on motorways, which is a bit limiting.
At least in the cruise you can sit back and revel in the lovely cabin, lifted pretty well wholesale from the standard GLE – quality levels would that would put Rolex to shame come as standard. And our test car had the gloriously ear-bashing optional Burmester stereo. Comfort can at least be found in here as the front seats are excellent.
Other frustrations soon bubble to the surface, though. While legroom is fine in the back seats, headroom isn’t and the chopped-off roof has made the door aperture too small for easy access or egress. Anyone getting into the back of one of these on a regular basis would be wise to wear a hurling helmet, so often will you bash your forehead on the roof when getting in or out. The boot has shrunk from 655 litres to 510 litres, thanks to having to package the massive battery.
The thing is, it’s an excellent powertrain. On long journeys, even with all that weight and bulk, you’ll still easily crack the 7 litres per 100km barrier, and you’ll do better than that if you’ve started with a full battery and rack up as many electric miles as you possibly can. The switchover from electric to diesel to both and back again is handled smoothly, and the brakes do a reasonable job of both hauling that 2.5 tonnes back down to a standstill, and resisting the oddly wooden feeling so common to PHEV brakes as they juggle regenerative and friction braking.
The problem is that the GLE Coupé is just all wrong. It tries to look slinky, but it drives big and heavy. It is capable of remarkable fuel economy and zero-emissions driving, but people will still hate you for buying one – not least the Irish Government. Basically, it just forms an ever-more compelling argument for buying the same remarkable powertrain in the lower, sleeker, more enjoyable E-Class estate body.
Mercedes-Benz GLE 350de Coupé 4MATIC: The lowdown
- Power 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine plus 89kW electric motor putting out 320hp and 700Nm of torque with a nine-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive.
- CO2 emissions (motor tax) 23g/km (€140)
- Fuel consumption 1.1l/100km
- Electric consumption 25.4kWh/100km
- Battery capacity 31.2kWh
- Electric range 99km
- 0-100km/h 6.9sec
- Price GLE from €80,795; €101,295 as tested*
- Verdict Brilliant technology, but the GLE Coupé as a package just doesn't work well enough
*Price currently quoted includes the €2,500 VRT rebate