Style and Interior
From the outside, the GLE550e is virtually indistinguishable from non-plug vehicles in the GLE line. On the inside, the differences start to become more noticeable. Like many vehicles adapted (but not originally designed) to house a battery and electric motor, the GLE plug-in loses cargo space compared to gas-only models. The 8.7-kWh battery pack is placed under the boot floor, and cuts cargo space by either 10 percent or 30 percent depending upon whether the rear seats are down or up. In fact, Mercedes’s smaller crossover SUVs beat the GLE550e in rear storage capacity.
Fortunately, passenger comfort hasn’t been sacrificed. The rear seats accommodate three occupants about as much as any crossover on the market. Even taller passengers should be fine riding in the back. The front seats are wide and well-supported, with plenty of arm, head and leg room.
The center console sports an 8-inch touchscreen that is unobtrusively mounted between the air vents and above an easy-to-access button panel. This allows control of more common commands without having to navigate through a line of menu options. Unfortunately, switching between driving modes—or even figuring out which one you’re in—requires turning a dial and glancing down at the screen.
The 2016 GLE550e couples an 85-kW (116-horsepower) electric motor to a direct-injected, twin-turbo, 3.0-liter V6, which outputs 333 horsepower on its own. The electric motor and engine never reach full power at the same time, combining for a peak output of 436 hp and 479 pound-feet of torque. The GLE plug-in’s straight-line acceleration is enough to match the performance of the GLE V8, hitting 60 miles per hour from a stop in just 5.3 seconds.
Regardless of what mix of gasoline and electric power you’re driving on, critics say the GLE550e integrates with advanced features that weren’t necessarily developed to accommodate it. The Mercedes’ adaptive cruise control skillfully uses the electric motor to add small bursts of acceleration to keep even distance with other vehicles.
The 550e carries the extra weight of its hybrid system well for having not been designed for a hybrid powertrain platform. That’s thanks to Mercedes-Benz’s Airmatic suspension, which is standard on the 550e. Using the Dynamic Select system, drivers can select between Comfort, Slippery, Individual, Sport and Sport+ suspension modes.
Efficiency and Range
Though the 2016 GLE550e was reported to have a range of about 20 miles leading up to its US release, the Environmental Protection Agency rated it for just 10 miles in a purely all-electric mode. Practically speaking, the SUV’s 8.7 kWh battery is good for a relatively short commute or dropping the kids off at school before a quick stop at the grocery store, and then it becomes a 21-MPG hybrid SUV.
With small-battery plug-in hybrids, it’s always important to understand your unique driving patterns and how frequently you’ll have a chance to charge in between trips. The EPA gives the 550e a 43-MPGe combined equivalent efficiency rating but depending on the driver, real world performance could cut that half or double it. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
One way to alter almost any plug-in’s range performance is with the selection of driving modes. The GLE’s plug-in hybrid system offers four settings: Hybrid; E-Mode; E-Save; and Charge. Hybrid mode optimizes efficiency and raises the EPA-rated electric range to the vehicle's upper limits, while emphasizing overall efficiency. E-Mode transforms the car into a pure electric until its range is depleted. E-Save cuts off the battery to preserve electric range for later in a trip. Charge mode replenishes the battery, using the engine as a generator at the expense of some fuel usage. The 550e also offers three additional transmission modes that override the plug-in settings. Of these, the most impressive is E-Plus mode, which uses satellite technology to optimize the use of electric power.
From a normal outlet, the GLE550e can recharge its battery to full capacity in a little more than four hours. Mercedes also offers its own optional Level 2 wall charger (at about $2,000) which cuts charge time to probably less than two hours. We doubt that it's worth the expense of the faster charging. Using Charge mode while driving will replenish the battery in less than 40 minutes.
Pricing and Comparisons
The 2016 GLE550e 4Matic Plug-in starts at $66,300 before a $995 destination fee. The federal government offers buyers a tax credit of $4,085 after purchase, bringing the effective starting price down to just above $63,000. That’s quite a bit more than the $53,000 base-level GLE350, but that model isn’t comparably equipped or nearly as adept a performer. In terms of measurable performance, the GLE sits at a happy medium between the less expensive GLE400 4Matic and the 550-horsepower, $102,000 AMG GLE63. The good news is that 550e starts a few thousand dollars lower than the 400 and about $40,000 less than the AMG.
What makes the Mercedes plug-in SUV less attractive is the fact that there are more efficient, longer-range, and equally luxurious plug-in SUVs already on the market. The Volvo XC90 T8 boasts a 17-mile electric range and 60 MPGe versus the GLE’s 12 electric miles and 43 MPGe. The XC90’s extra range and efficiency will cost you a few extra grand compared to the GLE, but the BMW X5 beats it in both categories, with an after-credit starting cost near $58,500.
That isn’t to say Mercedes-Benz’s first plug-in SUV doesn’t have its advantages. It’s more powerful than either the XC90 or X5 plug-ins—while providing the plush ride you would expect from a Benzo. It’s also somewhat larger than the BMW, though you wouldn’t notice it in the cargo area. Given its blend of performance, luxury and efficiency, the GLE 550e occupies its own niche in the market—however nuanced that might be.
Mercedes, for its part, plans to update the plug-in hybrid system found in the S550e and GLE550e for the 2018 model year. That update will bring a lot more range and thereby offering a large luxury plug-in that has a more compelling distinctions from the competition.