The first rule of customer service is that the customer is always right. If that’s true, then the world’s upmarket car buyers are to blame for the boom of fast SUVs and the decline of the sedans and coupes that usually make for a more rewarding driving experience. It’s a trend the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE53 4Matic coupe was built to exploit. Its name makes its mission clear: It’s a car for anyone who wants a Mercedes-AMG version of Benz’s mid-sized luxury ute but can’t stretch for a V-8–powered 63 model, and it’s for those drawn to SUVs that look (slightly) like coupes.
That might sound like two small niches, but the success of the previous-generation GLE43 coupe proved there was demand for both.
Like the rest of the GLE-class, the 53 sits on a new platform and uses AMG’s mildly hybridized powerplant that combines a turbocharged and electrically supercharged 3.0-liter inline-six with a 48-volt motor-generator for short bursts of assistance. The internal-combustion engine makes 429 horsepower and 384 lb-ft of torque, and the electric motor kicks in up to 21 horses and 184 lb-ft only at lower engine speeds, and it does not change the total powertrain output. A nine-speed automatic is the only transmission option.
The engine’s the same as in AMG’s’ E53 and CLS53 models, but the GLE’s size and bulk means it has to work against a sizeable increase in mass. As a result, the engine feels markedly less brisk. With an estimated weight of 5250 pounds, we predict the GLE53 should scoot to 60 mph in five seconds flat. That’s impressive, but it ultimately comes up short of filling the swear jar the way the truly fast SUVs do.
The engine has plenty of low-rpm grunt. Thanks to a 48-volt electric supercharger that works to supplement the turbocharger, there’s no discernible lag, even at low speeds. It revs enthusiastically to a 6500-rpm redline but without the accelerating fireworks that AMG’s 63 variants produce. The 53 can’t quite match the Wagnerian crescendo of its V-8 siblings, but its soundtrack is still muscular when worked hard, and an active exhaust system adds a garnish of pops and bangs.
We drove the GLE53 on Pirelli P Zero Scorpion winter tires in Austria, on a route that featured twisting Alpine passes and freezing temperatures. While the AMG handled the slippery conditions well, its size and weight were evident on tight corners where the winter rubber made a graceful surrender to understeer with moderate provocation. The standard 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive system does have a natural rearward torque bias. That was evident on ice and packed snow, where the GLE showed a playful side that wasn’t as prevalent on dry roads.
Although lesser GLEs ride on steel coils, the 53 is fitted with standard air springs, and Mercedes’s 48-volt active anti-roll system helps keep the body flat under heavy cornering loads. Even at its most aggressive, in the Sport Plus driving mode, the GLE never felt as wieldy or as easy to place as a Porsche Cayenne, but we’d want to experience this Merc on summer tires and warmer weather to really make that call. The GLE was pliant over the few bumps in Austria’s immaculately maintained asphalt. Even the firmer damper settings of Sport and Sport Plus don’t upset the chassis. The nation’s similarly pristine autobahn highway network also proved that the combination of a tall ninth gear and excellent noise insulation make for refined cruising.
The GLE coupe’s styling will be as divisive as its predecessor’s, or indeed that of any SUV with a small glasshouse that tries to look like a sports car on stilts. The best thing we can say about the lowered roofline and the angle of the rear tailgate glass is that they’re incongruous compared to the height of the bodywork beneath them. But incongruous is just a nice way of saying ridiculous.
By contrast, the cabin is largely excellent, and almost all of it is shared with the regular full-height GLE (and a fair amount with the larger GLS-class). From the driver’s seat, only the rakish angle of the windscreen, and the fact that your head is closer to the roof, distinguishes the GLE coupe from the regular GLE. The dashboard layout, controls, and center console are identical, good looking, and, thanks to carbon-fiber and leather trim, suitably upmarket.
This AMG 53 also gets a sports steering wheel that incorporates two rotary controllers with miniature display screens to cycle through its various dynamic modes. That’s in addition to the redundant scroll wheel on the center console. It’s a shame AMG stopped using the robust gear selectors it used to fit, as the GLE53 gets the same insubstantial column wand as every other modern Benz. But the metal shift paddles behind the steering wheel operate with a satisfyingly weighty action.
Rear-seat passengers are less likely to appreciate some of the design decisions. The GLE coupe sits on a wheelbase that’s 2.4 inches shorter than the regular model, with almost all of that coming at the expense of second-row legroom. Average male passengers will have knees pressed against the back of the front seat unless someone shorter and generous is sitting up front. Headroom is also limited, and taller rear-seat occupants will have to duck on the way in.
While Mercedes hasn’t released pricing or final specifications yet, the GLE coupe will arrive in the United States in the spring. The success of cars in this strange segment proves that some people really do want a running shoe with a hiking sole attached. The GLE53 coupe is a significant upgrade over the last-generation GLE43 coupe, and we can’t criticize Mercedes for wanting a slice of this pie. As one of the great philosophers of our age once said, don’t hate the player, hate the game.