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First drive review: 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S deals out luxury and performance equally

The steering wheel is small, sporty, and covered in synthetic suede. The front seats cradle backsides like those of a sports car. Under the hood lies an alternatively subdued and angry German V-8 borrowed from a supercar. And its cabin can carry five passengers and their luggage in unmatched comfort. It’s the SUV for those who want all the luxury, all the power, and all the performance. It’s the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S.

Mercedes has picked a smattering of Southern California’s best driving roads to introduce journalists to the redesigned GLE 63 S, but the route to those roads involves much of what owners will experience: logjam rush-hour traffic. Mercedes’ new super SUV performs well in both scenarios.

The highlight of the drive is roads like Big Tujunga Canyon, Encinal Canyon Road, and Angeles Crest Highway. For these roads, I run through the Sport, Sport+, and Race modes. Each awakens the steering, powertrain, and dampers to create quicker and tighter responses. They also loosen the stability control to permit controlled slides, and open up baffles in the exhaust to sing a deeper, richer, louder tune. Think of the engine note in Comfort mode as a symphony playing Handel’s “Messiah” and Race mode as Ronnie James Dio belting out “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

The GLE 63 S conquers these canyon roads with sheer will backed by technology and hardware. From behind the wheel, it feels like a high-riding sport sedan, but with a catch. The steering cuts sharply into corners with more heft the sportier the mode, and provides a good feel through the wheel. The massive Yokohama Advan Sport tires (285 millimeters up front, 325 in the rear) provide excellent grip through corners, where the big beast stays supernaturally flat. However, the tall ride height and two-and-a half-ton curb weight conspire to create enough occupant head toss that my drive partner gets carsick after about an hour of tight switchbacks. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and sometimes that reaction is tossing your breakfast.

Mercedes-AMG employs a lot of technical wizardry to harness the GLE 63 S’s reactions to the laws of physics. Standard adaptive dampers stiffen up through the Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes, while standard air springs lower the ride height 0.4 inches in any of the sportier modes or while cruising above 75 mph in Comfort mode. The standard front and rear active roll bars, activated by a 48-volt electrical system, firm up to fight lean through turns and loosen up to better handle bumps. Active engine mounts also react to the type of driving, stiffening to create a firmer structure through turns and relaxing on the straights for better bump absorption.

The all-wheel-drive system teams with the standard electronic limited-slip rear differential to send the power to the asphalt efficiently when accelerating to the next bend. Its programming changes based on three modes of stability control that range from sporty but safe to dynamic. It can run in rear-drive until more grip is needed up front and then it can send half the power to the front axle.

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

One of those occasions is harnessing the 4.0-liter V-8’s incredible power for a full-throttle launch. In the GLE 63 S, the twin-turbo V-8 churns out 603 horsepower from 5,750 to 6,500 rpm and 627 pound-feet of torque from 2,500 to 4,500 rpm. In addition, the GLE 63 S and slightly tamer GLS 63 mark the first time this V-8, which also appears in such vehicles as the AMG GT models and S-Class, has been paired with Mercedes’ EQ Boost system. This mild-hybrid system consists of a starter-generator that adds up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, provides brake regeneration and a coasting function, and stops and starts the engine seamlessly.  The efficiency of all-wheel drive, the grip of the Advan Sports, and all that power motivate this heavy SUV from 0-60 mph in just 3.7 seconds.

That power makes itself known when I jab the throttle or choose the sportier drive modes. Pin the throttle from a stop and the GLE 63 S punches you in the gut as it leaps forward and builds speed relentlessly all the way to 174 mph. The 9-speed automatic transmission isn’t as quick to shift as some of the better automatics and dual-clutch gearboxes, but it shifts smoothly and doesn’t seem to get confused as often as it has in other models, like the AMG GT 63 S 4-Door Coupe.

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

Opt for the Sport+ or Race modes and the GLS 63 S becomes an elephant ballerina. Turn it to Comfort, and the elephant steadies its gait to work as a pack animal.

The trip through the Santa Monica mountains and back down toward civilization reveals the good and bad about the SUV’s luxury and amenities. The navigation directions of the new MBUX infotainment system prove confusing. We miss a couple of turns when the augmented reality feature takes over two-thirds of the central touchscreen as turns approach. Unfortunately, the arrows and street names on the screen provide vague directions, and we make the wrong choice based on unclear evidence. It all becomes much clearer when we turn up the voice directions and turn off the augmented reality.

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

The GLE’s MBUX system is at the leading edge of infotainment technology, and is sprawling in both scope and size. It features two 12.3-inch screens under one piece of glass, with touch controls for the center screen. The system can also be controlled with touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel, voice commands prompted by saying, “Hey Mercedes,” and even a few rudimentary gestures that can be assigned to various functions.

The 12.3-inch instrument panel screen offers four layout designs called Modern Classic, Sporty, Discreet, and Supersport. I especially like the Supersport screen with its real-time torque and horsepower displays and centralized tachometer. With so many ways to control MBUX and so many functions buried beneath different menus, it will require a learning curve for any buyer and some may have an issue with grasping the technology.

Comfort, however, is not an issue, at least not on the smooth California roads. The drive selector’s aptly named Comfort mode smooths out a rather firm ride, even on the optional 22-inch wheels, and relaxes the sometimes rambunctious powertrain. Still, the ride is firmer than what most Mercedes drivers expect, and buyers should try it before they buy, especially in the Rust Belt states.

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S

Mercedes makes up for any ride deficiencies with a variety of interior amenities designed to coddle occupants. The cosseting sport seats are heated and cooled and covered with soft nappa leather, and the Energizing Comfort system massages backs, warms or cools passengers, and sets a mood with fragrances, music, and ambient lighting. The sport seats and nappa leather are standard, while the Energizing Comfort programs are offered as an option called Energizing Package Plus.

The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S will start at $113,950 when it hits dealers in the middle of the year. That’s certainly not cheap, but it’s the price you pay to have it all.

Mercedes-Benz provided travel, lodging, and meals to bring you this firsthand account

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