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Review: Mercedes adds electric flair to its big SUV

This is the Mercedes GLE. And it’s quite big. It’s the firm’s answer to the Volvo XC90 and the BMW X5, and it can trace its roots back to the old M-Class that pretty much defined the premium SUV class.

Did I mention it’s quite big? This latest version has a wheelbase 80mm larger than its predecessor, and that’s a lot in the car industry.

It’s enough to give it space for seven seats, but the extra size feels like it’s spread across the whole car – especially with some side-steps to climb over, it takes quite the leap to get in.

But there’s a wonderful solidity to it, too. Mercedes is building its cars beautifully these days, and the GLE is no exception.

A textbook classy interior lends itself well to the elegant if rather bulbous exterior, and the space inside is, predictably cavernous. But I’ll come back to that.

Because, while the latest GLE might be very big, it’s also very clever. Among the array of drivetrain options there’s a plug-in diesel-hybrid option, which is underpinned by a 2.0-litre, mated to a 136hp motor.

The combination of an engine producing 194hp and a healthy 700nm, coupled with an electric surge, means it can leap off the line quicker than you’d think, given its weight.

And it also adds up to some rather impressive figures.

The motor’s 31.2kWh battery is good, Mercedes tells us, for 66 miles on electricity alone, and it’s not far off that in practice, and the combination is theoretically capable of 403.6mpg and just 19 g/km. Impressive stuff.

Out on the road, the engine sometimes feels strained, as you’d expect from a small engine in such a hefty car, and you might yearn for one of the bigger engines (the six-pot diesel remains a delight, if now a guilty pleasure) but the assistance from the electric motor soon chimes in to help it accelerate as quickly as you’d ever need it to.

It drives well too. The air suspension in my test model was sublime, and the ability to lower the car to help my short wife jump out was certainly useful.

The ride is quiet and supple, without being overly floaty. Mercedes has got it just right.

That said, the gearbox can feel clumsy at times. And it’s certainly not a sporty car by any measure. You want thrills, buy an X5.

This is more of a comfortable cruiser, and it soaks up long journeys with ease.

Back to the interior. It’s arguably one of the best in its class. With the possible exception of the Volvo XC90, which is becoming a bit over-familiar now.

Quality is top-notch, and the design is classy and unfussy. Space is excellent, as is visibility, and the best bit is the superb MBUX entertainment system.

The voice control package, triggered by a “Hey Mercedes” command, needs some time to get used to, as does the complex array of things you can do with the digital layouts, but two massive screens which are intertwined and controlled by “stroking” little shiny buttons seems to be the best way out of the conundrum of meddling with things on the road. This is automotive infotainment at its best.

GLE ownership starts at around £65,000, so it’s at the higher end of the sector’s price range, but this is premium versatility at its best – and equipment levels are quite generous, as all UK models are in the plush AMG-Line spec as standard.

Jumping up the range will send the price soaring rather quickly, all the way up to a heady £118,000 for the mild-hybrid 634bhp 63S version – but to settle into a more sedate and remarkably frugal hybrid like my test car will set you back around £80,000.

But for that money you really are getting the best of the breed. The tech-fest touchscreen won’t suit everyone, but complexities aside, it’s very good, and the slightly lethargic gearbox is a bit of a fly in the ointment, but the overall package is excellent and, in this case, bigger is definitely better.