What does being an “original” actually mean? The advent of digital reproduction has muddied the waters. Visually, at least, it matters less and less whether something is authentic or a copy. That said, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin observed, only the original possesses the aura of uniqueness. The new Mercedes-Benz GLE as the successor to the M-Class is a prime example of this rare species. Notably, it contains all the genes of the car that created the premium SUV segment in 1997, triggering a global boom in the breed and making its mark on modern auto history.
We come face to face with the “new original” behind the doors of a sprawling photographic studio in Sindelfingen, Germany. Everything is still top secret. Among those gathered here are Exterior Designer Volker Leutz and Product Manager Matthias Lücke. This is also the first time they have set eyes on the car outside of the factory and under spotlights. It is a special moment for both, the culmination of years of work that they and their teams have invested in the model. It is time for the GLE’s first taste of the limelight. We are greeted by an imposing machine, resplendent in its cavansite-blue metallic paintwork. A finely tuned athlete’s physique dressed in tailored threads comes to mind. In the territory the ML used to call home, a modified front and rear end, clearly sculpted body, large wheels and unmistakable Mercedes-Benz grille headline the arrival of the new GLE – an even more modern car.
The GLE represents a suitably taut and robust take on the current Mercedes-Benz design language. “Our guiding principle in the design of the new car was ‘sensual purity,’” explains Leutz. “It is evident in the interplay of the organic surfaces and harder edges. A vehicle that is equally comfortable in the city as it is off-road has the right to shout about it a little,” says the designer, alluding to the GLE 350 d 4MATIC’s equal assurance off the beaten track as on the road, courtesy of its permanent all-wheel drive.
The designers have been busiest at the front end of the car. The radiator grille with double louvres and central Mercedes-Benz star, the bumpers, air intakes, fenders and hood (with its two power domes) have all been reworked. The stylists have also created new headlamps featuring the organic light graphic that has become a hallmark element of Mercedes-Benz cars. “In days gone by, a headlamp used to be a grooved glass surface where any design input was limited to the outer contours. Nowadays, we also design the inner workings of the lights. Fibre-optic technology has opened up so many avenues for us to explore,” beams Leutz. “We view headlamps like an opera stage – large, dark spaces in which we can present the various actors and showcase what they can do with striking immediacy.”
The photographic studio where the shots are being taken provides a similar platform of almost limitless possibilities. The lines of the car’s body sparkle with razor-sharp intensity under the photographer’s daylight lamps and soft boxes. This is a case of a Mercedes-Benz model turning supermodel, as eyes around the room wander over its impressive form. The GLE has to cut a flawless figure in these surreal surroundings as well as out on the road. This is the acid test – but also a celebration – of the designer’s work. Leutz kneels down next to one of the wheel arches and casts a critical eye over his creation. He’s happy: “We invest a lot of time in making sure the reflections on the surface of the car are how we want them.”
The fresh harmony of the front end continues along the SUV’s sides. “The fenders, with their more muscular, convex form, inject greater presence and sensuality into the nose of the car,” says the designer. With his hand he traces the contours that flow out of the A-pillar into the forceful lateral lines. “The dropping line further up and the balance line lower down serve to structure the volume of the side surfaces and ensure that this large car conveys a relaxed rather than an overpowering impression,” explains Leutz.
This bedrock on which an entire automotive segment has emerged would not want to impose such an image on the observer – further evidence, if any is needed, of the GLE’s sheer class. “It’s incredibly pleasing when the product you’ve been looking after gets top marks,” says Product Manager Lücke, taking his turn to inspect the GLE from every angle. “This car is not only a compelling proposition in terms of its design, it’s also unmatched in its segment in terms of efficiency, performance, safety and space.” Active safety is enhanced by a raft of clever assistance systems, such as the optional BAS Plus with Cross-Traffic Assist. This ingenious technology uses a stereo camera and radar sensors to identify the risk of a collision with a vehicle approaching from the side and gives the driver a visual and audible warning so that an accident is averted.
Soul of its forebears
We also wanted to learn more about the traditional DNA of the original, and in what ways it has found its way into the GLE and other upcoming SUV models. Cue model series expert Lücke: “The broad C-pillar is a classic yet unusual feature which has set every M-Class model apart from other SUVs. It probably illustrates the evolutionary line better than any other element, so it has been carried over for the GLE as well.” With its suitably contemporary design, the GLE takes its place in the Mercedes-Benz off-road vehicle lineup alongside the smaller GLA, which has a much more expressive look. This clear structure fits with the new nomenclature at Mercedes-Benz: The “GL” prefix now denotes an off-road vehicle and the other letter – “A,” “E,” etc. – tells you which model series the car belongs to.
Finally, Exterior Designer Leutz asks for the camera lights to be turned off. That allows the rear LEDs to shine out like trail markers in the artificially imposed studio night. It’s time to send the car from the studio out onto the road. Or, as a neat diversion, into more rugged terrain to make the most of the optional Off Road package. A 100-percent differential lock, reinforced underfloor protection and an off-road reduction gear help the SUV master even challenging terrain – just like its predecessors.
“Many elements of the GLE, down to the details, have been inspired by the spirit of legendary Mercedes-Benz off-roaders and their supreme functional prowess and quality,” says Lücke. Only true originals like the GLE can hope to continue such a tradition – one that, happily, can now also be glimpsed with an eye to the future as well as a glance into the past.