The recent Frankfurt Motor Show was a clear indication that the planet is currently in love with the idea of owning an SUV.
It’s a strange trend, but being a publication that focuses on leisure vehicles, we don’t mind even a little bit. And it’s a win-win situation for the consumer as well, as more kinds of SUVs mean more choice and a bigger chance of getting exactly what you want.
Want a fast British crossover? Wait a few months and get a Jaguar F-Pace. Don’t like the idea of a British car? Get any one of the numerous Japanese SUVs. Want a large SUV that will survive a trip from SA to Egypt? Check out the Infiniti QX80, or a Toyota Land Cruiser. In the market for a small French crossover with a topbox and Tupperware stuck to the side? Look no further than the Citroën C4 Cactus.
There is one segment that has been getting an awful lot of negative press since its inception, and that’s the BMW X6 segment, or the SUV coupé segment, as it’s now referred to since Mercedes-Benz launched a competitor.
The X6 had a hard time when it first saw the light of day. The recession had just started, which made it look grandiose and unnecessary. Back then it seemed as if the X6 had been revealed to a world that didn’t want it, but nothing could be further from the truth.
BMW sold thousands, which eventually led to a second-generation model. This mostly dispelled the myth that the world could do without such things, but there are still some people who cry foul whenever they see one.
We have a X6 M50d in our long-term fleet and have to admit that we weren’t entirely sure if it made any sense. Surely an X5 is all the car you’d ever need, and why would you spend more money on what is basically an X5 that’s slightly more impractical?
Living with the BMW has been an eye opener. Yes, it’s slightly less practical than an X5, but it just doesn’t matter. That’s like saying an Airbus is larger than a Boeing 737. Sure, it is, but the Boeing is still a massive plane.
I’ll admit that rear headroom is probably the largest sacrifice one has to make when buying an X6, but so far we haven’t received a single complaint from a passenger about that particular department.
It’s a sensational car and a joy to live with. It’s fast yet economical. It has loads of space and it’s as comfortable as its price tag suggests.
Our only gripe has nothing to do with the car itself, but rather the kind of attention it attracts. You get the odd motoring enthusiast who nods in approval and we welcome that kind of interest, but it also seems that the Beemer has some sort of boy racer beacon implanted in its handsome body. Guys in hot hatches constantly challenge us at the traffic lights, but we don’t respond to such foolishness. The X6 M50d reaches the 100km/h mark in 5,3 seconds (as tested by Car magazine) and knowing that it’s faster than most hot hatches is good enough for us.
The X6 has nothing to prove. It’s the product of a company that has spent years building ultimate driving machines.
Enter the Mercedes-Benz GLE coupé. It is Merc’s cheeky attempt at getting in on BMW’s SUV coupé action. We say “cheeky” because there’s no doubt about what Mercedes was after when it designed this car. The front and rear ends are different, but if you placed a silhouette of these cars next to each other, it would be quite difficult to tell them apart.
A shoot-out between these two vehicles was inevitable but, unfortunately, we could only get our hands on a GLE 350d, which is no match for the 50d in the power stakes. The M50d is meant to slot in below the X6M, to give BMW customers the option of buying a less manic machine, better suited to the day-to-day grind. Mercedes also offers a model like this. It’s called the 450 AMG, but it’s powered by a turbocharged petrol engine.
The GLE 350d was simply too slow to keep up with the M50d, but after a quick stint behind the wheel we decided to do this shoot-out anyway. Yes, it seems mad, but it will (hopefully) make more sense as we go along.
If nothing else, these two cars represent the most powerful diesel powertrains within their model line-ups in SA. In fact, in the case of Mercedes, its the only diesel engine.
BMW X6 M50d
The BMW is a magnificent example of how far diesel engines have come in the last 20 years, but that’s not really surprising. BMW arguably started the whole diesel revolution early in the millennium with its 320d, which was the first mainstream oil-burner that made people sit up and take notice.
The 3,0-litre tri-turbo unit in the 50d will probably be remembered as an engine that took things one step further. The 320d proved that diesel was a viable alternative to petrol for daily use, while the 50d shows that a diesel powertrain can deliver white-knuckle levels of performance.
Just look at the figures: 270kW and 740Nm of torque. That massive dose of adrenaline inducing torque is just 10Nm shy of the X6M and is available from 2000rpm. This would be the most impressive figure related to this car if it weren’t for the fuel consumption figure of just 7,9l/100km. We achieved this impressive figure by using the “eco-pro” driving mode, which optimises the car for frugal driving but still gives you all that power when you need it.
As for comfort and luxury, it’s top notch — but it comes at a price. The standard car is pretty well equipped, but our particular long-termer arrived with a massive list of optional extras that took the base price of R1,3 million up to R1,5 million. At least at that price you get every conceivable luxury including night vision, the best leather seats money can buy and an infotainment system that does everything, including provide access to thousands of satellite radio stations.
As a driving tool it’s brilliant. The various driving modes allow you to select just what kind of car you want the 50d to be, and the inclusion of a sportier suspension set-up compared to other X6 models makes this car an utter joy on a fun piece of tarmac. It’s not as sharp as the X6M, but in our opinion it represents a better compromise. The comfort mode is truly comfortable, while Sport+ really does make you feel as though you are starring in your own Fast & Furious movie.
Mercedes GLE 350d 4Matic
The oddly camouflaged GLE we had on test also came with an optional sportier suspension, which made the comparison between the two models much easier. While the GLE definitely can’t outdo the BMW in the power stakes, it can at least keep up with it in terms of driving pleasure. It’s also worth considering that power isn’t everything. In our recent performance SUV shoot-out, the Audi SQ5 came third, despite being one of the least powerful cars there. A proper performance vehicle is about more than just massive amounts of power.
The GLE 350d is not a slow car — it’s just not as fast as the BMW. With 190kW and 620Nm on tap, it has more than enough get-up-and-go to show most hot hatches a clean pair of heels. Interestingly, it also sounds better than the BMW when you’re driving it hard. As enthusiasts will know, this is a big part of the performance car experience.
The 350d is the cheapest way to get yourself into a GLE coupé, but on the inside it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The materials are top drawer stuff and easily match those in the BMW.
In terms of refinement and equipment, there’s no real difference between the two cars. You even operate the infotainment systems in the same way. BMW gives you a circular dial with a touch pad, while Mercedes gives you a palm-hugging thingamajig, also with touch and swipe functions. We found the system in the BMW easier to use, but this might just be because we are used to it by now. Given enough time, we would surely find the Mercedes operation just as easy to understand.
There’s no point in commenting on the standard equipment in the Mercedes because, as is the case with the Beemer, Mercedes gives you everything you could ever need, and there’s a massive list of options you can choose from.
Apart from the sportier suspension and a few odd things here and there, our test GLE was fairly standard. It’s worth mentioning that we didn’t miss any of the fancy technology we’ve grown accustomed to in the BMW, apart from the night vision. This system has received some flack in the UK, mostly from hacks wondering about its relevance, but in a country where load-shedding, drunk pedestrians and criminals hiding in dark corners are a reality, we see no reason why you shouldn’t tick that particular box.
As a driving machine, the GLE is as good as the BMW, which may come as a surprise to some…
We won’t be scoring these vehicles out of five as we usually do, because it isn’t strictly a model vs model comparison.
On the road
This is where these two vehicles will inevitably spend most of their time and both will undoubtedly be a joy to those who drive them.
The BMW is able to carve through corners in a way that beggars belief. It is sharp, delicate and brutal at the same time. At this point you’d probably expect us to say that the Mercedes Benz is very good but can’t quite match the delicacy of a BMW-prepared SUV. This used to be the case, across both the German marques’ line-up. BMW would come up with a new model and Mercedes would follow. The Mercedes would be just as quick, but lack the “scalpel-like” qualities of the BMW.
If anything, the Mercedes is the sportier one here. Its comfort mode feels very much like the sport mode set-up in the BMW – willing, aggressive and firm enough to let you know what’s going on underneath, but not so much that it spoils the ride.
Comfort mode in the BMW is just that. It shifts through its eight-speed gearbox imperceptibly, but is always ready and willing to give you all that power if and when you ask for it.
In their sportiest settings, the BMW is the bigger hooligan of the two, but the Mercedes isn’t far behind. Neither is better than the other, but they were definitely built with two very different drivers in mind. When you put the BMW in Sport+ mode, it almost feels as though it’s egging you on to drive like a spanner. The display behind the steering wheel lets you know that the electronic nannies have been shut off to some extent. It allows you to have some fun, but intervenes just before you end up killing yourself. It feels as though this drive mode was designed by someone who knows that driving fun doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with outright speed.
The Mercedes, on the other hand, is very serious when you dial it to its sportiest setting. It virtually eliminates the turbo lag you feel in comfort mode and even goes as far as blipping the throttle when it shifts down. This might make sense in a V8 AMG, which makes an almighty burble when it does the same, but in a diesel model it just sounds ridiculous.
These vehicles can be driven like sports cars, but in our view they work better as grand tourers, where comfort definitely is a factor. Both can hammer along at highly illegal speeds in the utmost comfort, and that’s where they really shine. If you want to go drifting on a wet road, buy a Z4 or an SLK, but if you want to cruise at high speed in comfort with loads of luggage and without stopping for fuel every 300km, one of these vehicles might be the car for you.
That’s also the main argument for their existence. Don’t think of them as less practical SUVs, but rather as sports cars that are a lot more practical.
In the dirt
Mercedes-Benz made quite a big noise about its GLE being as capable off-road as it is on it. At the vehicle’s local introduction, Merc allowed journalists to drive its multi-million rand fleet through a muddy forest. It seemed like an odd thing to do, but the GLEs, including the mighty 63 AMG models, made it through without a problem.
The general consensus was that the X6 would never be able to do that sort of thing, but having a long-term X6 at the office, we knew this wasn’t true.
The X6 certainly doesn’t look as though it would be able to cope on anything but tar. It has low-profile rubber and, unlike the Mercedes, cannot raise or lower its suspension to handle rougher terrain.
The recent roadworks on the N14 have, however, forced us to reconsider the way we drive to work. We found a route via Kruispaaie, which is a charming little place where they haven’t yet heard of tar. This meant that the commute now consisted of 70% gravel driving and 30% tar.
By the time the GLE arrived, the X6 had already spent more than 500km on the washboard gravel, which was probably more than any other X6 in history.
This kind of gravel has the ability to upset a vehicle quite easily. The “washboard” causes the rear of the vehicle to bounce a fair amount, which can cause the rear to snap away if you aren’t cautious. Anyone who has ever driven a bakkie on the same sort of surface will know what we’re on about…
The BMW was and still is a joy to use on this kind of surface, even when it gets muddy. The all-wheel drive system is an impressive piece of kit as it always puts the power down exactly where you need it. You can turn in with confidence and accelerate without worrying that the 740Nm is going to result in a power slide you cannot control. If you are into that sort of thing, you can always use the Sport+ setting.
The Mercedes, on the other hand, is less comfortable on a gravel road. It is undoubtedly better over light to medium obstacles, thanks to its (optional) air suspension, but it was noticeably stiffer on the same washboard road. It’s not uncomfortable or skittish, but the Beemer does it better.
About the power
It’s silly to compare 270kW and 740Nm of torque with 190kW and 620Nm of torque, but you have to ask yourself how much power you really need.
As a daily drive, the Mercedes is more than powerful enough and it has the oomph to provide a good time when the opportunity presents itself. If you are in the market for a grand tourer which can cover great distances without stopping for fuel, the 350d makes a lot of sense. But if you want something sportier, we’d definitely recommend the 450 AMG. It’s a sensational car and definitely the pick of the GLE coupé trio. In fact, if we’d been able to get our hands on that particular model and had ourselves a proper shoot-out, there’s no doubt in our minds that that particular model would have trumped our beloved BMW. That turbocharged V6 has so much character and as a result, it’s more satisfying to drive.
The power difference between the BMW and Mercedes isn’t noticeable in day-to-day situations. There simply isn’t a place where you can legally put your foot to the floor and enjoy all the power they have on tap.
But there is one real world situation in which the BMW’s power cannot be ignored, and that’s when it comes to overtaking. The Mercedes does a decent job, but that tri-turbo in the BMW makes the Merc feel sluggish by comparison.
So which SUV coupé is best?
It’s tough to say. We spent hours walking around both, and hundreds of kilometres behind the wheel in a bid to find some sort of fault, and we could only think of one thing “wrong” with each.
The BMW doesn’t sound particularly nice, and we’re not convinced that the rear-end styling of the Mercedes works. Those tail lamps look sensational on an S-Class coupé but less so on a GLE. That’s basically it.
The one really is as good as the other. The real winner is the customer, because no matter which one you choose, you’ll end up with an epic machine. If you are interested in the Mercedes, get the 450 AMG. Want a BMW? It will have to be the M50d. We know of no other luxury diesel SUV that can do so many things so very well. We are very happy with our long-termer, and there’s going to be a cloud of despondency over the office when it is eventually taken away from us!