There are many variants of Mercedes-AMG vehicles these days: coupes, sedans, wagons, convertibles and even trucks. But the main distinction between any of them is what numbers are glued to the back. Or at least what those numbers stand for: what’s under the hood.

An AMG “65” model is a god-mode V12 that only graces the engine bay of Mercedes’ most exclusive autobahn assault vehicles. The “63” V8 is the heavy lifter of the lineup; snarling and exciting even in a three-ton SUV. Both those engines are handmade in the tradition of craftsmanship that made anybody give a damn about AMG in the first place. The “43” V6 is not.

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The 385-horsepower V6 (up from 362 last year) in the 2018 GLE43 and other ’43s (the model number has nothing to do with engine displacement anymore) is decent. Fast, even.

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It just feels water-down compared to the stirring 550 HP V8 that makes the cornerstone of AMG’s coolness right now. Then again, the V6 is a whole lot cheaper.

(Full Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz loaned me a GLE43 with a full tank of fuel for a weekend so I could tell you all about it.) 

What Is It?

Mercedes got in on the second wave of luxury SUVs as it dowsed us in the late ’90s. Aristocratic bricks were old news; the market segment first homesteaded by the OG Range Rover and Jeep Grand Wagoneer was inherited by jellybeans like the Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5 and Mercedes ML320.

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Flash forward to today and the ML line is called GLE, and it’s part of a much bigger family of suburban street-prowling luxury SUVs. With five comfortable seats and a significant cargo capacity, the GLE is considered a mid-sized SUV with dimensions landing between a Honda CR-Vs and a Chevy Suburban.

While any possible off-road pretenses have been ironed out of the GLE, the model range is pretty diverse starting with a small-engined $50,000 GLE350 all the way to the $112,000 GLE63S... Coupe.

Without getting too derailed into the weirdness of Mercedes’ intricate lineup, the main distinction that matters here is between the GLE43 and GLE63.

The GLE63 is more than just that singing V8 I told you about. It’s wider, it’s meaner, it feels like a standalone product from the GLE family. The GLE43 is more like every other GLE with a few choice dressings.

Why Does It Matter?

It sort of doesn’t. Not in the real world, anyway. This is a luxury family grocery getter with performance pretenses. Its existence defies logic.

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But! Once you’ve accepted that Mercedes-AMG SUVs are here to stay, the GLE43 matters because it’s either a legitimate low-key version of a legendary fun machine, or a watered-down also-ran that isn’t worth your time.

What Stands Out

The GLE43’s interior situation is pretty much perfect. Clean instruments, a beautifully sized and weighted steering wheel, exceptional seats and robust materials all around make the cockpit of this thing a really, really nice place to be no matter how quickly you’re trying to drive. And of course: hell yeah, climate-controlled cupholders.

And though Mercedes’ COMAND infotainment system has a bit of a learning curve, it also has one of the prettiest software skins in cars today and I love how full of frivolous animations it is.

Want to scroll through the car’s interior setting options? Why not take a tour of a rendered-version of your car on the screen? As I write this, I could imagine the interface getting frustrating but I really appreciated the dedication to a cool aesthetic during my test drive.

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This vehicle’s response to aggressive cornering felt livelier than I expected, too. It’s 5,000 pounds on the pavement, after all. We’ll dig into that more later.

But as for the exhaust, the real reason to spend all your hard-earned money on an AMG car; it’s good. Great, even. But as satisfying as it is, the V6’s snap-crackle-pop can’t come close to the emotional stirrings you’re liable to experience under the influence of the ferocious fog horns that pipe out of the V8.

Disappointments

The brochure claims that a GLE43 can go from stopped to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. But under a hard charge on an open road or merging onto an empty highway, the car just doesn’t feel that quick.

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I’m not sure if the ride height, suspension stiffness or just my jaded attitude should be blamed here but while the GLE43 is swift and surefooted, it’s not very... exciting.

I had a lot more fun in the significantly bulkier seven-seat GLS63. Partially because of the noise (obviously), partially because of the extra 165 HP (obviously) and partially, I think, because that vehicle had a little more sway in its step just by virtue of being heavier. And for that reason, accelerating in the bigger truck felt a little extra dramatic.

But the GLE43 didn’t provide a lot to complain about beyond its bland launching manners. The piano-black interior bits take on fingerprints far too well, and that damn iPad-stapled-to-the-dash screen Mercedes refuses to part ways with still feels me with a visceral sadness. Otherwise, this a damn fine car.

Casual Driving

Every piece of the GLE43 you touch feels overbuilt and expensive, giving a nice air of satisfaction to actions as mundane as activating the turn signal. Arrogant assholes who drive nice cars and don’t bother blinking are missing out, really. That heavy plastic stalk really feels good to flick.

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The steering’s heavy, too. Even more so if you set it to “sport” in the AMG menu. This makes driving the GLE43 feel deliberate and important. Don’t worry about not being able to dart around disasters, either. The SUV responds to panic inputs with poise and no sudden-stopping or squirrel-dodging seemed to upset the thing.

Aggressive Driving

Attacking back roads in the GLE43 is a roller coaster, but maybe not in the way you might expect.

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Pounce on a tall pedal and the thing bites hard. That first shift [BRRRT] oh yeah baby we are after it.

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But as I already complained, the sensation of speed seems to plateau very quickly. You know you’re moving fast, but it’s hard to tell without looking at the speedometer. And if you’re using the very-responsive paddles in manual mode, it’s hard to tell when to shift.

That’s a pretty weird thing to be saying about something from AMG, the company famous for being the benchmark of how high-performance engines should sound. But here we are, talking a high-performance Mercedes, and I dare say, it’s a little numb.

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Things get interesting again in the turns, though. The GLE43 is a deft carver, and that’s a good thing since you’re most definitely going to drive it into corners too quickly.

With virtually no bodyroll, the GLE43 seems to throw a tentacle around the inside of any turn it’s thrust through and slingshots itself around with frankly unbelievable composure considering its size.

It’s easy to forget the vehicle carries a 5,000 pound curb weight, and don’t forget that’s more like 5,500 once your fat ass and your brood has climbed inside.

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When it’s time to reel the party in, the GLE43’s brakes are adequate but not particularly inspiring. Sadly, exceptional stopping power is another AMG signature you need to pay full V8 fare for.

Who’s it for?

The GLE43 is not for the person who wants to blast into the canyons after dropping their kids off at school. The vehicle just doesn’t have enough flavor to be a standalone “drive-it-for-fun” car.

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What it does have are great manners, manageable proportions and one of the nicest interiors you can have for less than $100,000.

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So if you apprecaite luxury with a sporty aesthetic and want to be able to blip smile-cracking exhaust burps whenever you want, yeah, the GLE43 should have some appeal. More practically speaking: if someone in the family just wants a Nice Car, and the other wants a Cool One, and somehow the budget is extremely high but somehow not high enough for a V8, I guess this is where you land.

Value

A GLE43 has a base price a little under $70,000. Once you start adding the good stuff like collision avoidance technology and climate-controlled cupholders you’ve got to spend $5,000 on top of that. The white leather interior and some extra comfort accessories my test vehicle had cost another $5,000.

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Once you tabulate the wheels, lighting and every other neat decorative bit that makes this car interesting you’re ringing up at $86,820.

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After a couple hundred miles of screwing around, and it was almost exclusively screwing around, I turned out 17 mpg.

So it takes an immense amount of money to own a GLE43. Is it worth it? Not to me, no, because I know you can buy a used V8-powered AMG for half that and have more fun even if you end up spending the other half of the budget on maintenance.

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That said, the GLE43 is very very nice and since it costs about as much as its sport-luxury mild-performance SUV rivals, I suppose there is a universe in which it would make sense to plunk $80,000 down on this. Let me put it another way: some of you need to buy new AMGs so the rest of us can afford them when they get old.

Verdict

The GLE43 absolutely is a watered-down rendition of the AMG experience. But it’s priced accordingly and it’s easier to live with. Sometimes a nice light beer is more appealing than an a pitch-black stout, and similarly, the AMG ’43s have a reason to exist.

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I liked the proportions of the GLE and its AMG-treated interior is one of the slickest on the scene. But as a car’s price tag approaches six-figures you’ve got to think long and hard about how much more muscle you could afford if you’re willing to go with something just a couple years older. Otherwise the new option’s really got to blow you away.

And while this V6-powered AMG SUV is extremely competent and versatile vehicle, it doesn’t quite have the explosive inspirational power that’s the signature of its V8 siblings.