Given the importance of the midsize luxury SUV segment for brands, not only in terms of sales volumes but also prestige, the battle between these two arch-rivals – the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE – becomes all the more interesting.
A look at automotive history will tell you that some of the most amazing, and most passionate, rivalries have been between certain brands (think Ford vs Ferrari – which was portrayed beautifully in the recent movie of the same name). However, I think that if you really want to see intensely passionate rivalries, forget brands and look at cars competing in the same segment.
Over the years, these fierce rivalries have polarised people and led to the production of some terrific and very desirable cars. History is rife with examples – from the Mustang vs Camaro battle that continued for decades to the Mitsubishi Evo vs Subaru Impreza STI. Even our market has seen some high-profile rivalries. One of the most prominent examples from the past is the Ambassador vs the Premier Padmini – a rivalry that divided many families and soured many friendships.
And, as our automotive market expanded, different brands entered – creating different segments and more rivalries. I vividly remember one such case – the Hyundai Santro vs the Daewoo Matiz – for it caused a split in my own family. You see, I was a firm supporter, and owner, of the Santro, while my mother was smitten by the Matiz, so-much-so that she bought two of them – TWO!
Over the years, such rivalries have thrived with different brands trying to outdo the other, by hook or by crook – think Honda City vs Mitsubishi Lancer, Ford Endeavour vs Toyota Fortuner, or even the Hyundai i20 vs Maruti Suzuki Baleno. Which, of course, brings me to the two SUVs we’re comparing on these pages – the Mercedes-Benz GLE and the BMW X5.
Genesis of the ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’
The story of the rivalry between the GLE and the X5 goes back well over two decades. You see, despite the fact that urban(ish) utility vehicles have existed since the 1970s – Jeep Cherokee and Range Rover – the real urban crossover / SUV came into existence in the 90s. I still remember seeing the first two vehicles that sparked this craze. The first was, of course, the Isuzu Vehicross – it’s been long forgotten now, but it, nonetheless, was a revolutionary vehicle for its time in terms of styling and concept. The other was, of course, the Toyota RAV4, which was a smashing success.
Now, both Mercedes and BMW were working on their own sports utility vehicles in the 90s, but it was Mercedes that reached the market first with the ML SUV in 1997 (the GLE was referred to as the M-Class in Mercedes’ naming system until 2015). Also, around this time, the customer mindset was undergoing a change. Americans, in particular, loved the idea of a big SUV that drove just like a car, but also massaged their ego with its butch styling and large size. The success of the ML was such that Mercedes could barely keep up with demand.
BMW took the game forward with the launch of the X5 in 1999, and, needless to say, since then, the SUV segment has mushroomed to an extent that no one could have ever imagined in the 90s. As a result, today, you’ll find an SUV or something resembling it competing in every segment – and not without success.
The popularity of SUVs is such that brands that, until a few years ago, considered manufacturing SUVs nothing short of sacrilege – Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, and Lamborghini come to mind – are now producing SUVs that are flying off the shelves.
Now, let’s get back to the subject at hand. Both the Mercedes GLE and the BMW X5 have been smash hits worldwide. They are also global rivals in virtually every market they compete in. The Indian market, however, favours the GLE a bit more than the X5 due to a myriad of reasons. Most of them are to do with the fact that the previous three generations of the X5 looked a bit plain in comparison to the GLE.
But, with the 4th generation X5, things have changed. The X5 now has sharp lines, an imposing front grille, and an overall excellent design. On the other hand, the 4th generation GLE takes forward the distinctive Mercedes’ design language. So, the question is – which one carries the trumps card?
The Mona Lisa question
Of course, design is rather subjective. But, in this particular case, I think we have two SUVs that are very evenly matched. The X5, introduced last year, sports a brand-new design that is unique and striking. One of the most important highlights of this design is, of course, that big grille up front, which I still think is a polarizing feature. Sure, it’s not as large as the ones on the X7 or the 7 Series, but it still is definitely XXL sized.
Okay, confession time – now that I’m used to a grille of this size, it doesn’t look that odd to me anymore. Maybe, that’s what BMW was hoping for. Besides the grille, I really like the broad stance of the X5, with its wide track and wide tyres. The sharp character lines running along the sides of the SUV, along with the kinks over the rear doors and quarter panels, give it a unique identity. Another design highlight of the X5 is the large, wraparound taillamps, which are beautifully designed and give the rear of the X5 a completely distinctive look. A shrinking violet, the X5 is not anymore.
The GLE, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly be more different than the X5 in terms of design, even if it tried to be. Like other Mercs, the GLE features the very well-established design language of the brand. Which means that it gets big, distinctive headlights and taillights. The rounded sides of the GLE make it look rather voluminous. Of course, dominating the front view is the oversized grille, which also features a rather large three-pointed star.
Like its predecessors, the GLE does carry over some specific design touches, such as the window in the rear quarter panel behind the C-pillar – a feature that’s been lifted from the first-gen GLE. If there is one thing that I could change about the GLE, it would be the wheels – the 19-inch wheels on the GLE 300d that we drove looked a bit small for my taste.
Stepping into luxury
While there are many aspects where the X5 and GLE are evenly matched, there is one where the GLE clearly has an edge over the X5 – and that’s the interior, especially the design of the multimedia screens and user interface. But I’ll come to that later.
If you’ve ever owned a BMW, or are familiar with BMW cars, you’ll be instantly at home once you enter the X5. The steering controls, dashboard screens, control layout, etc., are quite easy to use – you become comfortable with them within a few seconds. The iDrive system of BMW is the benchmark in terms of ease of use and user-friendliness. In effect, with its toggle wheel, it becomes very intuitive to use once you get accustomed to it. I would even go as far as to say that the BMW iDrive is the most intuitive entertainment and control system offered by any luxury brand.
However, all is not perfect with the X5’s interior. One of the biggest problems that I faced was that, despite being in the lowest position, the driver’s seat still makes you feel like you’re sitting on the top of the car – which is strange, especially in a BMW. On the other hand, the high seating, combined with the large glasshouse and low dashboard, allows excellent visibility from inside the X5.
The GLE’s interior, on the other hand, is simply a revelation. Now, the X5 is excellent in terms of its multimedia system and interface, but one look at the GLE’s two 12.3-inch display screens and the X5’s multimedia system starts looking like it already needs an update. Interestingly, both the X5 and GLE feature the same size and number of screens – 2 x 12.3-inch – but the integrated design of the GLE’s screens make them appear much bigger.
And it’s not just the screen design, but also the user interface and user experience offered by the GLE that puts it a league above the BMW. The graphics, richness, and resolution of the displays and the sheer beauty of the two screens makes the interior of the GLE extremely appealing – it makes you feel as though you’re sitting in a car from the future. Pair all this with its clean interior design, and the GLE is a very nice place to spend time in.
However, all is not perfect with the multimedia system of the GLE. The oversized touchpad, which allows you to control the multimedia interface, does offer haptic feedback, but learning to use it effectively can be rather frustrating. The other option is to use the touchscreen, but I hate doing that, as it’s a safety risk while driving – since you need to take your eyes off the road. There’s also the voice control option to get the GLE to do your bidding, but we discovered during our test drive that it was a bit of hit and miss while responding to our commands.
There is another aspect where the GLE outshines the X5, and that’s the GLE’s wheelbase, which has grown by 80mm, adding 69mm of rear legroom – and that could be a big deal for most GLE customers in India, for most of them prefer to be chauffeured around.
Chalk & Cheese
Now that we’ve looked at design, interiors, and multimedia experiences of both SUVs, the final decisive factor in choosing a winner has to be driving appeal. And there is no competition here, for the X5 has a few tricks up its sleeve. You see, the X5 is only offered with one engine and gearbox option – the revered 3-litre straight-six turbo-diesel mated to that sublime eight-speed automatic gearbox. Now, the sheer size of the engine, paired with that incredibly smooth-shifting gearbox means that the X5 is simply brilliant to drive.
With its 261bhp and 620Nm of torque, it simply flies down the road. And, irrespective of the speed, it’s always effortless to drive. The steering has a decent amount of feel to it. And the big glasshouse allows you to place the SUV easily, even in heavy traffic. In fact, for an SUV of its size, the X5 remains one of my favourite cars to drive, as the response from the steering, gearbox, and engine are immediate. Overall, it’s a breeze to drive – in traffic, or out on the highway.
The GLE, on the other hand, throws a googly here. You see, in diesel trim, the GLE is offered with two engines in India – a 2-litre four-cylinder and a 3-litre straight-six. Our test car was powered by the 2-litre engine, which you might think would be no match for the X5’s 3-litre. But, truth be told, while the X5 produces 261bhp, the GLE’s engine, despite being 1,000cc smaller, produces 241bhp! Sure, it loses out in terms of torque, with only 500Nm, but given its power, the GLE 300d moves along rather effortlessly.
The engine is quick to respond. In fact, the GLE has more than adequate power for both urban and highway driving conditions. However, I think that, when driven hard, the GLE’s engine is a tad too loud inside the cabin and could do with some extra sound-deadening. Also, the new 9-speed gearbox is a massive leap when compared with the old Merc 7-speed box, but it still lags behind BMW’s 8-speed ZF gearbox in terms of smoothness and predictive shifting. It’s a good thing, then, that the GLE comes fitted with steering-mounted paddle shifters as standard.
But the GLE trumps the X5 in terms of ride comfort. Sure, our GLE 300d test car had steel suspension – air suspension is offered on the 400d – but its ride quality was excellent. It effectively smothered bumps and bad roads with ease. However, there is a catch – when you push the GLE hard, it can have a significant amount of body roll. Also, the steering could do with losing some of its artificial weight.
To be honest, if you’re a keen driver and like to drive yourself, the X5 is a no-brainer. With its driving appeal and the sublime combination of the 3-litre engine and the 8-speed box, it’s pretty much unbeatable for a driving enthusiast. But the X5 lacks in many other aspects. Its ride is not as sorted as the GLE and the rear seat could do with some more space.
But, I think, what really tilts the scales in the GLE’s favour is the interior experience that it offers. It’s a more spacious interior, and the whole experience of sitting in a vehicle that makes you feel as if you’re experiencing a cabin from the future – with its cutting-edge screens, interface, and graphics – will be a deciding factor for many buyers.
While it’s true that the X5 offers more to the driver, its the Merc’s interface and its bias towards comfort that gives it a slight edge over the X5 in today’s luxury SUV market in India.
The X5 does lose out to the GLE a little bit in terms of rear seat space. With a longer wheelbase, the GLE offers a bit more rear seat legroom.
- BMW X5 30d
- Mercedes-Benz GLE 300d
Engine: 2,993cc / Inline-Six / Turbocharged
Transmission: 8-Speed Automatic / All-Wheel Drive
Power: 261bhp @ 4,000rpm
Torque: 620Nm @ 1,500-2,500rpm
Price : ₹72.9 - 82.4 lakh (Ex-showroom)
X-factor: The X5 still remains the driver’s SUV of choice in its segment.
• Driving appeal
• Sublime engine & gearbox
• iDrive needs a visual upgrade
Engine: 1,950cc / Inline-Four / Turbocharged
Transmission: 9-Speed Automatic / All-Wheel Drive
Power: 241bhp @ 4,200rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 1,600-2,400rpm
Price: ₹73.7 lakh (Ex-showroom)
X-factor: With its comfort, style, and brand appeal, the GLE becomes the luxury SUV of choice for those who like to be chauffeured around.
• Amazing multimedia interface
• 2-litre engine could be more refined
• Frustrating touchpad controls
Also read - Mercedes-Benz GLE 300d Review