Three-pointed star with double the niche

·5-min read

The dictionary tells us that niche means "a specialised segment of the market for a particular kind of product or service".

And these days, niche vehicles are everywhere, built for ever-more specialised, custom-order buyers wanting a car that precisely suits their needs.

But this niche vehicle is different. Not satisfied to appeal to one segment of the market, it is aimed at six of them - all at once.

Mercedes-Benz's all new GLE 53 AMG coupe might be the most niche vehicle ever built.

A luxury, European, high-performance, hybrid, coupe-style SUV.

Yep, six niches crammed together in one very desirable piece of German engineering.

A mix of contradictions and compromises that, you might imagine, could make a car feel just a bit schizophrenic.

But not this one.

After all, the clever folk from Stuttgart practically invented a few of these niches. Their ML-Class was the first true attempt by a luxury brand to branch into the SUV category. That car was also one of the first SUV's to offer a bona fide performance variant with its powerful V8-engined ML55 AMG.

And while Benz's arch-rivals at BMW can claim credit for inventing the coupe-style SUV with their ground-breaking, ground-quaking X6, Benz quickly caught up with a series of coupe-style soft-roaders that have further evolved the concept.

Hybrid? Well, that's an area where the Japanese have led the way, but the Germans are quickly picking up ground as the world transitions from petrol to electric propulsion.

A hybrid performance machine? Well, you need look no further than Mercedes-Benz's all-conquering Formula One program, which welds together petrol and electric technology to produce untold power outputs.

Likewise, the GLE53 brings together a twin-turbocharged engine. In this case a 3-litre, six-cylinder petrol powerplant, with the company's EQ technology, a "mild hybrid" that uses electric motors to modestly boost performance and efficiency.

With a nine-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive grip, it is a powerful statement, on many levels.

The end result is a formidable, vastly capable and surprisingly practical machine. Part rocket ship, part family wagon and, with its 4Matic transmission giving it off-road capability, part bush-basher.

Of those qualities, the GLE's performance capability is most notable. It makes a combined 320 kilowatts and 520 Newton metres, sufficient to catapult this big, heavy SUV to the speed limit in a sharp 5.3 seconds. Yet, unlike many of its rivals, it also delivers fuel-efficiency of 9.3L/100km, unheard-of frugalness for something so big.

With all those personalities, it's no surprise the GLE53 AMG, as tested here, will trim your bank account to the tune of about $172,000. But keep in mind it's several vehicles crammed into one.

It borrows part of its personality from the new GLE (formerly the ML) - and part of it from the E-Class luxury sedan upon which it is also loosely based.

As such, it boasts an almost identical dash and interior treatment to the stunning E-Class, with equivalent levels of technology and equipment. It's evidence, if we ever needed it, that the modern SUV is more of an elevated luxury car, rather than a posh off-roader.

And in particular the coupe version brings an aesthetic appeal few conventional luxury cars can match.

The GLE is a formidable, almost dominating road presence, not unlike the car it was designed to mimic, BMW's X6, with its tall stance, high waistline and bulky, almost brutish design.

Those hefty looks belie a car that is surprisingly nimble and stable, considering its high ride and commanding driving position. As if you could crush everything else on the road.

Everything about this car is big and imposing - from the massively wide, wafer thin Michelin Pilot Sport rear tyres, set on huge 21-inch rims, to the oversized Benz three-point star logo on the front grille, which is the size of a dinner plate. It doubles as the transmitter for the car's radar system, which governs its proximity to cars in front or triggers the emergency braking system when danger looms.

Danger, at least to your demerit points, is never far away with the big Benz, which dares you to drive it with gusto. Its poise and responsiveness belies its bulk. Much of that dexterity is owed to its AMG Ride Control air suspension, which helps the car forget that machines of this size have no right to be nimble or sure-footed.

Inside, the E-Class influence is obvious from the massive 12.3-inch, high-definition screen that dominates the dash and instrument panel, to the purity and detail of the car's finishes. It screams class and sophistication, as well as technological brilliance.

Perhaps the only disappointment is the exhaust note, which barks and whines and pops under heavy acceleration but sounds a bit wheezy at other times. Never mind, there's always the bigger GLE63, with its twin-turbo V8, if you have an additional $50 grand.

That's one niche this car can't offer.


* HOW BIG? While it's based on Benz's full-sized SUV, the coupe styling and huge wheels make this car seem more imposing than its stablemates. It will seat four in absolute comfort, although the cargo area is compromised by that sloping tailgate.

* HOW FAST? It will reach the speed limit in a touch over five seconds, which is about as far as most buyers could ever need.

* HOW THIRSTY? Assisted by the car's EQ mild-hybrid system to boost the petrol engine, it manages just over 9L/100km, which is extraordinary.

* HOW MUCH? Take a deep breath. It costs about $170,000, plus on-road fees. But the standard, non-AMG enhanced version costs more than $50 grand less.