By Mark Nichol
Mercedes-Benz currently makes no less than 11 SUVs and we wouldn’t judge you for finding some of them difficult to tell apart. That’s ‘strong design language’ for you. Today we’re looking at two in the middle of the size spectrum: the GLC and the GLE. To explain the names, ‘GL’ denotes a traditional Mercedes SUV (‘traditional’ as opposed to ‘electric’, because their electric car names begin with ‘EQ’) and the last letter marks the size or class of the thing. So in this case, GLC is roughly based on the very popular C-Class small saloon, and GLE on the bigger E-Class executive saloon.
Okay, the scene is set. Let’s look at the differences and hopefully help determine which will be best for you.
Side-by-side the GLC and GLE are very similar-looking things, and they aren’t too far apart in size terms either. The GLE isn’t much longer than the GLC, despite having two additional seats, which means it doesn’t feel too much bigger on the road, albeit the GLE has a notably taller, flat-nosed front end. The main visual differentiator is the styling of the front daytime running lights (DRLs), which are a distinctive twin arrow type arrangement in the GLE, while the GLC has a single light strip running along the top of the headlamp unit. See our GLC colour guide or GLE colour guide for more details on your paint and colour options.
The key difference is really in the cabins. The GLC is a newer model, released in mid-2022, and so it’s very modern and features some impressive tech, not least its portrait orientation touchscreen that curves up the dashboard from the centre console. It’s lovely to use and a massive leap forward from the old scroll-wheel system that Mercedes used to employ in the GLC. There’s no doubt that the GLE’s more ‘executive’ underpinnings (and higher price) make for a higher-end feel, though. Twin displays act as your instrument panel and infotainment screen, controlled by a trackpad on the dashboard. It’s not quite as flashy as the newer set-up in the GLC – the GLE came out in 2019 – but it’s arguably more intuitive to use because there’s more physical switchgear for functions like temperature control.
Both the GLC and GLE are engineered to have the same sense of high-riding luxury and they therefore feel very similar in the way they go over the road. That’s to say, they both have a basic sense of being tall, quite soft-riding, quite relaxing cars – exactly what you want from a luxury SUV.
The similar characteristics they share are largely very positive ones. They both have very light and ‘loose’-feeling steering (as opposed to being sharp or twitchy), a broad spread of engine choice with even the basic petrol and diesel models providing more than enough power, and fantastic refinement. The sound dampening in each is exemplary, so you’ll find very little wind noise, engine chatter or tyre roar in either. As you’d expect, the more expensive GLE feels that little bit more refined in every way, though – a true luxury experience with a floaty ride quality akin to a Range Rover’s, and a higher, more commanding driving position to match.
You’d think, then, that the GLC would feel a little bit more agile, a bit sportier, and while that is kind of the case – the body slightly less prone to rolling left and right during corners – it’s still not as ‘dynamic’ as, say, a BMW X3 lease (we pit these two against eachother in our GLC vs X3 guide). Both the GLC and GLE come with basically three suspension options, which changes the way they feel. As standard, both come with regular springs-and-dampers type suspension, or an ‘AMG’ version of the same thing which makes both cars feel a little firmer under the wheels for ‘sportier’ sensations. Higher-end models get an air suspension set-up which is more sophisticated and better at keeping the body level over lumps and bumps, as well as keeping the car more stable at motorway speed.
A nine-speed automatic gearbox is standard on all models of both the GLC and GLE, as is four-wheel drive. The gearbox is one of the best around, super smooth and, despite the number of gears it has, never prone to jolting between them and sending shockwaves through the cabin.
Which Is More Practical?
The main practicality difference is the number of seats that each has. The GLC is a five-seat SUV, while the GLE can come with seven seats, two of them sequestered under the boot floor. The choices you make with a GLE have various effects on the practicality. So, choose a basic GLE and your boot space is a colossal 630 litres – and you can even slide the rear bench forward to liberate 825 litres – but if you choose a plug-in hybrid version that number drops to 490 litres because of the packaging of the hybrid bits. Lifting the rear-most seats in a seven-seat version of course reduces boot capacity significantly, but still leaves enough for a good few shopping bags. Elsewhere the GLE is, of course, hugely accommodating, with an enormous amount of headroom and leg space front and back – aside from those two rear-most seats, which are naturally very tight.
Because the latest GLC has grown compared to the outgoing model, the practicality gap has closed between it and the GLE. The boot capacity is only ten litres smaller and there’s very nearly as much cabin space; rear passengers will find the GLC a little cosier than the GLE, but it’s still very adult-friendly. Cabin space in both is broadly the same, with deep door pockets and a quite large enclosed storage cubby between the front seats. Basically, the GLE is a bit bigger and has seven-seat flexibility, but there’s surprisingly little difference between it and the GLC in space terms.
Running Cost Comparison
Again, this is a close thing, largely because the engines come from the same parts shelf. Some versions of the GLE and all of the GLC come with ‘mild hybrid’ electric assistance called ‘EQ Boost’, which not only provides a little power bump during acceleration, but also takes strain off the engine with gentler driving, to improve consumption. You’ll never know it’s working.
A huge choice of engines is available. In the GLC’s case, the base model is a 2.0-litre diesel called 220d which returns 52mpg officially, while the base 2.0-litre petrol GLC 300 returns 37mpg – and that one is quick too, hitting 62mph in just over six seconds. The GLE’s base choice is also a 2.0-litre diesel, badged GLE 300d, which returns 39mpg. These are not cheap cars to run – most GLEs, for instance, sit in the 37% BIK tax bracket, save for the plug-in hybrid (more on which shortly) and insurance groups are high – but they at least offer reasonable day-to-day fuel economy.
For maximum fuel efficiency the GLE comes with a diesel-electric plug-in hybrid set-up (a quite rare one – these things are usually petrol-electric) badged 350de and with claimed 314mpg fuel efficiency and a 58-mile electric-only range from the battery. This is the GLE to go for if yours will be run as a company car, because the 23g/km CO2 rating means it’s very tax-efficient.
The GLC’s plug-in hybrid option, called 300e, is newer, and is in possession of some barely believable efficiency numbers: 428mpg and 14g/km CO2. You’ll almost certainly get nowhere near that, but the battery is so big that Mercedes claims it’s capable of up to 81 miles of electric-only driving, meaning that if you’re prudent with your charging and have a low mileage daily commute, you could feasibly run it as an EV.
Mercedes-Benz GLC: 8/10
Read our dedicated Mercedes GLC review here.
Mercedes-Benz GLE: 7/10
If you want a truly luxurious large SUV experience then the GLE is one of the very best. The seven-seat practicality is very useful, the unusual diesel-electric hybrid is very tax-effective, and it’s a smart, understated thing. But the newer GLC runs it very close in every way, with a more tech-laden feel, almost as much space, and a plug-in hybrid with barely-believable efficiency.