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Mercedes-Benz on massive offensive despite a dwindling luxury car market

Mercedes-Benz on massive offensive despite a dwindling luxury car market
The full spectrum of the updated Mercedes-Benz GLE range. (Photo: MBSA)

While the ever-rising cost of living continues to rain on the parade of many local consumers, the German premium car manufacturer launches its new GLC Coupé and the updated GLE, with another 10 products revving to be released in SA.

It’s a well-known fact that during times of economic depression, consumers often throw caution to the wind and splurge when they can ill afford it. It’s not called “retail therapy” for nothing.

In a post-pandemic world, while global economies have been battered, the YOLO (you only live once) phenomenon has caught fire – people are so relieved to be alive that they’ve become more likely to recklessly spend rather than batten down the hatches.  

Audit and consulting firm Deloitte conducted a post-pandemic survey last year and discovered that “splurging to treat yourself is generally a worldwide phenomenon”. 

More than three in four consumers surveyed globally said they had made a splurge purchase over the past month, despite only 42% saying they could afford to spend on something that brought them “joy”.

Experiencing retail “joy” included buying expensive lipstick, going to a pricey restaurant or purchasing a dream car. The YOLO mentality is clearly driving this “carefree” attitude in consumers.

The just-launched Mercedes-Benz concierge lounge at the V&A Waterfront. (Photo: MBSA)

Mercedes-Benz SA will be banking on this trend as 2024 sees the three-star brand launch no fewer than a dozen new “dream car” products between now and December. 

The local arm of Merc has already started the year on a bullish note with the launch of the all-new GLC Coupé and the updated GLE. 

Before I review both vehicles, it’s sobering to note that premium-vehicle sales across the three dominant luxury car manufacturers in South Africa – Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW – have more than halved in the past decade, with sales plummeting from 71,889 in 2014 to 26,202 in 2023.

Last month’s Automotive Business Council/National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA figures echo this sentiment, with not a single luxury manufacturer featuring in the Top 15 bestselling cars in SA, and where 10 of the top 15 belonged in the “cheaper” sub-R500K segment. 

The majority of these were in the sub-R350K price range and included cars like the Polo Vivo, Suzuki Swift, Toyota Starlet, Hyundai Grand i10, Suzuki Ertiga and the Chery Tiggo 4.

But let’s move on to the two recently launched million-plus-rand Mercs.  

The all new Mercedes-Benz GLC coupé. (Photo: MBSA)

The Mercedes GLC Coupe

I recently got to drive this rear-slanted, fastback-styled beaut for the media launch hosted at Merc’s new concierge service lounge at the V&A Waterfront. 

Being unfashionably fond of diesel in these times of “go all-electric”, I was thrilled that the newly styled GLC is (for now) only available in two diesel engines. Merc plans to add turbo-petrol AMGs to the range at a later stage. 

For starters, there’s the 220d with its 2.0-litre mill, offering 145kW of power and 440Nm of torque. At the top of the coupé range is the 3.0-litre 300d with 198kWs and 500Nm. 

The GLC comes in all wheel-drive with a 9-speed Tronic transmission, plus there’s some mild hybrid tech which offers a 48V electric starter system, adding up to 17kW/200Nm at peak points. This helps its more fuel-efficient diesel engine to show returns of around 6/100kms. 

The 200d is slightly more frugal, and on long drives, you’ll probably get her under 5 litres. In terms of speed, the 300d can hurtle 0-100km/h in 6.4 seconds while the less powered 200d takes about 8 seconds.

The coupé styling has thankfully not hampered luggage space and Merc has somehow managed to add 45 litres to the load bay, which now offers 545 litres. 

In terms of the interior, as expected in a luxury SUV, it’s got the premium appeal with plenty of leather, and floating instrument and infotainment panels, although there are a few plastic bits in the cabin that unfortunately feel a little cheapo. Overall, the interior is essentially the same as in the straight GLC, which I reviewed when it was launched in May last year

The GLC Coupé has 18-inch rims as standard with 19- and 20-inch rims offered as AMG Line options. (Photo: MBSA)

The drive

We took our GLC coupés around the Cape Peninsula, but with tourist season still pumping, much of the drive was unfortunately hampered by frustrating traffic, especially on Chapman’s Peak. 

Even so, it was clear that both diesel engines offer impressive power and smooth handling. Our units were equipped with the “stiffer” sports suspension, which comes standard, while air suspension is optional.  

Around Simon’s Town, one could feel how well-damped the GLC was as it absorbed some of the less forgiving surfaces with ease. I’ve driven the straight GLC on quite a bit of gravel in the past and came away impressed with how it handled rougher terrain. 

The GLC is a top seller for Merc globally and does pretty well on local soil against its rivals which include the BMW X4 and the Audi Q5 Sportback. 

I prefer the sportier coupé styling, but one has to ask oneself whether one wants to spend substantially more for a slanty roof that does at times compromise rearview vision when the straight, more reasonably priced, GLC sibling is just as good. 

Mercedes-Benz GLE

After bidding farewell to the GLC, less than a fortnight later I found myself on a plane to George on another three-pointed star product to test-drive the updated GLE and GLE Coupé. (The GLE is the SUV version of the E-Class, with the GL prefix, which stands for Geländewagen, signifying Merc’s range of SUVs.)

I’m not going to waste time here and talk about the numerous updates in terms of lights and various styling tweaks. I could wax on about its superior German-built quality, its plush cabin, its cutting edge tech, its standard air suspension and that premium Burmester surround sound audio system with its 13 speakers, 13 separate amplifier channels and a system output of 590 watts.

Instead, I’m going to cut to the chase. 

The GLE is a damn fine (albeit expensive) SUV. It’s gorgeous to look at, especially in the slanted back roof coupé version. It exudes luxury and premium appeal while super-spacious and comfy. (It comes in 5-seater guise, but you can add two more for a surprisingly reasonable premium.) 

The straight SUV version of the updated GLE.(Photo: MBSA)

The drive

First up was the “entry”-level 300d, offering more than adequate power (198kW) and torque (550Nm). Our unit was fitted with 22-inch low-profile tyres, which I would definitely not choose if I was someone who did  rougher surface driving. (There are also 18-inch rims as standard, with 19- and 20-inches offered as AMG Line options.)

The more feisty 450d offers significantly more power and torque at 270kW/750Nm and there’s an added electrical boost on both models of 15kW/200Nm. 

If speed is your thing, then this one is definitely the model to go for as it’s “only” R76K more expensive than its 300d sibling. 

The air suspension, which comes standard in both models, enables a noteworthy smooth and cushioned ride. The steering is precise and the fuel consumption on the 300d is quite gasp-worthy for such a large SUV,  coming in at only 7 litres/100km. 

After a full day spent in the updated GLE, I’d hands-down choose it over the larger and pricier GLS. 

Having driven a number of Chinese cars in recent months, which did impress me, but then getting into two German Mercs back to back, I was once again reminded of their superior quality and build. 

Despite the economic crisis, research has shown that customers tend to be particularly brand-loyal during trying times and stick with high-quality products that have a reputation for being trustworthy.

Mercedes-Benz has plenty of cred in this arena.  

And when it comes to customers who can afford cars in the R2-million-plus range, there are those who have probably even managed to grow their wealth during the recession and who will always embrace badge over price. DM

Pricing

GLC Coupé 220d – R1,392,350

GLC Coupé 300d – R1,447,350

GLE 300 d 4MATIC – R1,964,600

GLE 300 d 4MATIC 7-Seater – R1,984,000

GLE 450 d 4MATIC – R2,041,500

GLE 450 d 4MATIC 7-Seater – R2,060,900

GLE 450 d 4MATIC Sports Coupé – R2,340,500

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