Once upon a time, BMW M and Mercedes-AMG fought their biggest battles with sedans and coupes. But as with any war, new theaters open, and today's fight is in the crossover space, with M and AMG fielding high-performance versions of nearly every CUV in their respective parent company's stable.
But while the theater has changed, war… war never changes. The E63 and M5 sedans continue to battle for supremacy as their crossover counterparts, the redesigned Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S and BMW X5 M, prepare to enter the fray. Each of these crossovers pack twin-turbocharged, 600-plus-horsepower V8 engines, advanced suspension technologies, and enough tech to keep a fighter jet in the air. Like we said, war never changes.
This particular battle took place across a wide array of territories. Over the span of 24 hours, we whipped the 2020 GLE63 along the stunning roads of southern California's Angeles Crest Highway before hopping a quick flight to Scottsdale, Arizona, where serpentine mountain roads, stark deserts, and the 2020 X5 M beckoned.
Fire The Big Guns
Come on, you knew we were going to start with the engines. The beating hearts of both these high-riding heathens are twin-turbocharged V8s. But the similarities, both mechanical and in terms of character, end there.
The Mercedes stands out with its EQ Boost system, an integrated starter-generator that virtually eliminates lag from two big turbochargers mounted in the valley between the cylinder banks. The system chips in 21 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque to the total output of 603 hp and 627 lb-ft, allowing the GLE 63 S to blitz 60 miles per hour in a manufacturer-estimated 3.7 seconds.
BMW hasn't electrified the X5 M Competition's engine, but its stats are every bit as electrifying, with 617 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque. That torque deficit might sound problematic, but the X5 M matches its rival to 60. How the two SUVs go about this speed is plenty different.
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The BMW revs relentlessly up to its 7,200-rpm redline, offering a frenetic character that feels better suited to a sports car than a high-riding SUV. The torque curve is flat as a board from 1,800 to 5,800, giving the X5 M's powerplant fantastic accessibility. Dip a toe into the throttle and the X5 M surges forward eagerly. This engine feels most at home, though, with its accelerator crushed against the floor. Call on all the V8's power and extra-legal speeds arrive promptly. This is simply a peach of an engine.
It's paired to a stellar transmission, too. In the most aggressive of its three settings the eight-speed, torque-converter-equipped automatic is a charmer. Left to its own devices, the computer manage gear changes well, holding low gears while off throttle and rifling off quick upshifts under hard acceleration. The wheel-mounted paddle shifters are metal and have a soft, pleasant action – it’s our preferred way of swapping cogs. Turn down the wick and the eight-speed handles normal traffic conditions with ease.
The BMW revs relentlessly up to its 7,200-rpm redline, offering a frenetic character that feels better suited to a sports car.
That's not to discount AMG's V8. The GLE's torque advantage makes up for its narrower power band, but with peak output available between 2,500 and 4,500 rpm, deploying the extra twist takes a degree of planning. Where the BMW feels high-strung and motorsports-derived, the GLE feels more like a muscle car – we're sure the folks in Affalterbach might take that as an insult, but we promise, it's the highest praise an American can deliver. Gunning the GLE is an addicting experience, as this car's huge torque advantage allows it to build a head of steam like a locomotive, despite its less accessible torque curve.
The GLE packs one extra gear over its rival from Munich, although the nine-speed automatic feels more relaxed in its execution. Shifts are a touch slower, even with the AMG programmed for maximum attack. That said, it's every bit as likable in traffic, and comes with the added benefit of pleasant barks on wide-open-throttle upshifts. In fact, while the BMW's engine feels like it has a pedigree, the Mercedes has a far meaner bark to go with its bite.
Where the BMW feels high-strung and motorsports-derived, the GLE feels more like a muscle car.
Bombastic and all-enveloping, the AMG 4.0-liter sings a burly, menacing song that comes with pops and crackles just dripping in character. The sound is a huge part of the fun here – again, like a muscle car – encouraging the driver to keep the revs up and the accelerator pegged. The BMW sounds purposeful, but it lacks the AMG's presence both at idle and under heavy throttle. Both engines will tug at your heartstrings, but the AMG will tickle your ears.
Much as the approaches to straight-line speed vary, M and AMG diverge when it comes to how they tune suspensions. BMW M ditched the X5's air suspension in favor of a setup that fits the more aggressive ride/handling balance – a double-wishbone front suspension and a multi-link rear with adaptive dampers at all four corners, an active anti-roll-bar system, the latest xDrive all-wheel-drive system, an active rear differential, and an M-specific electric-power-steering system. The AMG GLE features a four-corner air suspension with adaptive dampers, active anti-roll bars powered by a 48-volt electrical system, an AMG-fettled, fully variable all-wheel-drive system, and a limited-slip rear differential.
All that nonsense means these two heavyweights could embarrass each of their car-based predecessors on a road course. But they are not equal. Mercedes is fielding arguably the smarter setup. Inarguably, though, it's the more comfortable arrangement, thanks to its air suspension and more advanced active anti-roll bars, marketed as AMG Active Ride Control.
Where the BMW crashes down the road, the GLE glides. Even saddled with our AMG tester's optional 22-inch wheels and with the adaptive dampers set to the most aggressive of three settings, the air suspension remains composed and quiet. You feel bumps and imperfections, but the GLE hides the effect of smaller impacts and minimizes those of larger hits. And if those impacts are on just one side of the car, the roll bars can respond accordingly, further hiding the rough road.
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This comfort demands a modest sacrifice on the agility front. Put these two vehicles on a skid pad and we'd bet our favorite driving shoes the BMW will pull higher Gs. Its springs are firm and uncompromising, and even in Comfort the dampers struggle to cope. But the overall suspension is impressively dialed in for cornering, with tight body motions and seemingly limitless lateral grip. You can chuck this SUV into corners at pretty much any speed and know it will, somehow, come out the other side. Its steering is abysmal, though.
Put these two vehicles on a skid pad and we'd bet our favorite driving shoes the BMW will pull higher Gs.
Both SUVS are light on feedback through the wheel, but the BMW has the worse rack of the two. At speed, there’s too much boost on center – even with such a firm suspension, the high center of gravity prevents the X5 from feeling as sharp while changing direction as its fast steering would indicate. As the steering angle increases, the weight increases considerably, all while feedback is totally absent. Things are worse at lower speeds, especially in parking lots.
The X5 M's tiller feels like a $100 steering wheel you'd buy for an Xbox or Playstation – super heavy but with a sloppiness that manifests when the driver turns the wheel harder than the system would like. It feels like a bad force feedback effect – as the Servotronic system struggles to find the right ratio, the steering becomes sluggish and stubborn, like it’s barely tolerating your inputs. The X5's active anti-roll bars feel less sophisticated, too. Push hard into a corner, particularly at higher speeds, and you can almost feel the system working against the X5 M's nearly 5,400-pound curb weight. It manages, but it's not as invisible as the AMG.
The GLE exhibits laser-guided precision in corners, even if it lacks the outright agility of the X5 M.
The GLE requires a more judicious approach, although it's still one of the best handling SUVs we've ever tested. That's thanks largely to its more advanced active anti-roll bars, an incredibly complex system that uses a pair of electromechanical actuators, each with its own planetary gearset, to effectively quash body roll. The GLE exhibits laser-guided precision in corners, even if it lacks the outright agility of the X5 M. The flat, predictable cornering behavior doesn't hinder feedback through the chassis. It's easy to interpret what's happening with the GLE63's massive, staggered (285/40/22 in front and 325/35/22 rear) Yokohama Advan Sport tires despite all the layers of technology between you and them.
Technology is as important to these two performance SUVs as any of their greasy bits. Both SUVs feature all-digital cabins shared with their lesser siblings, but M and AMG tweaked the systems to accommodate their high-performance missions.
AMG's setup is the cleanest and easiest to learn, mainly because software engineers segregated most of the drive mode systems from the main infotainment screen. A rocker switch on the dash and a small dial at the five o'clock position of the steering wheel's center allows quick access to the overabundance of driving modes (there are seven: Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, Individual, Race, Trail, and Sand). More rocker panels sit behind the palm rest to activate the transmission's manual mode, change the ride height, adjust the suspension firmness, activate the louder exhaust mode, or relax the stability control. Drivers can also adjust the latter two via a pair of buttons at the seven o'clock position on the steering wheel. The only interaction drivers need to make with the central touchscreen is when programming the Individual driving mode.
It's an ideal setup if you want to adjust a system on the fly – rather than sifting through menus and submenus in the infotainment, there are physical controls that are always in the same place. Muscle memory develops quickly while driving the GLE63.
The learning curve is steeper in the X5 M, which more or less throws away the layout of the drive systems on the standard X5. To the left of the newfangled, M-specific shifter sits a bank of buttons, but rather than housing preset driving modes, there are buttons labeled M Mode, Setup, and a button for a noisier exhaust.
You might think that M Mode cycles through the available drive modes or simply switches every system to its most aggressive, but no. All you get for pressing it is a different layout for the digital instrument cluster. No, what you want is Setup, which changes the center display to show all the adjustable systems. That's right, Sport, Sport Plus, Eco, Comfort; they're all gone. The X5 M has no pre-programmed driving modes. And for some reason, the only system with a physical adjustment is the transmission, which annoyingly hides a button right next to the Park button on the shifter.
Just one thing saves this convoluted setup. Okay, two things: the red M1 and M2 buttons attached to the top of the steering wheel spokes. These are like the Individual mode on the Mercedes, providing driver-designed drive mode presets. You still have to interact with the center display to program them, but the flexibility two presets provide is hard to overstate. We set our systems for maximum attack on one and for relaxed cruising (albeit with the louder exhaust mode) in the other. Spot a good bend? Punch M1 and go for it, then tap M2 when things smooth out. The M buttons don't make up for the BMW's far steeper learning curve, but their quick, programmable nature is a welcome feature we wish more automakers would adopt.
Men And Materiel
In case you haven't noticed yet, both of these vehicles are based on more affordable, less-potent siblings. That left AMG and M somewhat constrained on interior modifications. You'll find the bulk of the changes on the main driver's touchpoints: the seats, the steering wheel and paddle shifters, and in the BMW's case, on the shift lever.
Seats have the biggest impact and on the surface, these two cars are evenly matched. Both feature at least 20-way adjustment, three-stage heating and ventilation, as well as massage settings that could put your local masseuse out of business.
The AMG seats are more snug, and while they‘re great on curving roads like Angeles Crest, more long-haul comfort would be nice.
That said, the X5 has the better chairs. The amply padded and heavily bolstered seats offer a wider range of adjustments and hold the driver in all the right places. The AMG seats are more snug, and while they‘re great on curving roads like Angeles Crest, more long-haul comfort would be nice.
Mercedes claws back points with its AMG-spec steering wheel. We like the flat-bottom design and the way it slightly deviates from the standard GLE's wheel. The M wheel feels a little too similar to what you'd find on a standard X5, both in shape and in spoke thickness/padding. The twin red M buttons are a stylish touch, though. Equally stylish but far less tolerable is the X5 M's new shifter. Rather than the forward/back shifter found on other X5s, the X5 M's lever harkens back to older M cars. Slide left and up to access Reverse or push right to access Drive. Push right again to switch to manual mode. But honestly, what the hell was wrong with the normal shifter?
The Costs Of War
War is an expensive business and so is buying a 600-horsepower super-SUV. Both of these vehicles far exceed the six-figure mark, although they're remarkably close in terms of price. If you have no interest in options, the Mercedes is the better buy, starting at $113,950 to the X5 M Competition's $114,100. That difference is a rounding error at this price point, though.
What's worth noting, though, is there's really only one performance option between these two, and it's a rather insignificant one in our opinion: the X5 M's $2,500 M Driver's Package raises the top speed from 155 mph to 177 and includes a day of high-performance driver training. Aside from that exception, you can get a base GLE 63 S or X5 M Competition and it will perform as well as a fully loaded model.
If you have no interest in options, the Mercedes is the better buy, starting at $113,950 to the X5 M Competition's $114,100.
Even with options, though, our testers are remarkably similar in price. Only $4,830 separates our well-equipped $128,245 X5 M Competition from our $133,075 GLE 63 S, and that difference is largely down to cosmetic options – ditch the GLE’s $1,500 carbon-fiber engine cover, $1,250 22-inch wheels, and $1,600 Alcantara roof and these two are nearly even.
Coming To Terms
You could say the same about their character on the road. We envy the individual that has to choose which of these vehicles to buy – not only because they're far wealthier than we are, but because each SUV represents a truly endearing high-performance vehicle. That said, were we that well-heeled soul, our money would be going to Mercedes-AMG.
The GLE 63 S isn't as out-and-out dynamic as the X5 M Competition, but it feels like a better vehicle for everyday use. The ride is really what separates these two – unless you regularly drove roads paved with satin and finished by the soft hands of baby angels, the BMW's firm ride would just beat you senseless after a week. Mercedes, though, nailed the balance between comfort and capability. The GLE63's dynamic threshold isn't as high as the BMW's, but it's higher than what 99 percent of its customers can safely access. And that one percent with the ability to exploit the AMG's full potential probably have an AMG GT sitting in the garage for the real fun times.
The GLE 63 S isn't as out-and-out dynamic as the X5 M Competition, but it feels like a better vehicle for everyday use.
BMW's approach was endearing and successful when the fight with Mercedes involved just sedans and coupes – we'd still take an E39 M5 or an E90 M3 over the equivalent Mercedes. But SUVs need to be functional everyday vehicles first and performance superstars second. That doesn't make the X5 M Competition a bad car by any stretch, but it does make it the loser (by a nose) in this comparison.