We were on the hunt for cool weather and curvy roads. And to see a few leaves changing color. So, we did what most Floridians do at this time of the year and headed to the mountains of North Carolina.
Roughly 80 miles west of Asheville is the picture-postcard enclave of Highlands, perched high—as in 4,118 feet—in the Blue Ridge Mountains within the Nantahala National Forest.
It has the look and feel of an Aspen East, with high-end boutiques and smart outdoor eateries on its lovely main street, gorgeous homes on its manicured side streets, and towering peaks all around.
For any red-blooded car lover, part of the appeal of spending a few days in Highlands is getting there. Highway 64 from Asheville is a switchback asphalt roller-coaster that’s a perfect test of driver and machine.
And what better machine for the drive than the 2024 GLE 53 Coupe, the newest AMG-honed performance SUV from Mercedes-Benz?
Powered by an AMG-developed 3.0-liter turbocharged in-line six-cylinder, it packs a Conor McGregor-style 429-horsepower punch. Some clever software wizardry for 2024, together with a bigger turbocharger, also sees max torque increased from 384 pound-foot to 413.
As you’d expect, it’s quick. Quick as in standstill-to-60 miles per hour in a rapid 4.9 seconds. More important for our little mountain adventure is its rocket ship acceleration out of Highway 64’s pinch-tight curves. This thing is insanely fast.
It’s also insanely fast through those switchback mountain curves. With Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive expertly distributing those torques between the front and rear axles, grippy 21-inch performance tires at each corner, and steering that’s scalpel precise, the 53 Coupe is a true blast to drive.
And parked on Highlands’ main street, or outside downtown’s historic, old-money Old Edwards Inn, the 53 Coupe turns heads faster than it carves curves.
Yes, that swoopy sportscar roofline mounted on top of a tall-riding, high-waisted lower body, still looks kind of awkward and ungainly to me. Beautiful it’s not.
But it has a muscularity and visual strength, capped by that huge front grille and air-gulping intakes, that demands attention. Think of it as Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa in Nike trainers.
Of course, this high style has a price to pay when it comes practicality. That steeply raked windshield and ski-slope rear roofline can make getting in and out a challenge. I lost count of the number of times I whacked my head climbing into the driver’s seat. Same with the rear seat.
That sloping rear end also steals some cargo space compared to the regular—and boxier—Mercedes GLE 53 SUV on which the Coupe is closely based. Think: 27.5 cubic feet compared to 33.3.
But the interior itself is a thing of beauty. Especially with the polarizing blood-red leather and racy-red accent stitching that came with our test car.
Those front seats offer terrific side bolstering to keep you tightly in place through those mountain curves, while the thick-rimmed AMG steering wheel is a joy to grip. In the back, there’s room for three with legroom to spare.
In true Mercedes fashion, there’s a mile-wide glass screen to house the digital instrument display and infotainment and navigation touchscreen. Yes, it can be complicated to navigate, but thankfully a quick “Hey Mercedes” voice command usually gets things done.
For our last day in Highlands, we head west to the breathtaking Nantahala Lake. But before we get there, we take a sharp right on to the winding dirt forest road up to Wayah Bald, the 5,300-foot-high peak with spectacular 360-degree views.
Of course, the rutted dirt track was no match for the Mercedes’ off-road capability. But it was fun to see the more rugged side to this impressive SUV’s normally-performance-focused character.
Pricing for this GLE 53 Coupe kicks off at $91,150 with key rivals including BMW’s X6, Porsche’s Cayenne Coupe, and Audi’s Q8.
As for taking a thrill ride in a 53 Coupe along snaking Highway 64, temps in the 70s, no humidity, and leaves just starting to change color? Just priceless.