I have to admit to approaching the new GLK350 with some trepidation. After
all, Mercedes-Benz has been on an SUV/ Crossover kick lately, and it’s getting rather difficult to keep them all straight. When the GLK arrives, Mercedes will have five vehicles under the umbrella of “tall with all-wheel-drive.” In alphabetical order, there’s the G (that tin-lidded Jeep-like throwback you occasionally see); the GL (a gigantic SUV that’s so 2005); this car, the GLK; the ML (Mercedes’ original player in the modern SUV game); and the R (don’t call it a minivan – whoops, just did). So where in the world does the GLK fit in?
It’s the little guy – the BMW X3 and Acura RDX fighter. If we are talking dimensions, it’s the smallest of the MB SUV pack by a good margin. Think 7.3 inches stubbier than its nearest sibling in length – the G – and a whopping two feet less than the longest of the lot, the R. Actually, its size should be no surprise, as it is constructed atop the C-class sedan’s platform – which itself has been pruned by eight inches. This is not a very big vehicle.
No surprise, then, that the GLK is happiest with asphalt under its feet. And although it’s evolved a few mountain goat bones compared to the C-class, it’s not nearly as eager to free-range as its counterparts in markets outside the U.S., where it enjoys a very effective off-road package. But, when you get down to it, you’ve got to be half mad to clamber around near pointy rocks and scratchy cacti in any sort of Mercedes-Benz, right?
The personalities of its chief rivals – the BMW X3 and Acura RDX – we more or less know already: One’s a frisky German that’s a bit tightly wound in the ride department, the other’s a Japanese samurai turbo-egg that’s decidedly more silken than visceral. But the GLK? It’s like neither of them.
What it’s like most is … well, a bigger, superbly built Subaru Forester. A Subaru! Sacrilege! All I can say to those of you who blanched just now is that you probably haven’t driven a Subaru Forester. Like the Forester, the GLK is one of those unexpected vehicles that feels born on the road, a happy intersection of steering and spunk that just elevates it somehow. But unlike the Forester’s blue-collar interior, the GLK’s is swathed in quality plastics so embellished with stitched leather, wood, aluminum and chrome accents, you’ll doubt they’re plastics at all. It’s like sitting in a cozy, handsome library that’s going 70 mph. Despite the GLK’s size, its rear seat space is perfectly reasonable, particularly in width, owing to an additional 3 inches in the C-class’ rear track. Personally, I think the GLK even looks a bit like the Subaru, with that same top-hat profile and jutting nose.
On the road, the GLK wafts along pleasantly, with 268 horsepower a foot tap away via its 3.5-liter V6 (a “Bluetec” clean-diesel version is expected in a year or two). Coupled to this is a deft-shifting 7-speed automatic transmission, connected to either the rear wheels in the base model or Mercedes’ fine 4-Matic all-wheel-drive system. Its two big-ticket option groups are the Premium Package ($3,150), offering a powered rear door lift, a 115-volt power plug, auto-dimming center mirrors and driver’s-side mirrors, and the Multimedia Package ($3,350), which includes a navigation system, rearview camera and the COMAND controller knob that’s similar to BMW’s iDrive – but arguably better. Both of these include a panorama moonroof.
Mercedes-Benz is expecting that 70 percent of GLK buyers will be newcomers to the three-pointed star. Could be. But current MB owners would do well to consider it, too. Hey, good things in small packages shouldn’t be reserved just for Mercedes-Benz newbies.
Who should drive this car: Although it’s aimed at the so-called “conquest market” – buyers who don’t currently drive a Mercedes – the GLK is a delightful Benz at a recession-friendly price. And that ought to be an attractive idea for everybody these days.
How it drives: It’s nimble but not darty, smooth-riding without being sloppy. The GLK seems to be a crack marksman when it comes to bull’s-eyeing happy mediums.
MPG city/highway: 16/22 (base), 16/21 (4-Matic)
Cost: $33,900 (base), $35,900 (4-Matic); both require an $875 destination charge.
Comparable: BMW X3, Acura RDX
Kim Reynolds is technical editor of Motor Trend magazine.