I felt bemused as I settled into the leather driver's seat of a Mercedes GLK-Class SUV for an off-road test drive in a wooded area of Germany's Ruhr Valley. Let's face it, I thought, Mercedes (DAI) is not aiming at the rod-and-gun crowd with a $53,000 car that you can order in white with tinted windows and two-tone upholstery. Promotional materials even show a fashionable woman loading her designer luggage into the back. Britney Spears may buy this car to evade the paparazzi, but you won't see many bass fishermen kicking the tires.
Or so I thought. A short while later I found myself trying to steer the GLK down a steep, slippery incline. At the bottom was a small river spanned by a bridge consisting of several logs. If I had been in a TV commercial, this would be the moment when a subtitle appears warning that only professional drivers should attempt this maneuver. Except that I'm not a professional driver.
The Mercedes man assigned to keep me from wrecking the vehicle seemed remarkably calm, and soon I found out why. He reached over from the passenger seat and pressed a button on the dashboard that activated the optional Downhill Speed Regulation. Using the cruise control lever on the steering wheel, I set the speed at 4 kilometers an hour. The GLK's electronics slowed the car to walking pace and distributed power among the four wheels in a way calculated to maintain traction. All I had to do was steer carefully onto the log bridge and across to safety. Even Britney could have done it.
After completing the off-road course, I had to admit that, yes, bass fishermen would like this car, too. You can drive the GLK at more than 100 mph on the Autobahn, as I did briefly. (For the record, it was a stretch of highway where there is no speed limit.) But the GLK is also a real 4-by-4. Thanks to clever electronics that keep the vehicle steady and maintain traction in rough terrain, an average driver can perform gymnastics on the trail that would confound even professionals.
Under Three Years
The GLK, which goes on sale in Europe in October and in the U.S. early in 2009, is Mercedes' most important new car of the year, and it's good—if you ignore the fact that soaring fuel prices are causing SUV sales to plunge. At least the GLK is a so-called compact SUV. "Compact" in this case presumably means "compared with a Hummer." But the GLK does get decent gas mileage for a 2-ton vehicle. The 4-cylinder diesel version is rated at 34 miles per gallon (or, in European terms, 6.9 liters per 100 kilometers). The 6-cylinder gasoline version that will be sold in the U.S. gets just 22 mpg, however. (Mercedes hasn't yet announced a U.S. price for the GLK, but the same car costs more than $60,000 in Germany.)
Mercedes brought the GLK from design to production in under three years because it needed to compete better with smaller SUVs such as BMW's (BMWG.DE) successful X3. Besides being smaller, the GLK differs from the rest of the Mercedes SUV lineup in a number of ways. Designer Steffen Köhl and his team gave the GLK a boxy look to set it apart from the crowded SUV market, as well as from Mercedes' own M-Class cars. The angular design harkens back to military vehicles, the original SUVs, which had squared-off body parts that were easy to make and fix.
Inside, the GLK feels like a passenger car, except with more upright seating and a picture-window view out the front. In fact, some of the cockpit, such as the seats, comes from Mercedes' C-Class sedans. The car's interior amenities seem more attuned to the suburbs than the woods, though I suppose you could argue that the video display that lets you see what's behind the rear bumper helps the environment. It keeps you from backing into trees.
But people who never drive off the pavement with their GLK will be missing some fun. At one point during the test drive, my Mercedes co-pilot coached me across a series of huge earthen bumps. Between each set of obstacles, the car teetered dangerously on one front wheel and the opposite rear wheel. The other two wheels were several feet off the ground. Instead of spinning wildly, the free wheels stopped instantly while the other two continued to deliver power. The Mercedes guy taught me how to brake slightly when the GLK crested a bump, causing the front wheel to drop gently back to the ground.
It will be interesting to see whether record fuel prices will restrict this kind of fun to a few buyers. Unlike most of the rest of Mercedes' SUV lineup, which is made in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the GLK will roll from a plant in Bremen, Germany. That suggests the car is destined not only for well-heeled European buyers but also the growing flock of wealthy Russians. The fast-growing Russian market (BusinessWeek.com, 7/11/08) has helped prop up sales for the whole industry recently. Mercedes execs can only hope it will keep the SUV market alive as well.
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