Review: 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK350

Up Front Based on sheer quantity of models, Mercedes-Benz (DAI) is one of the giants of the SUV market, with offerings that include the G-Class, GL-Class, M-Class, and the crossover R-Class. Now, the company has added yet another "Class" to its plentiful SUV lineup—the small, easily maneuverable GLK, aimed at buyers who would like to downsize without giving up the practicality of a sport-ute.

The GLK is about the same size and weight as the BMW (BMWG.DE) X3, an aging model that's now being challenged by both Mercedes and Volkswagen's (VOWG.DE) Audi unit (with its new Q5). In this Deutsche dustup, the GLK350 is a strong competitor that I prefer to the X3 and that matches up well against the new Q5. However, there are other attractive alternatives at a lower price, notably the RDX from Honda's (HMC) Acura division and the Volvo XC60.

That said, the GLK's diminutive size, incredibly smooth ride, and classy, comfortable cabin make it an absolute joy in day-to-day driving. A peppy 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V6 makes the GLK more than quick enough for most SUV owners. Plus, the GLK's base price is relatively low, starting at $35,475 with rear-wheel drive and $37,475 with all-wheel drive. Among luxury SUVs, that's lower than the starting stickers of the X3 and the RX 350 from Toyota's (TM) luxury Lexus unit, and even a tad lower than the Audi Q5's. It's only somewhat higher than the base price of an RDX, XC60, and Land Rover LR2.

So, if you're the type of buyer who tends to go with the base model, the GLK is a relative bargain, coming standard as it does with cruise control, full power accessories, eight-way power front seats, an eight-speaker sound system, Bluetooth capability, 19-inch wheels, multiple airbags, and stability and traction control. However, if you max out on options from the GLK's long and pricey list, expect to pay upward of 50 grand for this vehicle.

The GLK lags its main rivals in a couple of important respects, starting with fuel economy. With all-wheel-drive, the GLK is rated to get an unimpressive 16 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway (22 on the highway with rear-wheel drive). AWD versions of other small luxury SUVs do better: 18/24 for the Lexus RX 350, 18/23 for the Audi Q5, and 17/22 for the Acura RDX. Even the AWD version of the BMW X3, with a rating of 23 mpg, does better on the highway.

To me, the GLK would be far more attractive with a diesel engine that got better mileage. A Mercedes spokesman says that will happen eventually, but "not for the next three or four model years."

Another of the GLK's weak points is its paltry cargo capacity: 23.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up, 54.7 cu. ft. with the back seats folded down. The BMW X3, at 30/71, and the Lexus RX 350, at 40/80, have far more hauling capacity—which is saying something.

Even so, the GLK is selling relatively well. The AWD version of the GLK first hit dealerships in January, followed by the rear-wheel-drive version in March. Since then, Mercedes has sold a combined 16,015 units of the new model in the U.S., making it the company's fourth-best-selling model this year, only slightly behind the M-Class, of which 17,407 were sold through September.

Behind the Wheel The GLK has the solid, well-built feel of a big Mercedes, with the same chunky steering wheel, ultra-comfortable front seats and quiet cabin that feels isolated from the outside world. Its strong suit is exceptional comfort and ease of use in day-to-day driving.

The GLK is quick but not exceptionally fast. Mercedes figures it will accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. I found my AWD test model somewhat slower than that—I clocked it at 7.2 seconds—but competitive with other models in the segment. For instance, Road and Track timed the 2010 Lexus RX 350 at 7.4 seconds in zero-to-60 runs.

In test drives, I found it almost impossible to ruffle the GLK's composure, even on bad country roads. I plunged my test vehicle into potholes, and accelerated over loose gravel and ridged sections of roadway badly in need of grading. The GLK smooths out even deep potholes without the alarming thud you get in a BMW X3. In urban driving, a tight turning radius makes the GLK a breeze to park.

The vehicle's styling is blocky and traditional. Mercedes describes the look as a "modern interpretation of the iconic G-Class," the company's rugged, Land Cruiser-like off-road vehicle. That influence can be seen in the GLK's angular front end, relatively vertical windshield, and squarish shape. The car's interior maintains that theme, with an angular, relatively vertical dash and none of the curving and swooping design elements most luxury vehicles have these days.

The GLK's interior looks classy, even if you don't pay an extra $1,750 for leather seats. Mercedes has developed a premium vinyl upholstery that looks and feels so much like leather you won't know the difference unless you really focus on it. And burl walnut interior trim can be had free of charge.

The front seats are roomy and comfortable. As in other Mercedes, the power seat controls are on the front doors, where you can see them, making it easy to adjust the seats precisely. There's also a lot of travel in the front seats, so there's a surprising amount of legroom for tall drivers, though the center console restricts knee space a bit.

You could cram three passengers into the rear seat, but they wouldn't be quite as comfortable. Shoulder and hip space are limited, and knee space is so tight that Mercedes has put little indentations in the backs of the front seats to eke out a tiny bit of extra room.

I wasn't able to test the GLK on snow and ice, but in past test drives I've found that Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel-drive system handles winter driving well. I wouldn't risk scratching up a $50,000 vehicle by taking it off-road, but the GLK has nearly eight inches of ground clearance so it probably could handle fairly rugged terrain. Maximum towing capacity is 3,500 lbs., which is about average for this category of vehicle.

Buy it or Bag It? The GLK 350 is a good choice for a young family or an active retired couple, especially those who are trading down from a larger Mercedes SUV. It has the build quality, smooth ride, and characteristic styling of a big Mercedes packed into a small package. Consider test-driving it, however, against the sporty new Audi Q5 before buying.

The GLK's average selling price, $37,125 with rear-wheel drive and $41,311 with all-wheel drive, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), falls in the middle of the pack. Pricier competitors include the BMW X3, which with standard AWD carries an average price of $43,106 (for the '09 model, the most recent on which data are available), the 2010 Audi Q5 at $43,286, and the 2010 Lexus RX 350 at $42,435 with two-wheel drive and $43,512 with AWD.

Among less expensive alternatives, I particularly like the 2010 Acura RDX, which sells for an average of $35,474, according to PIN, and is available with the same marvelous "super handling" AWD system found in the new Acura TL and ZDX. Acura loads up its vehicles with standard gear and there's only one option package, so an all-wheel-drive RDX tops out at $38,430, 10 grand less than the well-loaded GLK I test-drove. Admittedly, though, the RDX doesn't have the rock-solid feel of a Mercedes.

The main problem I have with the GLK is not its price but its fuel economy, and the Acura doesn't do much better on that count. What I'd really like is to be able to buy a GLK with a fuel-sipping diesel engine.

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