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Expert Reviews 1 of 7
By Mike Hanley
February 25, 2009
It's funny how an automaker can be ahead of the curve one moment and playing catch-up the next. Mercedes-Benz helped make luxury SUVs mainstream when it debuted the midsize M-Class for the 1998 model year, but when it comes to small luxury crossovers, the German automaker is a latecomer with the new 2010 GLK350. It seems the time was well-spent, though, as the crossover offers the luxury, comfort and technology expected of models in this class.
Some other manufacturers are also playing catch-up, as the segment gains two other new models this calendar year with the debut of the 2009 Audi Q5 and 2010 Volvo XC60. The GLK350 has one of the lower base prices in this segment, but the total rises quickly when you add some options. My well-equipped all-wheel-drive test model, for example, had an as-tested price of about $50,000. Exterior & Styling A number of the GLK350's competitors, like the XC60 and Infiniti EX35, have sleek exterior styling that favors smooth lines over right angles. The Mercedes, meanwhile, maintains the traditional upright shape of an SUV; it looks a little bit like a shrunken version of the automaker's larger GL-Class. It wears this look rather well, with enough design cues in the sheet metal to keep things interesting.
The optional Appearance Package changes the look of the GLK350 by adding aluminum roof rails and 20-inch alloy wheels. Also available are aluminum running boards that add $660 to the price tag. They don't look like traditional running boards, but are more similar to the side sill extensions on the BMW X5. Like the X5's side sills, they'll dirty your pant legs when stepping in or out if you're not careful. They're not necessary, because it's easy to step in and out of the Mercedes without using them. Ride & Handling When I first saw the wheels on my test GLK350 — those 20-inch rims and low-profile all-season tires — I was a little worried about how it would ride on Chicago's crater-filled roads. To my surprise, the GLK350 handled this rugged urban landscape with ease, preventing ride quality from becoming jarring. Sure, the taut suspension controls body motions, but it doesn't do so at the expense of passenger comfort the way some crossovers do. The standard 19-inch rims come with tires that have slightly taller sidewalls, which should make for an even more compliant ride.
Whether you're driving in the city or the suburbs, the GLK350 is easy to maneuver, but it doesn't do much to engage the driver. The steering offers little in the way of feedback, and the wheel is very easy to turn. This is typical of Mercedes models in general, and while it works in a full-size sedan like the S-Class, it doesn't fit the GLK350 as well. Whereas some cars decrease the amount of power-assistance at higher speeds for a greater sense of straight-line stability, the GLK350 feels about the same then as when driving at slower speeds.
The GLK350 cruises comfortably on the highway, as the suspension limits the effects of bumps and holes in the road. Highway speeds further affirmed an impression that developed when traveling around town, and that's just how quiet the cabin of the GLK350 is. Ambient and wind noise are effectively muted, leaving you to enjoy the audio system or just the silence. Even when accelerating aggressively, engine noise isn't intrusive. Going & Stopping A 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is standard. The engine moves the GLK350 rapidly when you want, and the seven-speed automatic transmission consistently shifts smoothly no matter if you're driving leisurely or aggressively. The transmission includes Comfort and Sport modes in addition to a clutchless-manual setting if you prefer to control shifts yourself.
The GLK350 can easily keep pace with fast highway traffic, and the V-6 still has some grunt left in it for high-speed acceleration, though not enough to take you aback. Downshifts are easy to induce by prodding the gas pedal.
It took me a little longer than normal to get used to the crossover's brakes. While there's an adjustment period when moving to any new vehicle as you adapt to its characteristics, the significant amount of brake pedal travel that's required to initiate strong braking in the GLK350 is outside the norm and took me by surprise when first driving it. The brakes have good linearity, which is something that's lacking in some of Mercedes' other models, but they'd be nicer if they were more responsive higher in the pedal's travel. The Inside Mercedes has been reshaping its lineup for the past few years, and the interiors of models like the C-Class and new E-Class have taken on a more angular appearance. That's true in the new GLK350, too, which features bold swaths of aluminum trim on the dashboard and doors (burl walnut wood trim is optional). The overall appearance is quite luxurious, trimmed in high-grade materials.
The GLK350's seats are finished in standard MB-Tex simulated leather, but real leather upholstery is included in the optional $1,750 Full Leather Seating Package, along with the wood trim. MB-Tex does such a good job impersonating the real thing in terms of appearance and texture that I initially thought my test model was equipped with leather. The front bucket seats have supple cushioning and are supportive thanks to a long bottom cushion that provides good thigh support. They feel like a favorite chair that makes your muscles relax the minute you sit in it. Heated front seats and a driver's-side memory feature are optional.
Most controls are logically arranged, and numerous features are accessible in multiple ways. For example, you can select the optional navigation system by pressing a button on the dash or by using the Comand system's multifunction controller on the center console. Comand comes with the navigation system, and of the knob-based systems out there, like BMW's iDrive and Audi's Multi Media Interface, it's one of the better ones thanks to intuitive onscreen menus. BMW, however, has closed the gap significantly with its latest generation of iDrive. The GLK350's air conditioning controls, however, aren't in the best spot; they're very low on the dash.
The backseat is fairly tight for adult passengers and feels a little smaller than the XC60's. With the driver's seat adjusted for my 6-foot-1 frame, I had to sit with my legs to either side of its backrest in order to have enough legroom. The 60/40-split backseat's backrest is nicely reclined, however. Cargo & Towing The GLK350's cargo area measures 23.3 cubic feet. With the backseat folded there's 54.7 cubic feet of total cargo space. When the backseat is down, the extended cargo floor is fairly flat.
Cargo Room Compared (cu. ft.)
Land Rover LR2
When properly equipped with the optional trailer hitch, the GLK350 is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds. Safety Standard features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system and active front head restraints. Optional Features A number of packages and individual options are available for the GLK350. The Premium Package bundles a number of features, including a panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, a memory feature, Sirius Satellite Radio and rain-sensing windshield wipers for $3,150. The Multimedia Package goes for $3,350 and includes the Comand multifunction controller, navigation, a six-disc Harman/Kardon entertainment system and a backup camera.
The Lighting Package features swiveling bi-xenon headlights with washers and LED taillights for $970. Individual options include parking sensors ($790), an iPod connection kit ($375) and a dual-screen rear entertainment system ($1,880). Choosing 4Matic all-wheel drive instead of rear-wheel drive adds $2,000. GLK350 in the Market There's no question the GLK350 is a worthy contender in the compact luxury crossover segment thanks to its comfortable ride, quiet cabin and smooth powertrain. It's a logical addition to Mercedes' lineup, and one that should have come along sooner.
Now that the brand with the three-pointed star has an offering in this segment, there's a whole lot more pressure on models like the BMW X3 and upcoming Audi Q5. The only thing Mercedes needs now is buyers willing to plunk down serious money to take a GLK350 home. The recession, however, could prove more formidable than the GLK350's actual competitors.