The all-new 2010 GLK350 is Mercedes-Benz's first foray into the small SUV market. The GLK is designed to be hip, unique, and affordable, at least by Mercedes standards. With a starting price of $34,775 (including destination), the GLK350 undercuts Mercedes' next-smallest SUV, the ML350, by over $13,000, and its chief rival, the BMW X3, by $5,000. But is the 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 an SUV you'd actually want to buy? Let's drive and find out. $34,775 base, $50,245 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 16 mpg city, 21 - 22 mpg highway, warranty 4 years/50,000 miles.
My test drive of the GLK350 was a string of surprises. The first pleasant surprise was the GLK's size. I had never seen a GLK in person, and I had assumed it would be almost as large as Mercedes' M-Class; it certainly looks big and brawny in photographs. But when a GLK pulled up next to the Lexus RX400h I'd driven to the press preview, the mid-size Lexus SUV seemed to tower over it. In fact, the GLK is actually four inches shorter than the C-Class sedan on which it is based. I like SUVs that are small and easy to park, and I could tell the GLK and I were going to get along just fine.
Less of a surprise -- but no less pleasant -- was the GLK's styling. Rather than build a scaled-down version of a bigger SUV in their lineup -- the route taken by the Infiniti EX35, BMW X3, Audi Q5, and Acura RDX -- Mercedes told their designers to create something unique. The GLK's shape was inspired by Mercedes' G- and GL-Class SUVs, and there's a clear influence from the C-Class sedan. But with its long hood, boxy cabin, big wheels and strong character lines, the GLK doesn't look like anything else on the road. I normally don't get very excited about styling; when it comes to SUVs, give me utility or give me death. But I've grown weary of all the look-alike vehicles roaming our streets, and it's nice to see one that stands out -- and not in a sore-thumb kind of way. Unique and beautiful, that's the GLK -- and besides, that handsome shape yields plenty of utility.
In the Driver's Seat
The GLK's driving position gives a good view of the road, but isn't so tall that you feel like you're piloting a Peterbilt. The power-adjustable seats are covered in MB Tex (a.k.a. vinyl); real leather is a $1,750 option. I'm not normally a fan of all-black interiors, but surprise, surprise: the GLK's cabin looks fantastic thanks to liberal use of brushed-aluminum trim. It's much nicer than I expected given the sub-$35k price. A tan interior with burl walnut trim is also available. The Germans aren't much for simple controls, but the GLK's climate controls are fairly straightforward and the dial that operates the stereo and (optional) navigation system is easy enough once you get the hang of it.
The back seat was a surprise, but not a good one. I found just enough room for my knees and little space under the front seats for my toes -- and that was with the front seats adjusted for my 5'6" frame. With taller folks up front, no one over age 10 is going to find the back seat very comfortable (or even habitable). And getting in and out is difficult -- the door opening is narrow and I kept thumping my knees against the front seat. Shame, because otherwise it's a nice back seat, with lots of head and shoulder room and a good view out, especially with the optional panoramic sunroof.
The GLK offers 23.3 cubic feet of cargo space, less than most of its rivals but useful enough. The back seat folds down to yield a flat load floor and 54.7 cubic feet of space. Load-bearing roof rails are standard and a 3,500 lb. Class II trailer hitch is a $540 option.
On the Road
Mercedes designed the GLK to drive like a car, and I was surprised at how well they nailed it. The GLK has the same light, direct steering feel as the C-Class sedan, with negligible body lean in turns. The ride is smooth and even, though there's more tire noise than might be expected. Hammer the GLK through the curves and the electronic stability control system cuts in firmly and authoritatively, arresting any potential skid before it starts and reining in the engine's power as a stern reminder that such tomfoolery will not be tolerated. Drive smoothly and quickly, however, and the GLK exhibits as much finesse as a sports sedan.
The GLK350 is powered by a 268 hp 3.5 liter V6 backed by a 7-speed automatic transmission. My test-ute was a 4Matic all-wheel-drive model, and I thought the engine had more than enough power to deal with its two-ton curb weight. But with great power comes great fuel consumption: The EPA says the GLK350 4Matic swills premium gas at the rate of 16 mpg in town and 21 on the highway (22 for rear-drive), though my back-road and highway test-driving yielded figures in the low 20s. Asked about a diesel, Mercedes' PR team said things like "It's certainly under consideration," "Sure would be interesting," and "That'd make sense" -- PR-speak for "It's coming, but we can't say so." (One product-planning staffer, who probably wasn't supposed to be talking to journalists, said they are lobbying to bring the European-market GLK's four-cylinder diesel to the US.) Asked about a hot-rod AMG version, everyone said "No way" -- which is PR-speak for "No way."
I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed the GLK. Normally, a cramped back seat and crummy gas mileage would be enough to put me off an SUV. Not so with the GLK -- I like the way it looks, I like the way it drives, and I like the price. $35k isn't chump change, but it's pretty good for an entry-luxury SUV, and very good for a Mercedes. Even with all the options, the GLK tops out at $54,575 -- not much more than a base-model E-Class sedan.
The GLK's closest rival is the BMW X3, which offers more back seat and cargo space, standard all-wheel-drive, and a higher fun-to-drive factor. But with a starting price over $40,000, it can't touch the GLK's value-for-money equation. The Acura RDX offers all-wheel-drive for well under $35k; I don't really like its techno-chic interior, but Jason Fogelson, the man in charge of these pages, thinks it's a great SUV. The Infiniti EX35 has a more car-like interior than the GLK, but it's not as car-like to drive and its cargo bay isn't as big or as usefully shaped. I'd also consider the Lexus RX350, Buick Enclave, and Hyundai Veracruz, bigger SUVs which offer more room and plenty of luxury in the same price range as the GLK.
Bottom line: Considering the GLK's price tag, I was expecting a stripped-down SUV with a three-pointed star slapped on. But the GLK is a proper Mercedes -- stately, solid and splendid -- and a heck of a good deal. For buyers for whom the small back seat and less-than-frugal engine aren't a problem, I highly recommend the GLK. Chances are you'll be pleasantly surprised.