The hills and canyons above Malibu are a well-known playground for automotive enthusiasts. Warm weather and spectacular views make for a wonderful Sunday afternoon cruise, while winding roads and sparse traffic create a driver's playground. Expensive sports cars are routinely seen here testing their limits, but soon visitors may well spot the new Mercedes-Benz GLK350 compact SUV attacking the turns with them.
Last year, Motor Trend garnered an exclusive first drive of the all-new GLK350 in the mountains of Spain, followed by another drive across Germany's autobahn. Both experiences impressed, but we couldn't help but wonder where this new cute ute will slot into the luxury SUV market. Now that we've conducted a thorough instrumented test, though, we have an answer.
Few Mercedes-Benz owners in the U.S. ever take their vehicles off-road, a reality the German automaker not only realizes but embraces. Thus, the GLK is targeted at affluent women -- and it appears Mercedes has hit its mark. This baby Benz has clearly been refined for the on-road market.
Consider the evidence: The off-road package that Mercedes-Benz claims will allow the GLK to rival the Land Rover LR2 in off-road capability will not be available in the U.S. Neither will the two Euro-market diesel engines, despite their efficiency advantages. As if to drive the point home, our tester arrived wearing 20-inch wheels wrapped with Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires. While the sidewalls may have revealed a mud and snow rating, the tread hardly looked trail-ready. Clearly, the GLK350 is not meant to tackle much more than the occasional snowy drive to a condo in the mountains.
We're okay with that, because while the GLK might not keep up with a Jeep Wrangler on the soft stuff, it will be far more pleasant to live with during the work week. Heated leather seats, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, and a superb stereo will make the office commute and jaunts to the mall and supermarket more than bearable. The fully adjustable seats keep your backside happy on long drives, and the COMAND infotainment system is easy to learn and provides quick access to stereo, phone, and navigation. While the COMAND control knob operates much like BMW's iDrive, the system is more user-friendly. Unfortunately, Mercedes has placed the knob at an odd angle behind the gear select lever, requiring an uncomfortable reach. Moving it just an inch farther forward, away from the edge of the armrest, would help immensely.
While the satellite radio and iPod interface will keep you entertained in traffic, the superb drivetrain will put a smile on your face when you finally get out of town. In the hills above Malibu, the 268-horsepower V-6, seven-speed automatic transmission, and 4Matic all-wheel drive system make the GLK350 a surprisingly sporty ride. While the steering is, in typical SUV fashion, rather slow (2.75 turns lock-to-lock,), it's accurate. The big Pirelli meats offer impressive grip, and even when they began to let go, stability and traction control quickly reeled in the errant wheels. At the track, all that grip, plus surprisingly flat cornering, translated to an impressive 0.80 g of lateral acceleration and an equally impressive 28.1-second lap time around the Motor Trend Figure Eight.
The transmission rocks. While the GLK's seven-speed auto allows for manual shifting by rocking the shift lever left to right, driver input really isn't necessary. Switch the vehicle from Comfort Mode to Sport mode and the seven-speed will hold gears longer, allowing quick bursts between turns without ever changing cogs.
On the track, the 3.5-liter V-6 hustled the Benz to 60 mph in just 6.6 seconds. Stops were equally impressive: 60 to 0 mph in just 124 feet. Brake-pedal feel left much to be desired, though. The first half of travel is mushy and provides little stopping power. Then, forces suddenly firm up considerably and the brakes bite hard. The GLK needs a more gradual, linear braking response.
To their credit, the brakes have a tough job. Despite its smallish size, the GLK tips the scales at 4214 pounds. Still, the GLK never feels like a porker. Merging and passing on the freeway are effortless, and the GLK can pull off a 15.0-second quarter-mile at 92.9 mph. The real penalty is fuel economy: The GLK carries an estimated EPA city/highway rating of just 16/22 mpg. And it only drinks premium.
Though it's ten inches shorter than the ML and rides on a 6.2-inch shorter wheelbase, the GLK still offers plenty of cargo space behind the rear seats. It's wide enough to place golf bags sideways in the rear and roomy enough to accommodate lots of large luggage pieces. Surprisingly, up front the GLK is short on storage cubbies and shelves for stashing your cell phone and other small cargo; they're relegated to the center console cup holders, which your passengers may not appreciate.
There's plenty of space everywhere else. At 74.3 inches wide, the GLK delivers lots of elbow and shoulder room. Rear-seat passengers have abundant space to stretch out, even with tall riders up front. The width might make it tough to sneak into tight parking spaces, though.
The GLK350 may have the potential to be a capable off-roader, but it clearly prefers the pavement. On the asphalt, it's sure to please luxury-loving drivers with its compliant ride and tight handling, as well as its spacious interior and high-tech features. Stick to the road, and the GLK provides much to like-including a low $33,900 starting price. It'll be even more likable if gas stays cheap.