Raise your hand if the outgoing Mercedes-Benz GLK wasn’t really your cup of tea, so to speak. Sure, the vehicle’s sneak preview in 2008’s “Sex and the City” movie didn’t do it any favors image-wise, but the styling always looked a little frumpy, the rear seat was cramped, and there was no doubting that the GLK was merely a glitzy cute-ute option in a lineup with far superior vehicles.
But all that’s changed with the new GLK, renamed GLC in keeping with its C-Class bones. From ugly duckling to gorgeous swan, Mercedes’ compact sport-ute has completed its metamorphosis into a smart-looking, roomy, and sporty vehicle that also has some fairly serious off-road chops for its segment. The restyled front end carries over a little GLK with a long, low hood, but that’s where most of the similarities with the old SUV end. The front fascia now resembles the rest of Mercedes’ current model line, with a large, upright grille and aggressively shaped headlights and lower air dam. Moving rearward, the bodywork is more C-Class sedan than baby G-Class, ditching the utilitarian look for lines that would be at home in the valet lot of some of L.A.’s better restaurants. At the rear, the flared fenders and sharp taillights borrow cues from Audi or even Porsche. Spot a GLC’s rear end from a distance and you might not think it’s a Mercedes at all until you get closer.
The GLC is larger than the GLK in just about every way. It’s 2 inches wider, nearly 5 inches longer and incrementally taller. The chassis is based heavily on the C-Class but stretched for this application, giving it a nearly 5-inch-longer wheelbase than the GLK, which translates to more cabin space, especially for rear occupants. My 5-foot-11 frame fits fine in the rear seat with headroom to spare, and a 6-foot-2 colleague was able to get moderately comfortable behind a driver’s seat he had previously adjusted for his own driving position. Rear legroom is up more than 2 inches from the GLK and shoulder room 1 inch -- an adequate trade-off for the small quarter-inch loss in headroom. Getting into the rear seat is also easier, with larger door apertures than before. By European measurements, cargo space is also up the equivalent of more than a cubic foot.
The cabin is also a more stylish place to be than before. It’s rife with C-Class inspiration, from the single-piece, arching center stack topped by three metal-finish vents to the 7-inch display that juts prominently from the front of the upright dashboard. The GLC also gets the now-familiar touchpad in the palm rest aft of the center console’s rotary control dial, which allows navigation of the display with finger swipes similar to a smart device. The touchpad also attempts to recognize handwriting motions fairly reliably.
Despite larger dimensions and added features, Mercedes claims that the GLC is more than 170 pounds lighter than the GLK, 110 pounds of that reduction coming from the body and chassis. As is the trend, increased use of higher-strength steel allows thinner gauges to be employed, saving weight in the process. Aluminum is also used to cut the fat, especially in suspension components to keep unsprung weight low.
When the GLC300 joins its big-brother GLE in the U.S. this November, it will offer a turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4 making around 241 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, as the same engine does in the current U.S.-market C300 sedan. It will be paired to Mercedes’ nine-speed automatic, a Euro-market transmission that sees its first U.S. use in the GLC. (It will roll out to other models over the next year.) Those hoping for a diesel option won’t be disappointed, as the GLC300d should arrive in the U.S. roughly a year later, bringing the same 2.1-liter turbocharged BlueTEC diesel found in the current E-Class sedan, where it makes 195 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. This engine will also be paired with the nine-speed auto, and both gasoline and diesel models will be sold with either rear- or all-wheel drive. Those willing to wait yet another year should be treated to the GLC350e, a plug-in hybrid with a turbocharged inline-four and a 85-kW electric motor, making it the quickest GLC offering until Mercedes makes an AMG model official to do battle with Porsche’s Macan, which is basically a foregone conclusion.
Recently, I was able to drive preproduction European versions of each of these vehicles, though many had subtle changes from their U.S. market counterparts. For example, the GLC250 4Matic I drove makes just 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, down significantly from the projected output for U.S. models. Despite the 33-hp and 15-lb-ft disadvantage, the GLC250 is able to get up to freeway speed adequately, if not impressively. The engine is both smooth and quiet, as we’ve come to expect of the same basic unit in the C-Class, and it seems well-paired to the nine-speed automatic, with smooth shifts and no irritating gear-hunting unlike some other nine-speeds on the market. Still, I’ll appreciate the extra grunt of the U.S.-spec engine. I was only given vehicles with the optional air suspension to drive (steel springs are standard on all models), and the system works wonderfully. In the Comfort setting, the ride is plush but reasonably well-controlled, while the Sport and Sport + settings ramp up the spring rate accordingly, along with dropping ride height about half an inch. Sport is probably as far as you’d want to go given most of today’s imperfect roads.
A ride-along on a makeshift off-road course was also eye-opening. The GLC250 I rode in had the Off Road Package, with the key feature being specific software mapping that tells the differential, traction control, and powertrain how to behave across five user-selectable settings – from sand to snow. The package also includes underbody shielding, which is also Euro-only, and a front bumper that allows larger approach/departure angles, the latter thankfully standard equipment in the U.S. The GLC displayed impressive ability, at one point climbing a hard-packed 33-degree grade (and descending at a similar angle) and showing impressive articulation while scrambling through a section of staggered, deep ruts in the road. A self-rocking feature also helps extricate the GLC from tight spots. Technically, the U.S.-market car should have the same off-road ability as the Euro-spec version (minus the undercarriage protection) but might require a little more driver skill to realize.
The GLC250d was up next, and while the European-spec diesel motor was noticeably torquier than the gasoline version, an impromptu autobahn roll-on drag race from about 80 kph to 150 kph revealed that any acceleration difference at highway speeds is negligible. In fact, Mercedes specs show acceleration for the gasoline version to be 0.3 second quicker to 62 mph -- again, not enough difference to be significant. The diesel engine has a bit of clatter to it at idle from outside the vehicle, but inside the cabin that noise is largely hushed -- a testament to the GLC’s sound isolation. Driven similarly over the same-length mixed city/highway route, the diesel had consumed about a quarter of its 13-gallon fuel supply, while the gasoline version had slurped down nearly half of its same-sized tank.
I also took a very brief ride in the GLC350e, which immediately showed itself to be the quickest of the trio. With combined electric/combustion output of 315 hp and 413 lb-ft, that’s no surprise (though it weighs slightly more due to the electric motor and battery pack). Electric mode range is estimated at 34 km (about 21 miles), though with some hills to contend with and a little aggressive driving, we saw that range drop to less than half within four miles or so. Mercedes mounts its electric motor to the seven-speed automatic’s input shaft in the transmission bellhousing, allowing for a single wet clutch to couple the engine and no need for a second clutch to decouple the electric motor. When the GLC350e is driven under engine power alone, the electric motor is switched into a free-running mode, eliminating drag. As with most modern plug-in hybrids, there are modes available specifically to maximize battery charging and to provide maximum combined power. I’ll wait to drive a U.S.-spec model for longer distances before making a final call on this variant.
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