To highlight the “BMW difference,” the marque traveled from dealer to dealer with not only the redesigned X3 but a few competing compact crossovers as well. Among the bunch, one stuck out as not like the others. But it was the Mercedes-Benz GLK350, not the BMW. Different in a good way? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for.
First off, styling. Unlike other compact crossovers, the Mercedes GLK350 makes no attempt to look sleek or even conventionally attractive. Instead, it’s for those who want the chunky look of the classic G-Wagen, without the six-figure price tag or horrendous fuel economy. Sure, there’s an aesthetic similarity to the related C-Class, as this model was introduced only a couple of years ago (as an early 2010), but with an upright, square profile that’s all truck. (Or all late model Subaru Forester, if we’re being less charitable.)
Inside, the GLK350 is similarly much more trucky than competitors. There’s hardly a curve to be seen, and the overall ambiance one of durability and functionality rather than luxury (despite plentiful wood trim). The MB-Tex upholstery should last much longer than leather—while fooling many who don’t suspect vinyl in a $46,000 car. As in other Mercedes, the cruise control lever is easily mistaken for the turn signals.
The GLK’s windshield is upright in the traditional SUV idiom. The instrument panel is tall—all but the tallest drivers will want to raise the seat. The pillars all around are thinner than most these days. The seats are firm. In back, there’s less rear legroom than in the revised X3 despite the GLK’s upright packaging. Shins can uncomfortably contact the lower edge of the front seatback. In terms of cargo space, the GLK joins the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 at the low end of the segment’s range.
Like many other Mercedes, the GLK350’s powertrain is a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 paired with a manually-shiftable seven-speed automatic. The numbers are competitive, but subjectively this powertrain feels somewhat sluggish compared to the Audi, the BMW, and even the Lexus. There’s enough power here to move the GLK350 4Matic’s 4,200 pounds, but the throttle and transmission programming prioritize something other than on-road responsiveness. Unlike in the BMW, rear-wheel-drive is available, but most buyers will no doubt opt for the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, which channels torque to the rear wheels until they slip. Despite the trucky looks, there are no fancy off-road-oriented features, or even a low-range. The GLK should do fine in light off-roading, but so will many more car-like competitors. The larger ML might be a little more capable, but is no longer offered with a low-range in the U.S.—no doubt because there was little demand for the option.
The GLK350 handles with commendable balance—the rear-wheel-drive platform pays some dividends—but leans considerably more than the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 in turns. Change lanes quickly at high speeds, and the tail wags in a way it doesn’t in the others. The Mercedes-Benz’s steering is light, with a little slop on center. Here as well the GLK makes little attempt to pass as a car, much less a driver’s car, despite standard low-profile 235/50R19 tires (even larger 20s are optional). On the other hand, the ride is smoother than in the Audi and BMW. Even so, the GLK doesn’t quite have a premium feel to go with its premium price.
The tested 2011 GLK350, with the Premium and Multimedia Packages and heated seats, lists for $46,045. A similarly-equipped Audi Q5 lists for about $800 more, but according to TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool includes about $2,100 in additional features—including leather upholstery and xenon headlights. The X3 xDrive28i with similar features and the $1,550 Sport Activity Package (to get 18-inch wheels, 19s are only available with the xdrive35i) lists for $1,690 more but includes about $2,400 in additional features. Bottom line: once you adjust for feature differences (or spec the GLK up to the same level as the others) the Mercedes is the most expensive of the three, but not by a large enough margin that many people are going to pick one over the others based on sticker prices.
With the exception of BMW, the Germans (and Swedes, for that matter) arrived very late to the compact SUV party. With the Q5, Audi offers the segment’s most car-like entry, and the redesigned BMW X3 shifts in the same direction. Mercedes-Benz, perhaps consciously opting to take a different tack than everyone else, perhaps simply not paying attention to industry trends, went in the opposite direction. The GLK350 is the segment’s most truck-like entry—even the Land Rover LR2 looks, sits, and drives more like a car. As a result, the GLK is far from the best choice for driving enthusiasts. But few buyers in this segment are driving enthusiasts. In what has recently become a very crowded field, it helps to stand apart from the crowd. The GLK350 achieves this. Want some traditional SUV flavor in your premium compact SUV, but care more about the badge or German engineering than luxurious appointments? Then the GLK350 has that space largely to itself.
BMW provided the vehicle for this review at a ride-and-drive event for BMW owners.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.