Baby G-wagen gets a makeover - and a sweet new diesel
LA CLUSAZ, France - We're 4,000 metres up, in the Rhone district of the French Alps, yet the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc towers over us on the horizon. Thick brown mud coats the chiselled flanks of our cute-ute as we splash through a water hole and clamber up its greasy banks. Scrambling over tumbled logs, we're momentarily on three wheels as the trail tilts crazily to one side, then, nose down, we pick our way through a corrugated gully while rocks ping off the steel skid plate.
It's a long way from Yorkdale.
More often spotted in upscale shopping centres and well-tended suburbs, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK would seem to be as far from its natural habitat as a small premium crossover could possibly be. Yet we're surprised at the obvious ease with which its electronic all-wheel-drive system handles the rather gruelling off-road portion of our test drive.
Kitted-out with all-terrain tires, and a package including hill descent, adapted shift points and throttle mapping, and a 30-mm higher suspension, the GLK was completely in its element.
The bad news? The off-road package with which this particular vehicle was equipped won't be available in Canada.
Pity. Instead, we receive a shopping list of safety technology that includes blind-spot assist, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, active parking assist and adaptive high beams. All of which are better suited to the urban environment the GLK will inevitably end up in anyway.
Mercedes-Benz's smallest SUV is just three years old, but has just received a significant refreshing for 2013. The darling of the premium compact-ute segment when it arrived in 2010, the GLK was quickly joined by the more luxurious and athletic BMW X3, Range Rover Evoque and Audi Q5.
And in a segment now dominated by the stylishly rounded, the GLK is a bit of an anomaly with its retro baby G-Class looks. There's a plus side to its association with the iconic Gelandewagen, though - the angular GLK looks more the part of a serious off-roader than any of its competitors - and as M-B is fond of saying "if there's G on it, there's G in it."
But Mercedes-Benz has an ace up their sleeve that they're betting will cement the GLK's place at the top of Canada's premium compact sport-utility segment - a sweet new four-cylinder turbodiesel engine.
Although the GLK will arrive with the choice of two powerplants - including the GLK 350 with a 3.5L V6 producing 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque - we'd put our money on the GLK 250 BlueTEC diesel with 190 hp and 369 lb-ft.
It may be less powerful than the V6, but we never missed the extra ponies thanks to its abundant torque.
Fresh new interior
Externally, the GLK has been freshened up with a more chiselled, AMG-styled front end that includes the LED running lights and a dash more chrome.
The rather austere interior of the previous model has given way to a more lavishly crafted cabin. Plasticky bits have been replaced with soft-touch materials and stitched leather. There's a new, richer looking dash with upscaled gauges and SLS-style round air vents. The gear shifter, like that in the larger M-Class, moves to the steering column, freeing up space for the centre console.
Infotainment is controlled by the Mercedes COMAND wheel which, in our tester, included an optional 12-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo and a navigation system that took good care of us through tangled village road networks.
Large side glass contributes to the overall airy feel to the cabin, and seats in front and back provide adequate room. While the cargo hold is tiny, the rear seats fold down to raise cargo space from 450L to 1,550L.
We had ample time to experience the new GLK in a variety of settings; from urban traffic in Geneva to the expressways and farm roads that eventually lead to the winding routes through the Alps.
Over patched and pockmarked pavement, we found the GLK's suspension to be firm, but not harsh - the ride is quite comfortable despite its large wheels (19" are standard, with 20" optional). The GLK drives "small," and there's a sure-footedness that inspires confidence thanks to selective damping.
While there's a bit of body roll on the tightly wound mountain roads, the GLK feels controlled and planted, if somewhat less athletic than rival BMW X3. New this year, the electric power steering feels naturally weighted and accurate through the tight turns.
We didn't notice any undue diesel clatter and the ample torque that allowed us to accelerate and pass at low rpms was impressive. Mated to a 7-speed automatic, the diesel's official fuel consumption rating is 6.1L/100km, while we recorded combined readings (including the mountainous inclines) of 7.1L/100km.
There was a shortage of gasoline-powered variants on our drive event and that was fine by us. Aside from the drivetrain, there are no differences between the GLK 350 and the GLK 250.
The GLK has thrown down the gauntlet for its competition; aside from its other upgrades, it's the only one offering a fuel-efficient diesel. Of course, the Audi Q5 Hybrid offers similar fuel consumption figures, but is estimated to sticker in the $50,000 range. While official Canadian prices haven't yet been released, the GLK should retail in the low-to-mid $40,000 range.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK will be available at Canadian dealerships this July, with the GLK 250 BlueTEC to follow by November.