Small crossovers are all the rage these days, one of the fastest-growing sales segments in the U.S. market at all price points. From the less-expensive Hyundais and Kias at the bottom end to the high-priced luxury versions like the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK, Americans seemingly can't get enough of them.
We reviewed the newly restyled 2013 GLK350 last summer, and found it a bit compromised in V-6 form, with a smallish interior, fussy audio and navigation system, and styling that's aimed at a male demographic (making the vehicle's public debut as Samatha's ride in the "Sex and the City" movie somewhat odd).
But now Mercedes-Benz is introducing the second powertrain for the GLK, with the arrival of the GLK250 Bluetec diesel, making the GLK the most fuel-efficient luxury crossover in the country. That suddenly makes the little trucklet a bit more interesting. Outside, the diesel model is indistinguishable from the gasoline model. The same aggressive, angular styling sweeps around an upright cabin. I found the styling to be attractive, an interesting mix of cues from the much larger GL-Class in its body lines and front and rear light treatment, and the iconic military-derived G-Class in its upright windshield and seating position. It looks more trucklike than some competitor models like the Audi Q5, something I don't see as negative at all but might be off-putting to others.
Underway, the 200-horsepower, 2.2-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine (it's actually 2.145 liters, so some literature calls it a 2.1-liter) is quiet, smooth and provides plenty of torque. More than plenty actually, with an eye-popping 369 pounds-feet on hand at a low 1,600 rpm, which is good enough to scoot the GLK250 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds. Frankly, looking at the numbers on paper, one expects it to be quicker - until you notice that the GLK weighs more than 4,000 pounds (in V-6 guise anyway; the GLK250 diesel's numbers are not yet published), a hefty number for a small crossover.
That number is midpack, however, with the Audi Q5 Hybrid tipping the scales at 400 pounds more, while the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque comes in nearly 400 pounds lighter. The GLK never feels underpowered, however, with the standard seven-speed automatic transmission handling motivation admirably, and it even becomes entertaining when switched to "sport" mode. Paddle shifters are present behind the steering wheel should you be one of the rare people who want to shift an automatic transmission. Even rarer for compact crossover owners, one would think.
The sophistication of the GLK's ride and handling are impressive. The GLK handled southeast Michigan's moonscape roads with amazing smoothness, damping out the majority of the cratered surfaces even at higher speeds. This becomes even more impressive given the GLK's relatively short wheelbase and 19-inch wheels with low-profile tires. Handling is tight and firm, athletic even, requiring more effort than many luxury crossovers but rewarding with superior feel and control. Ripping down the back roads with the GLK250 is actually a lot of fun.
But the inclusion of the diesel engine is not supposed to be about fun, it's supposed to be about frugality and fuel economy, and the GLK250 shines in this department. The engine is rated at 24/33/28 mpg city/highway/combined - better numbers than any other small crossover on the market, including the previous mileage champion Audi Q5 Hybrid, with its 24/30/26 figure. The Benz does require a tankful of "AdBlue" urea additive for emissions purposes, but this is not uncommon with modern diesels, and usually only requires filling at oil change intervals.
Compare the Audi Q5 Hybrid, BMW X3, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque and Acura RDX here. The cabin is a great place to spend time. As we've noted before, the interior update for 2013 is classy and elegant. My test car had the real leather interior option, not Mercedes-Benz' simulated "MB-Tex" material, and it looked, felt and smelled quite good. Even the carpets and mats are thickly woven pile; it's a dramatic improvement from the last generation's rather drab, uninspiring cockpit.
Rear seats are a bit snug, as is the cargo area, but the seats do fold flat to create a decent-sized space. Previous reviews calling out the Comand infotainment system as fussy and difficult to use are still relevant; it should not take as many actions as it does to change presets, switch between media, operate the navigation system, etc. That said, the optional Harman Kardon premium sound system is outstanding, with a clarity and punch worth every penny. Which brings us to the topic of the pennies, and how many you'll need to get into a GLK250.
As with nearly all Mercedes-Benz products, the prices start at competitive, reasonable places but then get crazy as you tick off selections on the option sheet. The GLK250 starts at a respectable $39,495 including $905 destination fee, and includes 4Matic all-wheel drive. This brings the GLK250 in well below the starting price of competitors like the Audi Q5 Hybrid, which starts at $51,795, including $895 destination fee. However, start adding things like the premium sound system ($810); Parktronic advanced parking assist ($970); a Premium Package with a panoramic sunroof, auto-dimming mirrors, power liftgate and satellite radio ($3,450); the full leather seating package ($2,100); Comand navigation with rear view camera and voice control ($2,790); a Driver Assistance Package with all kinds of electronic driving aids ($2,950) and more, and you'll quickly arrive at my test vehicle's eye-popping price of $57,635. That's easily the price of a decently optioned ML350 4Matic, a much larger SUV. Mercedes-Benz says that the actual average transaction price for the GLK is about $45,000, so it would seem that not many people are ponying up for the fully loaded versions.
Even at lower prices, however, the GLK250 Bluetec is an enjoyable crossover. It's well built, attractive, fun to drive and now the most fuel-efficient model in the segment with a reasonable sticker price, if one avoids going too option-crazy.