Mercedes-Benz offers a suite of vehicles that are comfortable, capable, refined ... and fussy, and the 2013 GLK-Class is no exception.
Annoyances like complicated multimedia controls, a smaller-than-average cargo area and a clumsy automatic stop/start system undermine the otherwise appealing 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 SUV.
A 2013 update brings a little more horsepower, additional safety systems, a revised interior and a lightly refreshed exterior. Early in 2013, a diesel model will join the V-6-powered GLK350 4MATIC we review here.
What would "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw drive? According to Mercedes-Benz, the answer is a GLK. In 2009, the SUV debuted in the eponymous movie, notifying all urban fashionistas that the compact SUV was the hottest new accessory out there. Or is it?
The GLK's styling is too severe and rugged, trading the curves of compact luxury crossovers like the X3, Q5 and SRX for severe angles and blocky lines. Its tall outline, sculpted sides and creased profile look very masculine and would be better worn by Jeep. To wit, my husband loved its "manly look." At the other end of the spectrum is Land Rover's Range Rover Evoque; its svelte silhouette and sexy curves would be this girl's ultimate accessory.
More exterior chrome trim for 2013 accents new LED head- and taillight treatments, increasing the glam factor, but all the bling in the world won't blunt the GLK's rough-looking mug. Inside, however, it's all about coddling.
A cabin that 'Comands' attention
As expected in this segment, the interior is nothing less than luxurious. Like the exterior, it's not understated, but it never crosses the line into gaudy. High-gloss burl walnut wood trim is plentiful and lovely; it starts on the dash and carries through the back. Although the seats are a leather substitute that Mercedes calls MB-Tex, it's convincing and feels high-quality. The real-leather seating package is a $2,100 option and is standard on some competitors, like the Q5. Huge, chrome-ringed vents set a retro tone and complement the tastefully styled cabin.
The comfortable power front seats can have lumbar support (part of a pricey option package), and the seat bottom cushion is long, providing plenty of thigh support. One of my favorite convenience features is also among the simplest: dual extendable sun visors.
Unfortunately, the annoyances started canceling out the interior's niceties as soon as the key was turned. (Yes, I actually had to turn a key to start it; keyless access and engine start is a $650 option.)
Multimedia systems in luxury vehicles are typically complicated, and our editors argue over which is the least troublesome, but I find Mercedes' Comand to be fussy and almost comically complicated. Too many steps are required to achieve one function. Accessing radio presets, for example, requires drilling down into different menus using the control knob. The knob is in a handy location near the center console, but a touch-screen would be so much easier.
Operating the available navigation system is equally frustrating. You're required to dial through the alphabet to pick off each number and letter of an address. In the end, I opted for the fast and sane choice: the navigation app on my smartphone.
The system's fussiness reared its head again and again. The backup camera goes off and the Bluetooth phone connection is severed when you turn the radio off. (In order to keep using them in silence, you'll have to mute the radio.) Drivers will eventually get accustomed to Comand and its quirks, but they'd be better served by the relatively intuitive touch-screen systems in the Evoque or Infiniti's EX35.
The things we carry
The optional panoramic moonroof lends an expansive feel, but in reality the quarters are pretty tight. At 5-foot-5, I had enough space in the front, but competitors offer more. Nothing in this class will feel downright roomy, but with 40.7 inches of front headroom, the X3 has the GLK (39.8 inches), Q5 (39.4) and SRX (39.7) beat. Models with sunroofs typically lose roughly an extra inch of headroom. For front legroom, though, the GLK ekes out about a half-inch more than its competitors. It trades that for backseat space, however: With just 35.1 inches of rear legroom, most passengers will feel pinched. The crown here goes to the Q5, with 37.4 inches of rear legroom. The GLK's backseat also doesn't slide or recline, a perk.
Cargo space is at a premium, too. The GLK has only 23.3 cubic feet behind its backseat, a few inches shy of the Q5, X3 and SRX. The backrests fold down, but the seats are bulky and the action is awkward. Seats down, there's 54.7 cubic feet of space, which is also puny compared with the X3's 63.3 and the SRX's 61.1 cubic feet.
On the positive side, a low cargo floor eases loading, and there's a bit of underfloor storage. For bulky items, you'll have to remove the cargo cover, another awkward maneuver.
Small-item storage in the cabin is meager, highlighted by a tiny center-console box and a small bin under the instrument panel. For 2013, the shifter was relocated to a steering-wheel stalk, opening up space for a small bin under the instrument panel.
Backseat passengers can flip down the center armrest to access another tiny storage bin and pop-down, flimsy-feeling cupholders. Unfolding them is another multistep procedure.
To Eco or not to Eco?
Initially, how the GLK drives depends a lot on one little button: The new-for-2013 Eco automatic stop/start system. When the feature is engaged, the engine shuts off while stopped at traffic signals and automatically restarts when your foot leaves the brake pedal. It's jarring, both in sound and feel. The transition could be smoother, as it is in many hybrids and some of Mercedes' V-8-powered models.
There's also a slight lag in accelerator response while the engine restarts. Thankfully, you can turn off the feature using a clearly labeled button. I left it on roughly half the time.
My observed fuel economy was impressive: 23 mpg over 230 miles of mostly highway driving, in line with the EPA-estimated 19/25 mpg city/highway rating.
The 302-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 builds ample power quickly. The gas pedal is a bit touchy upon takeoff, however, giving acceleration a nonlinear feeling.
The seven-speed automatic is alert -- bordering on hyperactive -- but the shifts could be smoother. Mercedes says the transmission adapts to individual driving styles and adjusts shift points accordingly; I don't think we had enough time to truly get acquainted.
The GLK's electric power steering also takes some acclimation. It's firm and heavy-feeling at lower speeds and felt very light at higher speeds, to the point where it needed near-constant adjustment.
On the road, the GLK exhibits a high level of composure; only large bumps unhinge it. It rides comfortably, if a touch firmly, and feels much more compliant than the X3.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the GLK350 received the highest score, Good, across all tests, earning it Top Safety Pick status. The GLK250 diesel hasn't been tested. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hadn't tested the GLK as of this writing.
The GLK comes standard with a full complement of airbags, including a driver's knee airbag and side-curtain airbags alongside the front and rear seats.
Optional safety features include lane departure warning, forward collision warning, blind spot warning and Active Blind Spot Assist. The latter automatically intervenes to correct the car's course if the driver doesn't heed the initial blind spot warning and continues to change lanes. (The forward-collision feature doesn't apply braking as some Mercedes models do.) A drowsiness detection system is newly standard.
The blind spot system worked well but is quirky. Below 20 mph, yellow triangles are constantly illuminated in the side mirrors. Above 20 mph, the triangles disappear, replaced by red ones when your blind spot is occupied. With the lane-keeping system, if you change lanes without signaling or wander into another lane, the steering wheel vibrates -- an effective warning.
Visibility to the rear and in the corners is decent thanks to a tall ride height, small backseat head restraints and a large rear window. Exposed Latch anchors ease child-safety seat installation; visit Cars.com for the full car seat check.
Features and price
Two-wheel-drive versions of the GLK350 start at $37,995 (all prices cited include destination charges). All-wheel drive adds $2,000. Niceties like the Premium Package (which includes the panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, driver's seat memory and satellite radio), a multimedia package (backup camera and Comand), heated seats and the Lane Tracking Package (including blind spot and lane keeping assist) brought our car's as-tested total to $47,835.
The GLK may have an appealing base price, but many of the features that are standard on competing all-wheel-drive models are optional here: Heated seats, standard on V-6 versions of the Q5 ($43,875), are a $750 option on the GLK. Similarly, MP3-player capability is standard on the SRX ($43,885) but is a $310 option on the GLK.
Mercedes-Benz GLK in the market
It might seem crazy to shell out for a small vehicle that could easily cost $50,000. Apparently, though, if you build them, people will come. During the first six months of 2012, sales of the GLK and its rivals are up and the class is expanding, with the recent addition of the Range Rover Evoque.
Buyers shopping this segment expect a just-right blend of luxury, comfort and technology. Choose your options carefully, and the Mercedes-Benz GLK delivers -- if you can overlook its quirks.