The seemingly inevitable and inexorable increase in the size of a vehicle and its price tag from generation to generation has lead to the paradoxical requirement to occasionally slip something smaller and less expensive in underneath to serve the market the original vehicle has outgrown.
One of the latest examples of this phenomenon is the 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK-class luxury SUV introduced earlier this year.
M-B belatedly got into the SUV game with the 1998 M-Class, a mid-sized model with 4,587 mm between its bumpers. But with the redesigned second generation of 2006, it had grown to 4,780 mm and been joined by the even larger, at 5,088 mm, GL-Class and the 5,173-mm R-Class.
But while all this up-sizing was going on, demand was emerging for somewhat smaller, but still luxurious, vehicles, which has been met by such offerings as BMW's X3, Acura's RDX, Audi's Q5, Land Rover's LR2 and now the Mercedes-Benz GLK350 4MATIC.
This new "baby" Merc, like the other vehicles in this group, isn't actually all that small. In fact, it's only 62 mm shorter than the first-generation ML350 and still weighs in at a solidly Mercedes-like 1,830 kg, or just over two old-school tons.
Mercedes-Benz Canada is pitching it as a mid-sizer, incidentally, definitely not a compact-class vehicle, although it employs some of the underpinnings of the C-class sedan range and is only seven millimetres longer than a Honda CR-V. It's also sticking with the term SUV and not being reserved about its off-road capabilities, when referring to it, rather than that meaningless word "crossover."
Perhaps more important than quibbles over its size or descriptive terminology, however, is its price. At $41,800, it is decidedly down-sized compared to the almost $60,000 now being commanded by an ML320 (which sold for about $46,000 in 1998). The GLK-class basically gives entry-level luxury SUV shoppers the opportunity to meet their needs for this type of vehicle with a Mercedes-Benz again.
And a rather nice one it is. One being the operative word, incidentally, as the GLK350 4MATIC is the only model currently offered.
However you describe it, its more restrained dimensions are wrapped in bodywork that's unmistakably Mercedes - and attractive in an edgy/techy/aero-chunky sort of way.
And it will suit most needs with seating for five and the ability to carry a load of 1,549 litres, which is near enough identical to BMW's X3, about 170 litres down on Acura's RDX and 25-per-cent less than the current ML350's 2,050 litres.
The GLK makes you aware of that typical Mercedes-Benz no-nonsense character as soon as you step up into its driver's seat.
You can almost feel the presence of the ergonomics practitioners who "styled" it and the engineering and electronics types who created the hidden systems their knobs and switches control.
There's little that's soft looking (although the door caps are covered in an elbow-friendly material) or frivolous in this all-black, leather-clad, angular, brushed aluminum-trimmed and rather masculine interior. In fact, it's almost a little too stark.
The power-adjustable driver's seat is nicely shaped though and firmly upholstered to locate you comfortably in a proper driving position behind the thick-rimmed leather-wrapped wheel (with integrated multi-function switches).
It frames three round dials - the speedo in the centre contains Mercedes' neat info centre that updates itself when you restart the car - set in a silver panel.
Audio (MP3/CD) and climate controls are located in rather-uninspired black plastic-framed panels on the centre stack with the navi screen above.
Rear-seat room isn't particularly generous.
Base equipment includes the usual power features plus automatic climate control, Bluetooth integration, cruise control, split folding rear seats, front, side and window curtain airbags, heated seats, tilt/telescoping wheel, power folding mirrors and leather upholstery.
The tester came with a navigation system, plus a premium package that added Parktronic parking assist, panoramic sunroof, compass, power tilt/telescope wheel, memory seats and a power rear hatch (a luxury you quickly come to appreciate). A sport package upped the wheel size from 19-inches to 20-inches and added racy aluminum roof rails. All this increased the price to $47,900.
The GLK's engine is a 3.5-litre, twin-cam V-6 which makes 268 hp at 6,000 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is available from 2,400 to 5,000 rpm. With a seven-speed automatic to make the most of this, it gets to 100 km/h in under seven seconds, which is pretty lively for something this heavy.
M-B's 4MATIC full-time all-wheel-drive system distributes torque to the wheels with the aid of electronic stability and traction control systems.
Fuel economy ratings aren't bad, at 13.3 L/100 km city and 9.6 highway, but premium gas is required. The test vehicle's readout was showing an average of 12.3 L/100 km after my time with it. Tow rating is 1,587 kg.
The GLK's strut-type front and multi-link rear suspension are essentially C-Class with Mercedes' integrated Agility Control damping (that adjusts to driving conditions) and steering systems.
Response to steering inputs is prompt for a vehicle of this type and it corners with well-controlled body lean. Ride is never harsh, but the spring rates required to generate the GLK's level of handling mean you do get muscled about a bit. Brake pedal feel is also good and the brakes (four discs with ABS and Brake Assist) reassuringly powerful.
If we'd all been taking all this save-the-planet stuff seriously, the GLK is what the now larger M-Class would have perhaps evolved into - a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle that still offers plenty of utility along with Mercedes style and performance.
2010 MERCEDES-BENZ GLK350 4MATIC
Type: Luxury mid-size SUV
Base Price: $41,800; as tested, $47,900
Engine: 3.5-litre, DOHC, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 268 hp/ 258 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.3 city/9.6 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW X3, Acura RDX/MDX, Lexus RX, Subaru Tribeca, Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, Lincoln MKX, Nissan Murano, Infiniti EX, Land Rover LR2, Saab 9-7X, Volkswagen Touareg, Lexus RX350
- Exterior styling looks great, particularly the grille treatment
- It delivers a very good (for an SUV) driving experience with plenty of power and decent handling
- The interior is a little more austere than it needs to be
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