Thereís nothing like getting a jump on the opposition. More and more, carmakers are introducing new models well ahead of their on-sale date, and Mercedes is no exception, taking the wraps off its newest compact SUV, the 2010 GLK 350, at least a year ahead of everyone else.
With younger buyers in mind, the GLK 350 is aimed at an entirely different customer base, according to Miki Velemirovich, manager of product development for Mercedes-Benz Canada. "We are targeting young professionals, who are brand conscious and have an active lifestyle," he said at the launch in Victoria. "There is also a high proportion of female drivers in this group." Just to - er - drive home the point and demonstrate the value of product placement, the GLK 350 is the ride of choice for Carrie Bradshaw and the girls in the recent Sex And The City movie. According to Mercedesí itís a "must-have accessory" for hip New York gals (who have healthy bank accounts).
With Mercedesí 4Matic full-time four-wheel-drive as standard equipment, the GLK 350 is powered by a 3.5 litre V6 engine that develops some 268 horsepower. Thatís about par for a V6 engine of this displacement and this powerplant is used elsewhere in Mercedesí line-up....the M-class SUV and E-class sedan, for example. It is the only choice and is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature. Again, no other choices here. Not an overwhelming drivetrain, this combination is well-matched to this size of SUV and returns decent - but not exceptional - fuel economy: 13.3 litres per 100 kilometres in town, and 9.6 on the highway.
And a word about the 4WD system. In a nutshell, itís Mercedesí take on the tried and true "slip and grip" set-up. On-board monitors sense wheel slippage and/or loss of traction, and simultaneously reduce power to the wheel(s) in question, while re-directing torque to another corner where the power will do the most good. This is the fourth generation of Mercedesí 4Matic system and it used throughout the model range. Despite the fact that very few buyers will actually test this system to its limit, itís one of the more usable 4WD systems on the market. Carrie, Samantha and the girls arenít likely to take the GLK 350 bog-wallowing, but it can hold its own when things get slippery. During the launch, Mercedes actually rented a motorcycle motocross track for us to use to put the GLK through its paces and despite 60 centimetre-deep standing water, gnarly moguls, and mud with consistency of Jello, it acquitted itself well.
But this is primarily a compact luxury SUV, with modcons galore, and an extensive list of standard equipment. Heated front seats, power tilt/telescoping steering, cruise control, climate control system, and Bluetooth connectivity are all included in the just under $42,000 MSRP, and you can order things like a rear view camera ($450), media interface with iPod, USB, and auxiliary connections ($375), back seat DVD entertainment system ($2400) and a navigation system ($1800). Interestingly, you can choose between genuine leather upholstery, or a "man-made" faux leather fabric called Artico. And it was good to see that Mercedes has decided to go with a conventional floor shift, as opposed to the rather silly push-button column shifter in use on some of its other models.
Despite a comparatively choppy ride, the GLK 350 is a pleasure to drive. You can choose between 19-inch or 20-inch wheels and tires, and it comes with Mercedesí new Agility Control suspension set-up. Briefly, this automatically adjusts the suspension to suit driving conditions. For around-town cruising and off-road situations, it eases up on the damping and gives a less harsh ride with more suspension travel than during high-speed conditions, when the system tightens itself up to cope with cornering and abrupt turning maneuvers. All things considered and given the buyers itís aimed at, chances are pretty good itíll remain in "soft" mode for much of the time.
Other features that come with the GLK 350 include split folding rear seats, revealing 1549 litres of storage space with all the seats folded flat, a full complement of safety equipment, including four-wheel disc anti-locking brakes, front side, and side curtain airbags, and a unique emergency braking system that will automatically increase brake pressure during a panic stop to, hopefully, shorten the braking distance and avoid hitting things that arenít supposed to be there. Mercedesí prides itself on its safety record, and itís no exaggeration to say that the new GLK 350 will probably be one of the safest vehicle in this category, when it hits the market this January.
There may also be a diesel engine in its future, although not anytime soon, according to Miki Velemirovich. Mercedesí Bluetec unit is "in development" at this time for the GLK 350, and he claims that his company is "pushing like mad" for more diesel engine availability in North America.
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