Blessed with such high-priced real estate, we decided to take the new GLK on an extended test drive from Boston's crowded streets to New York's tony Upper East Side—with stops along the way in the leafy suburbs of Connecticut. It impressed us with car-like handling, capacious passenger and cargo room, and a classic design inside and out—but its idiosyncratic controls and high-end infotainment system both turned out to be more nuisance than luxury.
Our trip let us put most of Mercedes' high-tech active safety features to the test, thankfully without injuring ourselves or the car. While lane departure warning and blind spot detection proved about as overcautious as a nervous grandmother in the back seat, we were extremely grateful for technology like PRE-SAFE—which toiled behind the scenes to ensure we ended up back home in one piece.
If you're looking for an upscale crossover that doesn't require its own area code but can still deliver outsize luxury, give the GLK350 a test drive.
Prepare to open your wallet
Our car was equipped with COMAND navigation as part of the $2,790 Multimedia Package. We found the navigation interface to be pleasing and entering destinations to be quite painless, especially using voice. But outside of country roads, prompts to change lanes or turn came either too late to safely make the maneuver, or in succession so rapid that we had no hope of remembering what to do.
We also had some issues with the traffic-avoidance system, which repeatedly failed to offer sensible alternatives, and once even planned an eight-hour re-route for us on our way back to Boston from Manhattan that must've utilized every back road from the Poconos to the Berkshires. We don't have a whimsical sense of adventure, so we didn't try it out. We'd recommend you turn off the rerouting option.
Mercedes equips their vehicles with a telematics system known as mBrace2, which includes a full complement of assistance and notification programs. It'll connect you with emergency services after a crash, unlock your doors, find your car if it's lost or stolen and automatically notify the police in the event of an accident. At $280 per year, though, it's a pricey option.
While mBrace2 luckily remained unused during our trial of the GLK, we did try out mBrace Plus—a mobile concierge service that will connect you with a live human being. We were trying to get directions to a nearby commuter rail station, and the person who answered seemed confused and disinterested, asking us whether the car was a rental or lease. When we told him it was a loaner from Mercedes' press fleet, he immediately perked up—but still took over three minutes to find an address that would've taken seconds to uncover using Google. For a grand total of $20 per month in addition to the basic mBrace package cost of $280 per year, our experience was a tremendous disappointment.
There's also the option to add an additional $14 a month, to connect mBrace2 to certain online apps such as Facebook, Google Local Search and Yelp using your phone's data connection. They're a bit sluggish, even on a 3G connection, and that's a lot of money to spend on apps.
If you're not using mBrace2, it's possible to use the car's artificial voice recognition setup, included in the optional Multimedia Package that also includes navigation. It works quite well and offers screen prompts for the most commonly-used commands. For hands-free phone calls, the GLK comes with Bluetooth.
Mercedes-Benz puts all entertainment and navigation systems under the command of a system they appropriately name COMAND, for "COckpit MAnagement and Data system," because you've got a cockpit and not a dashboard. COMAND is controlled by a little jog wheel in the center console, much like BMW's iDrive, that lords over all the items on the screen in the center of the dashboard. As with many European cars, there's no touch screen.
While the jog wheel offers excellent feedback scrolling and clicking from left to right and up and down, it's occasionally so divorced from what's happening on the screen that simple tasks like changing a radio station get confusing—especially with the lack of a split screen. While we got used to it somewhat over the course of a week, we definitely wouldn't recommend a COMAND-equipped Benz to technophobes. With that said, the GLK's optional Harmon-Kardon sound system was impressive. It's possible to get a rear entertainment system, including an iPad dock, but our tester wasn't outfitted with such a luxury.
The 2013 GLK is barely changed from the 2012 model.
In fact, only a new grille, front bumper and boatloads of chrome differentiate the two. In our opinion, the changes help give the car a little pizazz and all that glitz doesn't overpower the clean, angled lines of the squarish crossover.
Mercedes has completely transformed the GLK on the inside. Where the previous generation made do with rectangular vents and angled wood trim, the 2013 is updated with sweeping expanses of wood and airplane-style, chromed, circular air vents that recall the legendary W123 Benzes—those diesel-powered tanks of the '70s and '80s that still soldier on in college towns and old money suburbs. It's an updated version of a design from the era when the three-pointed star was still synonymous with bulletproof reliability and practical luxury, and a clear nod to long-time Benz owners.
The controls layout of nearly every Mercedes is identical, with such trademarks as a steering column featuring more stalks than Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. It’s also idiosyncratic and not at all welcoming to first-time users, as if to rudely challenge drivers who haven’t owned a Benz before.
One of the easiest-driving crossovers we've ever tested.
Had Mercedes merely lifted a C-class a few inches above its wheels and added some weight to the rear with a tailgate and extra glass, the GLK would've been a lumbering, top heavy beast,wallowing through turns. Thankfully, Mercedes engineers put a little more thought into it. It's definitely not as nimble as its sedan stablemate, but it's remarkable how much the GLK handles like a car and unlike a crossover. Steering is quick, yet heavy enough for the driver to be able to gauge accurate feedback. Similarly, the suspension is firm but forgiving, like a father in a 1950s sitcom. It'll let you know about any relevant imperfections in the road surface, but it won't interrupt the driver with needless chatter.
Starting at just over $37,000 but easily creeping towards $60k with all available options, the Mercedes GLK 350 is an exercise in restraint for car buyers. It's a great choice for those who are looking for a luxurious crossover with lots of interior space that'll still be easy to pilot around a city, but get carried away and you can easily end up spending the price of a loaded Chevy Cruze on heated seats, leather and active safety features alone.
Speaking of active safety, don't bother pawning up more money for blind spot assist and lane departure warning. They're too overzealous to be useful in the kind of dense traffic where you actually could use a little bit of help looking out for an opening. Also, mBrace2 is extremely pricey, as is the limited and sluggish selection of apps.
Where the GLK 350 shines is, surprisingly, on the road. For a crossover -- essentially a ginned-up, jacked-up station wagon -- that's no small feat, and it shows that Mercedes has done a great job taming the laws of physics which say that a large, tall moving object shouldn't move that well. Instead, the GLK's steering is precise yet well-weighted, the suspension is communicative but calm, and acceleration is as brisk as the driver requires.
Our week spent with the GLK impressed us -- not because of any new technology, and certainly not because of any outstanding value. In the end, it was good, old-fashioned engineering that won us over.
The options on this car get quite pricey. Some of the key ones include 4Matic, Mercedes all-wheel drive system, which adds only $2,000 to the car's purchase price. The Multimedia Package runs $2,790 and includes navigation and a rear camera. The Premium Package costs $3,450 and adds a panoramic sunroof, power liftgate, rain-sensing wipers, and other features. For active cruise control and active lane-keep assist, you'll pay $2,950 for the Driver Assistance Package, which also requires purchase of the Multimedia Package.
Then, the real nickel and diming starts. The iPod interface adds $310, heated seats cost $750, keyless ignition is $650, leather is $2,100, and various exterior enhancements cost hundreds or thousands each.
The GLK350 we drove was equipped with the $2000 option of 4MATIC, Mercedes' full-time all-wheel drive system that splits power 45/55 between the front and rear wheels. If needed, it'll send even more power to a wheel that's slipping, which can be helpful at low speeds on snowy, icy or wet roads. Even with all the wheels turning, it doesn't matter when you hit a patch of ice and can't stop—so we still recommend proper winter tires if you live in a snow-prone area.
IIHS gave the GLK its top "Good" rating, and named it a Top Safety Pick. NHTSA has not tested it.
Thankfully, we rarely get a chance to test out active safety systems, but we did experience Mercedes’ PRE-SAFE braking system, which senses the GLK’s proximity to vehicles or obstacles ahead and if necessary increases braking power to shorten stopping distance or — if nothing else can be done — reduce the force of impact. It does not automatically stop the car if you’re not paying attention.
We were driving on I-95 in Rhode Island when a state trooper attempted to pull a car over that was driving in the lane next to ours. Instead of slowly pulling over to the shoulder, the pursued car cut us off and slammed on the brakes. We had enough stopping power to react and swerve onto the shoulder with enough reduced speed to avoid a collision.
The EPA rates the GLK350 equipped with all-wheel drive at 19 city/24 highway, and 21 combined. The rear-wheel drive version gets a single mile more per gallon on the highway.
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