Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Updated Mercedes-Benz GLK350 is greatly improved.

Updated Mercedes-Benz GLK350 is greatly improved.

Dan Carney

The Mercedes-Benz GLK350 comes with nine air bags: front air bags, front side-impact air bags, front pelvic air bags, a driver's knee air bag and window curtain air bags.

By Dan Carney, contributor
Compact SUVs are selling like the latest fashions, not only for buyers of mainstream brands such as Honda and Ford, but also premium brands that include Audi and Land Rover. Mercedes-Benz wants a bigger share of that growing market, so the company has greatly improved the GLK350, its contender among compact SUV models since its debut in 2010.

The original iteration of the GLK seemed to be the product of too much corner-cutting, turning off prospective buyers with a decidedly subpremium interior and a lack of exterior detailing. Worse, Mercedes’ signature array of safety gadgets was absent, and the vehicle was powered by an old-tech 90-degree V-6.

Thankfully (with maybe a nudge from tepid sales), the company realized that Mercedes buyers really believe the company’s “The best or nothing” slogan.

So the company has whipped up as thorough a refreshing of the model as you’re likely to find in a vehicle getting an upgrade only three years after its introduction. There is plenty in the upgraded model to excite would-be SUV buyers.

The biggest change is in the cabin, where the obviously budget-minded decor has been replaced by the kind of genuine luxury we've come to expect from cars sporting the three-pointed star. In place of the drab gray plastic found in earlier iterations of the model, there is now burled walnut or black ash accenting the dashboard and door panels. And the brushed aluminum highlights convey a high-tech feel.

Perforated “MB-Tex” vinyl is the standard upholstery, in a nod to the continuing price sensitivity of entry-level luxury buyers. It's also noteworthy that today’s perforated vinyl seats aren’t the thigh-searing nightmare you might recall from the back seat of Dad’s Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser.

Of course, most Mercedes customers will likely upgrade to leather rather than “synthetic leather.” Their reward will be the ambient cabin lighting, which is bundled with the cowhide. The magnitude of the GLK’s interior upgrade is the most dramatic I’ve seen since the 2011 Dodge Journey.

Outside, the change is more subtle, but tweaks to the front and rear fascias and lights convey a more expensive look, with better detailing to the bumpers and lighting in keeping with similar models offered by other manufacturers in this market segment.

Changes found beneath the exterior are also impressive. A 302-horsepower, direct-injected 60-degree V-6 now purrs under the hood, using gas 15 percent more efficiently than the old engine. There are no EPA numbers available yet, but based on the earlier model's 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway rating, look for the new model to rate about 19/25. During mostly mountainous highway driving, I saw 23 mpg for the all-wheel-drive version and 25 mpg for the rear-drive model.

The 60-degree design is inherently better-balanced than the former 90-degree engine (which was just a V-8 with two cylinders lopped off), so there are no fuel-wasting balance shafts needed now. The direct fuel injection squirts fuel with precision directly into the combustion chamber to better control combustion. It also allows a higher compression ratio for more power.

Early next year, Mercedes will offer a fuel-saving 190-horsepower, 2.1-liter four-cylinder diesel with twin turbochargers in the GLK250 BlueTec model. The growing number of modern, efficient clean diesels remain outside the mainstream, but this niche is growing as more drivers discover the fun of driving high-torque turbodiesels.

The seven-speed automatic transmission is programmed in such a way that it seems less prone to downshifting one gear too many when accelerating than many automatics.

Electric power steering replaces the old hydraulic power steering, which also boosts fuel savings. This “improvement” is often a cause for distress because many electric power steering systems are poorly developed and lack the feel and feedback provided by good hydraulic systems. But the GLK’s electric system combines with the leather-wrapped steering wheel to give the driver a good feel for the car’s handling on the road. It even avoids the pitfall of excessively boosted assist at parking-lot speeds.

The engineers have outfitted the GLK with all the safety doodads that were missing before. The new GLK includes blind-spot warning and lane-keeping assistance in addition to its automatic braking system.

The Pre-Safe Brake system uses radar for the automatic cruise control to detect objects in the road. If the driver doesn’t react to a possible collision, Pre-Safe issues an alarm and applies up to 40 percent of available braking power to automatically slow the car. If the driver still doesn’t respond, when the car is 0.6 seconds from impact, the system fully applies the brakes to reduce the severity of the impact.

The engineers might have gotten a little carried away with other widgets, such as the stalk-mounted shifter, which requires the driver to press inward on the end of the stalk to put the car in park. And to select reverse from park, you click the stalk upward, rather than downward, as you would with a conventional column-mounted shifter, which seems likely to cause confusion.

There was a time when Ford thought we should all press on the end of the turn signal stalk to blow the car’s horn. They eventually stopped swimming against the tide and returned the horn to the steering wheel, and hopefully alternative shifter schemes will also fade away as the novelty of electronic shifting wears off.

The navigation/infotainment display in the center of the dashboard is eye-catching. Unfortunately, Mercedes’ interface continues to be challenging to navigate. With practice it works, but it is never obvious, simple or intuitive to use. Most drivers will cope with this flaw by rarely using many of its capabilities.

In more mundane areas, the GLK is solid, with typical rear-seat and cargo space. The back seat is a bit flat, but the thigh support — an area automakers skimp on to pump up legroom measurements — is quite good for a vehicle in this category. Back seat overhead grab handles are always appreciated, so it is nice to see them here.

The upgraded 2013 Mercedes GLK350 marries nimble German driving dynamics with the premium interior ambiance shoppers expect when they open the door on a Mercedes-Benz. Keep the option list short so the price is in the low $40,000s rather than the low $50,000s, and the GLK350 is a great compact luxury value.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK350

Base price: $39,965 (including $875 delivery charge)

As tested: $54,025

EPA Fuel Economy: Estimated 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway

Pros: Gorgeous new interior, standard safety equipment, new engine

Cons: Still-awkward proportions, oddball shifter, price gets very high with options

Verdict: This hugely improved premium crossover SUV should pull in those customers who were escaping to other brands.

Standard equipment: 302-hp, 3.5-liter V6, seven-speed automatic transmission, 8-way power front seats, express up and down power windows, 6-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system

Major options: Leather seating, ambient lighting, GPS navigation, panoramic sunroof, satellite radio, bi-xenon headlights, AMG styling package, parking assist, keyless start

Safety equipment: electronic stability control, traction control, brake assist, trailer stability assist, tire pressure monitoring, dual-stage front airbags, front-seat side airbags, side air curtains, driver knee airbag, drowsy driver alert system

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