If you look at the players in the premium compact SUV segment, the BMW X3 and the Land Rover Freelander and the Lexus RX were actually the first ones on the scene. But when the Mercedes Benz GLK was introduced early in 2009, other premium marques such as Volvo (with its XC60) and Audi (with its Q5) soon joined suit.
The BMW and Land Rover representatives were (arguably) deemed as too ahead of its time, while the arrival of the GLK came at a time when full size luxury SUVs were deemed as too costly to own (or too bulky to tool around town) and the newly moneyed - or the long-time constantly moneyed - were looking for an alternative utility machine to replace cumbersome full-size sport-utes or multi-purpose vehicles. In fact, its launch could be seen as the trigger for the other manufacturers to join the segment. Just what is it that makes the Mercedes Benz entry into the aforementioned segment - specifically, a Mercedes Benz GLK 280 4MATIC Edition 1 - hailed as a floodgate opener is the basis for this test drive.
Despite platform sharing with the current C-Class, the outside pays homage to the GL-Class - very angular and blocky. I'm not too fond of it (particularly the rear end), as the said look seems like the designers stuck exclusively to rulers. Maybe if it borrowed design cues from the current M-Class, there would be greater visual appeal, given the local market's behavior to place heavy consideration on looks.
Inside is where the C-Class link is evident. The controls are identical, but placed on an upright dash with nary a curved surface. The ambience conjures images of the boxy, utilitarian G-Class, but with more creature comforts. The Edition One variant has Designo leather buckets that are comfortable, never hard on the hamstrings and bum, making you feel like your derriere and back are on fabric seats. Both front chairs have power assist adjustment and memory settings, plus power assisted door lock/unlock functions and one-touch, up-down power assisted automation for all windows. The steering wheel can toggle through a lot of driver aids and safety/security/night vision menus, including (deep breath here) the following - automating the side mirror folding/unfolding function when the car is locked or unlocked, turning on/off the Adaptive Lighting system, checking fuel consumption/range, resetting the tripmeter, turning on/off the courtesy lights, the volume/mute function, and using the COMAND (COckpit Management And Navigational Device) system as a speaker phone to make/receive calls. The DVD and Bluetooth-capable audio system gives constant bass thumps yet provides good treble replication.
When it comes to stowing people and things, the GLK is a bit wanting. The cabin is great for four but very tight for five; three average folks in the back will find lateral room seriously tight at the shoulders. Door storage is a bit narrow (holding up to a 500 ml water bottle), but the center console box is quite spacious. The rear backrests fold flat and flush to the floor - a good thing, as the rear wheel wells eat up space. Fortunately, with the rear backrests folded, the GLK allows a balikbayan box and five to six duffel bags.
The GLK's forward motion isn't breathtaking, but there's a pleasant Germanic growl during spirited driving. You're in the powerband by 2,500-2,800 rpm; a notch past 6,000 is all noise. Gearing is relatively even, save for fifth gear - it has a 900-1,000 rpm drop from fourth. For best acceleration results or quick emergency lane changes, it's best to use either the Sport mode or the Manual mode, as the shift points are higher. I do feel that the Manual mode - and using the heavy-set paddle shifters behind the steering wheel - makes transitioning quickly on straights and turns easier, since it can hold a gear from 2,250 rpm onwards. The results speak for themselves - a 216 kph top speed (ECU governed), an 8.36-second 0-100 kph time, and 6.30 km/l (four days mixed driving). Oh, and pedals (including parking brake pedal) have raised rubber nubs and are made out of aluminum for a sporty look and feel.
The GLK is securely planted through corners despite its top-heavy nature. The Dunlop SP Sport Maxx MOs (235/45R20s for the front, 255/40R20s for the rear) begin to squeal around 105-110 kph (with ESP off), and the all wheel drive is a great aid for those who haven't had much performance driving time. Steering is surprisingly sharp - just a bevy of small but secure corrections are needed to make the GLK stay on the right line, but the feedback could be better, especially on chicanes, change of camber turns and hairpins. Getting the SUV to steer through the said turns feels like going through quicksand, and you're not sure whether you cocked the wheel a little too much (in either direction) in certain areas. Despite a 20-inch rim setup the ride is surprisingly comfortable - rear occupants reported that they hardly felt road irregularities on bumpy tarmac.
The brakes do feel a little spongy, but bite when needed - not surprising considering that this particular example already saw 8,900-odd kilometers. Kudos can also be given to the vehicle's lighting, both in and out. Exterior lighting from the headlamps and foglamps is very bright. Interior lamps are abound, and the parking sensor lights on the dashboard and above the rear backrests give the driver quick reference as to how near or far the GLK is to vehicles fore and aft. It's a great aid to parallel parking and long backing, since the a-pillars and d-pillars have blind spots.
Those willing to sacrifice space in return for meticulous engineering from a premium compact luxury SUV - or looking for a C-Class with slightly increased utility - will most definitely find the Mercedes Benz GLK very enticing. It's that compromise that set the rush for other manufacturers to send representatives to join the compact luxury SUV segment (albeit with their own takes), or make the early arrivals to the said arena look passe.