With the Jeep taking an early bath, thanks to the warning that it needed an oil change, I was back at Hertz’ LAX facility for one last time during this trip. I ended up talking to the same Gold Service counter rep. who told me to go and choose what I wanted (it was only going to be for 24 hours), and he would offer it to me at no additional charge. As it was a Holiday weekend, there was a bit of an eclectic mix of vehicles parked up, but I had a good look around, and found the same Jeep I had just handed back already ready to be rented, and with the oil change warning still showing (!). In the end, my eye was caught by a bright red Mercedes GLK, so that’s what I ended up taking.
To people in right hand drive markets, the GLK is something of an unknown quantity, as a particularly unfortunate engineering blunder has meant that it is not feasible to convert the cars to put the steering wheel on the right. Based on the W204 C Class, and what the Americans would call a Small SUV, the GLK is aimed pretty hard at the BMW X3 and its competitors. Mercedes were later entering this market than most, with a launch only in 2008, but in those left hand drive markets, the GLK is starting to become a less than rare sighting. Whilst there are a range of familiar Mercedes petrol and diesel engines offered in Europe, in the US, only one engine is available, namely the GLK350, and you can choose it with or without 4 wheel drive. My test car was the latter, badged 4matic, though without this identification there are no clues inside the cabin.
My first impression on getting in the car was that this has all the quality feel that was so lacking in the Commander. After driving it for a day, the over-riding impression that it left was all the controls were just silky smooth to the touch, and felt like they were beautifully designed, engineered and manufactured. This impression covered large items, such as the engine, which just sounded subdued and smooth, and ranged all the way to the quality of things like the transmission selector, and all the switches and controls. Although Hertz would normally charge their customer significantly more for a GLK than they would for a Jeep Commander., when I looked up the list prices, there is surprisingly little cost difference between the two, with the Mercedes retailing for $33 – 35,000 (before you start to pile on the options). Granted it is a smaller car, with seating for no more than 5, but I was expecting a far larger gap than is actually the case.
I enjoyed driving the GLK. It has a super smooth V6 engine Unlike many current Mercedes, the 350 in the model designation does actually mean that it has a 3.5 litre engine. It puts out 268bhp, which is plenty to power this car, allegedly from 0 – 60 in 6.5 seconds. I only had the car for part of a day, and took it up into the San Fernando mountains, with a bit of freeway driving, so was more interested in the torque and its hillclimbing ability. Here the GLK acquitted itself very well indeed. The engine is just so smooth and refined. Not exciting, particularly, but splendid at doing the job. It is coupled with an equally smooth 7 speed automatic transmission. This does have 2 modes, of Comfort and Sport, and there is an ability to shift the gears yourself if you really want, but I am not sure why you would in normal motoring as the GLK’s brain does such a good job of it for you. Despite all the power, and the hills with which it had to contend, fuel economy was also good, with an average of 26mpg (US), which is a completely different league to that thirsty Jeep.
Praise is also due for the steering and handling: light, precise, plenty of feel in the steering and confidence inspiring handling allowed me to steer around the bends of the Little Tujunga Canyon road with confidence. The only dynamic disappointment was the brakes. The pedal just seemed a bit mushy needing a lot of pressure before anything much happened, but once it did, then there was no issue. There is a foot pedal operated parking brake, which is released by pulling a large release lever set in the lower left side of the dash. Should you forget, a warning chime will remind you that you did indeed set the brake. The GLK rides well, proving comfortable on the generally rather poor surfaces of the LA County roads, and it is quiet, too. there is just a bit of road noise that you get in cars on these roads. With plenty of glass, all round visibility is also excellent.
I have already commented on the pleasing ambience of the cabin, but let me comment further. There is no doubt that you are in a Mercedes, with marque characteristic design and components inside the car. The dash comprises a single cowl over the instruments, all of which are clearly marked and easy to read. There are two column stalks on he left of the column, with the one in the position you would expect to be the indicators operating the cruise control. The indicator stalk is set very low to the left. I have encountered this with other Mercedes and it does take a bit of getting used to. Lights are operated by a switch on the dash. The centre part includes a small display screen, which, if the Command function is not installed (as was the case on the test car) shows the radio settings. Below this are the climate control dials. Although the quality of the ensemble is not quite up to Audi standards, it is pretty good and it feels sturdy as if it would last well for a long while.
The GLK is a (small) SUV, and therefore its raison d’etre should be to carry people and their stuff, potentially over rougher roads than a normal passenger car. It is not a huge car, but nonetheless there is ample space for three in the rear seats, and there is a decent boot, which can be covered over with a roll blind. The rear seats fold down, simply by pulling the release clip on the top of the backrest and dropping the backrest down, leaving a lengthy and flat luggage area. There are ample places in the passenger cabin for odds and ends, too.
Although Mercedes-Benz US has so far limited the GLK model range they offer, there are plenty of options available to allow buyers to specify the precise car that they want. These are available as a combination of 5 different packages as well as individual items. 19″ wheels dual-zone climate control, power operated seats and Bluetooth connectivity are all standard. The test car had the very agreeable panoramic sunroof, a power tailgate and leather seats. The middle of these might not always be a good thing, as although the GLK did not fail the height sensor at the Hilton LAX underground carpark, the area where I parked it did not have enough clearance to open the tailgate fully, and once I had started opening it, the electric motor tried to take over. It took a hasty action to push it shut to prevent an expensive collision between tailgate and car park roof! The sunroof, however, was wonderful, with an electrically operated cover and then the ability to tilt or slide the front pane of glass.
It was hard to hand back the GLK. Not least because it marked the end of a wonderful two weeks holiday, and because the forecast for Southern California was for continued glorious sunshine, whereas for the UK it was for seasonably cold temperatures, but also because my time with the Mars Red Mercedes was rather short and it was a car I enjoyed driving, and riding in. I think I would go as far as to say that of all the “compact” SUVs I have driven, this one is by some measure, the “best” and my favourite. I would happily drive one again. For longer, next time, please.