I was perplexed when I took a seat in the leather driver’s seat of the new Mercedes GLK SUV for a lap of off-road driving in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. Let it be said, I don’t think Mercedes is targeting just anyone with a car starting at €53,000 that you can order in white with tinted windows and two-tone upholstery. The advertisements show a very refined lady loading her designer suitcases into the trunk. It’s the kind of car Britney Spears might buy to escape the paparazzi but you’ll rarely see the average person kicking around in the wheels.
I was still deep in thought when moments later I found myself maneuvering the GLK down a steep grade. At the bottom of the slope there was a bridge from another age overhanging a river. If I had been in a TV commercial, this would be the moment a warning caption pops up saying only professional drivers should attempt this maneuver. A title which I cannot claim.
The Mercedes guide sitting in the passenger seat was incredibly calm. Which I understood much later. He pressed a button on the dashboard to engage the downhill cruise control. Using the speed control lever I set it to 4 km/h. The GLK’s electronic system has slowed the vehicle down to properly redistribute the car’s weight to the wheels to maintain traction appropriate to the situation. All I had to do was just hold the wheel so I could drive over the bridge safely. Something that even Britney would have succeeded.
After my little trip I admitted that even Mr. Everybody would enjoy driving this car. The GLK can be driven comfortably both at 150 km/h on the motorway and in the countryside on muddy roads thanks to a latest-generation electronic system that allows perfect load distribution while maintaining traction in off-road mode. An average driver can accomplish feats that would make seasoned professionals die of envy.
The GLK, which will go on sale in Europe in October 2008 and in early 2009 in the United States, is the brand’s most important novelty and it’s good to know if you don’t know that soaring fuel prices are leading to lower sales of vehicles of this type in Europe and the United States. At least the GLK is what is called a compact SUV. ‘Compact’ in this case probably means ‘compared to a Hummer’. But it has modest fuel consumption for a 2 ton vehicle. The diesel version that will be sold in Europe has an average consumption of 6.9 liters per 100 km while the gasoline version planned for sale in the United States will consume 4.5 liters per 100 km. Mercedes has not yet announced a price for the United States but the price in Germany is around €50,000.
Three years from design to production
The GLK’s time to market was 3 years from design to production as Mercedes needed it to better compete with smaller SUVs like the best-selling BMW X3. As well as being smaller, the GLKs differ from the rest of the Mercedes SUV range in a number of ways. Designer Steffen Köhl and his team have given the GLK a style that tends to differentiate it from entering a crowded SUV market, as well as from Mercedes’ M-Class models. The angular design is reminiscent of military vehicles, early SUVs with boxy looks that were easy to copy and make. Inside the GLK looks like a passenger car like any other except for the fact that the seats are higher. In reality many elements of the cockpit such as the seats come from class C. Interior layouts are more in keeping with beautiful neighborhoods than forest or jungle. Unless I suppose you could say that the reversing camera is a fact to protect the environment since it allows not to hit the trees when reversing.
But people who’ve never ridden the cobbles with their GLK are going to miss something. At one point during the test, my co-pilot took me over a series of dirt mounds. Each time the car tilted dangerously to one side raising the curb side wheels several inches off the ground. This maneuver has the effect of locking the high wheels and transmitting the power of the vehicle to the other two wheels. The color options and fittings available tell us that this car is not only intended for a few wealthy customers in Europe but also for many Russian millionaires. The exponential rise of the Russian automotive market has allowed the entire automotive industry to increase its sales. Mercedes pundits can only hope he keeps the SUV market alive.