When a company like Mercedes-Benz can attribute 40 percent of its overall sales to its particular lineup of SUVs, that's a lot of haymaking. It also requires them to constantly evolve in an effort to stay on top of their game - like a heavily updated entry-level GLK.
The GLK underwent a revision that improved on the build and character of the previous version. Labeled as a 2013 model, it was delivered for retail sales in the summer of 2012. Despite sharing the side profile of its predecessor, the GLK was vastly improved for the new model year.
We hopped on board the range-topping GLK 350 4Matic to check out the differences.
What is it?
Internally known as the Geländewagen Luxus Kompaktklasse, the GLK originally debuted at the 2008 Beijing Auto Show. Like its much larger G Wagen brother, it was available in Europe for several years before making its first appearance in North America as a 2010 model.
A five-passenger compact crossover, the GLK is a fave amongst a group comprised of pre- and post- family sets, hipsters with cash and urbanites who rarely carry more than two people at a time. Why buy a four-door, five-passenger vehicle when you'll only carry two, you ask? To scoff at that suggestion would be to miss the point: Buyers seek the confidence of its capabilities rather than having an actual need for such. Sort of like car insurance, you hope you never have to use it, but it is comforting to know it's there.
The GLK slots at the lower end of Mercedes-Benz's SUV lineup. For those needing larger capacities and capabilities, the brand offers the GL-class, ML-class and the aforementioned Gelandewagen (G-Wagen).
Ours, like the bulk of the build sheets at Daimler's Bremen, Germany factory, specified the new 3.5-liter, naturally aspirated V6 with 4Matic full-time all-wheel-drive. This ubiquitous powerplant, seen throughout the M-B model lineup, produces 302 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque between 3,500-5,250 rpm, for an increase of 34 horsepower and 15 lb-ft, respectively. For 2013, a new seven-speed automatic is controlled by an equally new (for the GLK) gear selector stalk located on the steering column. What goes around comes around, apparently..
For those with varying needs, the GLK can also be had in gas-powered rear-drive and, soon, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel 4Matic variant.
M-B's Driver Assistance package was also included on our tester with its Distronic Plus system with Pre-Safe. The active blind spot assist and active lane keeping assist made certain we did not drift left or right unless we absolutely intended to do so.
Our 4,079 lbs. GLK 4Matic was also equipped with an ECO Start/Stop system, which the EPA says is good enough to help it achieve 19 city/ 24 highway, with 21 combined mpg.
What's it up against?
The luxury compact crossover market is pretty flushed right now with worthy competitors from other parts of the globe. The most direct assault comes from BMW's X3, while Audi's Q5, Acura's RDX, Land Rover's LR2 and Range Rover Evoque round out the bill. Other players include Infiniti's EX35 and perhaps the larger Lexus RX 350.
They can all be equipped to varying degrees of competency depending on your needs and the size of your compact luxury-sized wallet.
How does it look?
Truth be told, many buyers will be unable to tell the difference between the 2012 and 2013. But attention to details will uncover a more refined, one-half-inch longer, and one-inch lower GLK that has cleaner angles and shapes than the previous model. A more angular hood adds to the aggressiveness, which helps to lend more than just a passing similarity to its big brother G-Wagen.
Everybody has them now, those fancy daylight running light LEDs. But they just make a car like the GLK look better. Twin lamellas flank the centrally-mounted star logo, and help tie any vehicle updates into the brand's current design language. At the rear, a contrasting lower fascia now incorporates the chrome-tipped exhaust finishers for a cleaner look. Speaking of cleaner look, our test GLK included the AMG styling package with trick AMG LED lights, split five-spoke alloy wheels and aluminum roof rails. From the rear we instantly thought of a new movie, "Honey, I shrunk the Mercedes-Benz GL."
And on the inside?
Occupants climbing into the GLK are instantly greeted by a more refined, refreshed and higher class interior than the so-so outgoing model. A wider expanse of burled walnut wood trim makes its way across the otherwise soft-touch dashboard, while aircraft-inspired air conditioning vents follow the design trends away from the older rectangular-shaped louvers. A center console-mounted central controller operated the premium package's 5.8-inch display for navigation, Bluetooth, and climate controls.
If you were channeling your inner Aquarian, you could let the sunshine in through the dual-panel panoramic sunroof.
Our leather-packaged interior expelled the MB-Tex vinyl in favor of the real cow, which also included a leather-wrapped, aluminum-accented steering wheel and the obscenely cushy Comfort Headrests (the headrest equivalent of a pillow-topped mattress). The front row seats offered good bolstering with comfortable accommodations for long road trips, while the rear seats provided adequate legroom that would prevent an average backseat passenger from feeling claustrophobic. Behind the second row is 23.3 cubic feet of cargo space. If you need more, fold them forward for a total of 54.7 cubic feet.
But does it go?
Well built, well sorted, the GLK is an example of a right-sized city-style crossover that manages to provide fit, finish and style to for those who don't need a full-sized G-Wagen experience. Acceleration is right on from the 3.5 liter V6 that could only get better if it were of an AMG variant. Steering was direct in an electromechanical sort of way, starting easy at slow speeds, with a gradual increase in resistance as the velocity climbed.
Although the GLK had a sort of top-heavy appearance, the all-wheel-drive behavior of the 4Matic system offered a sure-footed feel from the road upward, free from wallow and teeter-tottering. We found the GLK to be ultra-quiet despite its big boxy shape, with just the right combination of all-weather tires, proper wind sealing and aerodynamic tuning all playing a part in keeping the road noise dBs at a controllable level.
The Direct Shift gear selection system simplified the way we get around en cabin. Flick the lever up for reverse, down for drive, and push the end-button for park. While the automatic gearbox operates as normal, our inner Sir Stirling Moss was channeled through the use of manual shifts made using the steering wheel-mounted paddles. The trouble was Sir Stirling probably never used paddles once during his professional racing career and he never raced crossovers.
Throughout the week in our GLK tester, we were impressed by the light duty abilities of the 4Matic system. We won't be entering the Baja 1000 anytime soon (although we remember M-B aftermarket tuner RennTech building one for the Pike's Peak Hill Climb), but it managed to climb over hills and traverse gravel roads as though both were mere child's play.
In the end, that's all that any GLK customer would ask of it.
Our full-time all wheel drive system, with all of its mileage-extending doodads, saw us achieve a better than average 23.8 miles per gallon.
Why you would buy it:
The kids are through college and on their own, Ol' Yeller has passed on to that great doghouse in the sky, and you have always wanted a Mercedes-Benz SUV.
Why you wouldn't:
You think your minivan is the epitome of sexy.
Leftlane's bottom line
Initially not the darling of the motoring press, Mercedes-Benz does a do-over and in the process, helps make that star logo to shine as brightly as it should have, the first time around.
The 2013 GLK is one of the most thoroughly refreshed new cars we've come across in a while. More than just a new looker inside and out, it finally rides and drives as a Mercedes-Benz should.
2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 4Matic base price, $39,090. As tested, $54,645.
Premium 1 Package, $3,450; Leather Package, $2,100; Multimedia Package, $2,790; AMG Styling Package, $1,990; Driver Assistance Package, $2,950; Heated front seats,$750; Keyless GO, $650. Destination fee, $875.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.