2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK - By Design

I have a hard time with SUVs. I can understand drivers who appreciate a high seating position, although it gives no advantage when everyone else drives tall vehicles, too. I can understand wanting to give the impression that you're ready to tackle the Serengeti, not just the drive to the grocery store. Signifying that you might be something more than you actually are seems to be important to many people. I understand that experience with rough-riding, truck-based SUVs made many people flee to car-based crossovers that provide the same signs of tough capability without the concomitant discomfort. What I can't understand is the widespread willingness to push a tall, square-cornered box through the air at the cost of unnecessary fuel bills when an aerodynamic vehicle would do the same job more efficiently. But there clearly is a market for small luxury SUVs, and Mercedes-Benz thinks it needs an entrant, thus the GLK.

In the Automobile Magazine offices, opinions on the GLK's appearance are mixed. Some think the car looks like a Subaru Forester (not a compliment). Some like the retro squared-shapes interior quite well; others just think it looks old. In our Detroit show report last April, I characterized the GLK concept as "incredibly ugly" and noted that "more than half the grille opening is blocked by the three-bar-and-star plastic molding." Although I doubt it, that comment might have had some influence. The production GLK is still as clumsy as the concept, but now there are only two bars in the grille and the bumper is simplified. "The bullish shape of the new GLK suggests power and agility," says the somewhat overblown press release, tacitly acknowledging the complete lack of grace in its blocky form, clearly inspired by the ancient, military-intended Geländewagen.

In terms of appearance, my absolute favorite SUV is still the 1984 et seq. Jeep Cherokee. Although it wasn't classified as a crossover - the term hadn't yet been invented - it did have a unitized steel body-chassis unit, as do all of today's cute utes. The GLK is a thousand pounds heavier and a foot longer than the wonderful Cherokee, but I do wonder if Mercedes may not have profited from owning the Jeep brand and archives for a while. The GLK keeps the short-overhang proportions and the rectilinear surface aspects of the Cherokee, even if it has none of the charm of Dick Teague's little masterpiece.

On the other hand, it has none of the low build quality or feeble on-road dynamics, and presumably none of the chronic unreliability of the beloved Jeep. The GLK is a Mercedes, after all, with all that implies. But if I wanted to buy a high-quality, German five-seat wagon without Rubicon Trail capability, I'd choose the comfortable, aerodynamically superior, front-wheel-drive B-class. I might not impress anyone with my supposed go-anywhere manliness, but I would get a lot more pleasure every time I drove that vehicle. Too bad Mercedes won't let us have it here in the States.

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