First Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK

The Mercedes-Benz GLK first went on sale at the beginning of 2009 as a 2010 model, which means Mercedes’ baby G just celebrated its third birthday. So the corporate parent is lavishing some attention on its littlest SUV. Outside, there’s more chrome, LED lighting front and rear, and a slightly redone front end. Inside, the driver is presented with a new dashboard with a sportier, richer-looking instrument cluster, and bisected by a large trim piece featuring prominent, round air vents.

The GLK350’s 3.5-liter V-6 is a new, direct-injected unit, and with it, output increases to 302 hp and 273 pound-feet of torque — up from 268 hp and 258 pound-feet. The seven-speed automatic returns, although a dainty little column stalk now handles gear selection, as per popular Benz practice. (There are paddles for up- and down-shifts). Mercedes’ automatic stop/start system comes standard with this engine. The system works well, although it’s not quite as seamless as you’ll find in the best hybrids. (It can also be switched off.)

The bigger powertrain news arrives in January, in the form of a diesel engine option. Unlike the six-cylinder oil-burner in the ML and the GL, this is a four-cylinder diesel, the first four-cylinder diesel in a U.S. Mercedes since the 1984 190D. Although a four-cylinder diesel is unusual for a Mercedes-Benz in the USA, that’s hardly the case in Europe. Indeed, the 2.1-liter turbodiesel that we’re getting in the GLK250 CDI is widely used in the home market, where it’s found under the hood of Benzes big and small, from the A-class right on up to the S-class. In the GLK250, it makes 190 hp and 369 pound-feet of torque. Unlike the gasoline V-6, which is available with rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, the diesel will be 4Matic only.

EPA fuel economy figures for the diesel are still a ways off, but we can tell you that in the European test cycle it’s nearly 25 percent more efficient than the GLK350; ours probably won’t do quite as well, however, because the U.S. diesel doesn’t get the auto stop/start system. Will the diesel engine cost extra? Mercedes isn’t saying, only acknowledging that the GLK250 will be equipped similarly to the GLK350 4Matic.

In a test drive in the French Alps, we found the diesel’s characteristic clatter to be quite muted, but it’s there. In contrast, the super-smooth gasoline engine emits a subtle growl when provoked. Although the hefty torque makes the turbodiesel generally quite responsive, in flat-out acceleration it can’t match the much larger gasoline engine. Mercedes estimates a 0-to-62 mph time of 8.0 seconds for the diesel, versus 6.5 seconds for the V-6.

In most other ways, the GLK is as we remember. On the tightly coiled mountain roads it exhibits a fair degree of body roll — it’s not as athletic as a BMW X3. The ride is firm and controlled but not harsh, despite the standard 19-inch wheels — twenties are optional. Electric power steering is new for the GLK, and its efforts are natural enough to pass for a well-tuned hydraulic system; the electric assist also enables a newly optional automatic parking feature.

As before, the GLK feels small from behind the wheel. The upright windshield makes for a shallow dash, and the windshield itself is quite narrow. The side glass, though, is relatively large, which staves off claustrophobia. Also, the rear seat is surprisingly roomy. The cargo hold, though, is quite petite, unless the rear seats are folded.

One thing we definitely did not remember was how the GLK handles itself off road, probably because — like most owners — we had never driven it off road. But we had a chance to do just that, in a GLK250 equipped with a special package consisting of hill descent control, an off-road mode for the throttle mapping and shift points, a slightly higher ride height, and underbody skid plates. Thus kitted out — and wearing all-terrain tires — the GLK ably picked its way around an off-road course of slick mud, some rocks, and a few hill climbs and descents. The electronic all-wheel-drive system was able to stop in a muddy two-track on a fairly steep hill and easily start up again. Alas, the off-road package won’t be offered to U.S. buyers. Instead, the 2013 GLK adds a phalanx of new driver-assistance options, including lane departure warning, blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise control, adaptive high-beams, and the aforementioned active parking assist.

The additional equipment is perhaps a sign that Mercedes-Benz is looking to make the Baby G more of a full-fledged member of the family. But what the GLK needs most in order to be a more convincing Mercedes is to trade its dowdy look for some more stylish duds. That day, unfortunately, is still a few years off.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK

On sale: August, January (GLK350, GLK250CDI)
Base price: $36,000 (GLK350, estimated)

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Power: 302 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Rear- or four-wheel
Curb weight: 4079 lb
Wheels: 7.5 x 19-inch wheels
Tires: 235/50R19

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