You don't need to be a dyed-in-the-wool granola eater donning a hand-knitted sweater, burlap trousers, and Birkenstock sandals to qualify as a professional SUV hater. After all, the dreaded two-plus-tonners guzzle gasoline, and more and more people feel that they threaten our loved ones with their potentially lethal mix of high mass and low maneuverability. That's why the automotive world is - at least in so-called civilized countries - giving the antiquated body-on-frame off-roader a collective thumbs-down. But in a closely related and thus mildly schizophrenic move, the crossover population is mushrooming.
Most crossovers look as if they could drive up the north face of Mount Washington with the gear selector stuck in D, yet they often struggle for traction on muddy farm tracks because of their Nürburgring-biased tires. Perhaps nothing but a giant marketing ploy, soft-roaders combine Indiana Jones appearances with city-slicker undercarriages borrowed from related sedans and wagons. Although it's hard to predict how long the zeitgeist will tolerate these worst-of-both-worlds half-breeds, we wasted no time checking out the latest high-roof premium-brand entries. Predictably, the trio of small crossovers we tested from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo is much more environmentally friendly and less dysfunctional than full-size SUVs. While fuel economy almost matches identically equipped versions of the sedans upon which these vehicles are based, handling and roadholding are surprisingly unfazed by the higher centers of gravity and added belly fat. Welcome to the strange world of all-providing, genetically engineered automobiles.
Four-wheel drive should be taken for granted in these pricey high-tech circles, but Mercedes offers a rear-wheel-drive, price-leader version of the GLK for $34,775. Our particular vehicles, however, each feature four driven wheels. Although in most cases a set of decent winter tires would do just fine, only four-wheel drive offers the confidence, control, convenience, and traction that these vehicles are all about. We understand why crossovers are so popular in Bavaria and Colorado. But what is the attraction when you live in London, Redondo Beach, or Abu Dhabi, where lack of traction is rarely an issue? Frequently asked question, disarming answer: the overriding appeal of our three musketeers is, of course, the mix of easy entry and exit, a commanding driving position, and relative invulnerability. You sit above the madding crowd, are surrounded by a few extra square inches of sheetmetal, and can see things earlier and more clearly. It's not just a girlie thing. It's a tangible asset and on aggregate almost certainly the main buying motive.