The GLK is let down by its Tonka toy exterior and its somewhat uninviting interior, with a mix of angular shapes and surfaces plus a dashboard and door panels that are clad with humdrum materials. Despite the latest-generation Comand system, which works very well, the cockpit layout looks strangely old-fashioned - with the notable exception of the easy-to-reach window switches and the power seat adjusters. The Audi's cabin, naturally, is extremely well made and, in the case of our test car, was also very well equipped. Audi's new, second-generation MMI control system makes its U.S. debut in the Q5, and it's a significant improvement over a system that already far surpassed BMW's iDrive. There are still too many switches grouped around the MMI knob, but a new joystick controller and 3-D maps that show the outlines of buildings more than compensate. The Volvo XC60, conversely, is handicapped by a navigation system that's hard to read, hard to operate, and a potential deal-breaker. But the cabin layout, the seats, and the main instrument panel are first-rate. It's too bad that the active cruise control, lane-departure warning, and driver-alert monitor are linked to a nerve-racking army of warning lights and chimes.
Although the GLK is a highly capable, all-weather vehicle, its design polarizes, which is almost never a good thing, its presentation is ho-hum by Mercedes standards, and dynamically it is in almost every respect bettered by the Audi. It also has the smallest cargo compartment (23.3 cubic feet versus 30.8 for the XC60 and even more for the Q5) and the tightest back seats. The XC60 beats the Benz only by a head, but when it comes to form, fashion, and flair, the Swedish model is, in fact, our undisputed favorite. On the debit side, the large turning circle diminishes maneuverability, and the complicated ergonomics need updating.
The gold medal thus goes to the Q5 - but we have seen grander victories and more compelling winners. While engine, handling, roadholding, and build quality are hard to fault, the U.S. version lacks Audi's superb S tronic seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. All three of these vehicles are offered in Europe with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines that surely would broaden their appeal in the U.S. market. American product planners hint that plans are under way to bring them here. As far as we're concerned, they can't come soon enough.