Mercedes-Benz has yet to let outsiders drive its new GLK on pavement, but we have now piloted the Baby G through a day off-roading and found it to be a talented mud-crawler, a competent gravel kicker, and a fearless forder. Our location was a cordoned-off quarry where, after three consecutive days of rain, the terrain was soaked, the climbs were soapy, and the narrow descents felt more like polished toboggan runs.
We followed an instructor in an M-class who got stuck on the steepest section and slid back down with minimum control and maximum luck. The lighter and nimbler GLK - which is loosely based on the C-class 4Matic wagon-duly mastered the hill. Keep up the momentum and the all-season tires find enough grip, the chassis provides enough ground clearance, and the electronic helpers distribute enough oomph to make sure the 4034-pound all-roader pulls through. In terms of wheel travel, overall compliance, and response to extreme obstacles, the steel-sprung GLK is every bit as competent off-road as an ML equipped with the optional Airmatic system. Short overhangs, 7.9 inches of ground clearance, generous ramp angles (23 degrees in the front, 25 degrees in the back), and the commendably elastic suspension ensure that this Benz doesn't lose its composure when the going gets tough. A conventional center differential divides torque in a 45:55 ratio between front and rear axles. Automatic brake applications curb spin at each wheel. When the going gets slippery, a multi-disc clutch is partially closed to alter the front-rear distribution, thereby maintaining forward momentum. Even with ESP electronic stability control switched off, you can always rely on a slight rear-wheel bias. If mud, snow, and sand are really your preferred terrain, you may be disappointed to learn that, in the United States, M-B won't offer the optional off-road package, which includes hill descent control, full underbelly protection, and the so-called G button, which causes the transmission to rearrange its shift points, the throttle pedal to respond with extra care, and ESP to permit more wheel slip to keep up the torque flow.
Mercedes' new baby doesn't exactly charm with its appearance. Its boxy body, with upright windows and heavy-handed sculptured side panels, looks unhandsome at best. The design is supposed to convey timeless G-wagen cues, but we think the GLK could have done with a fashion advisor. Inside, the blocky theme continues, and the materials aren't always first-rate. But the ergonomics are good and passenger space almost equals that of the M-class. Cargo volume measure 23.3 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 54.7 cubic feet with the back row folded.
We drove the GLK350, which is powered by the 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. It will be the sole model for the United States, at least for a while (a diesel could come later). Mercedes' claimed 0-to-60 mph time of 6.5 seconds undercuts that of the 260-hp BMW X3 3.0i, which needs 6.9 seconds for the manual and 7.1 for the automatic. Predictably, Mercedes doesn't offer a manual transmission here; instead, its seven-speed automatic is standard. Key extras are Comand with navigation, adaptive headlights, a rear-view camera, and a rear-seat DVD system with two screens.
Admittedly, 99 out of 100 owners won't ever take their GLK off-road. But we did, and we came away impressed. Although it's too early to tell exactly how the Baby G will fare on highways and byways, the compliant suspension, the communicative steering, and the convincing engine/gearbox combination suggest that this Mercedes will give the Audi Q5 and the BMW X3 a very good run for the money.