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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.

1 The only really good part of the generic rear end, apart from nice exhaust tips, is the three-pointed-star badge.

2 A fixed glass panel allows the main window to descend fully into the rear door.

3 The vestigial rear fender form is a new Mercedes shtick, reminiscent of late-1940s pontoon-fender car styling.

4 Standard nineteen-inch wheels make the GLK seem a bit handier and more compact than it really is.

5 This slashing diagonal line gives a little thrust to what is, after all, just a box, and it allows the windowsills to suggest a wedge shape as well.

6 The very awkward intersection between the hood edge and the A-pillar is exacerbated by a cutline at the pillar's base.

7 There are a lot of sharp edges between the hood and the actual wheel opening.

8 Little round lights in a big rectangular opening are not nearly as nice as the rectangular lamps in last year's concept car.

9 The windshield is inset behind the leading edge of the A-pillar, presumably to force airflow over the roof rather than around the corners to reduce wind noise.

10 The lower part of the grille opening is hard-edged, the upper portion softened, perhaps for pedestrian safety considerations.

11 Multifaceted lamp covers occupy the entire upper corners of the front end. Notice the little joggle at the inner baseline. Why is it there?

A There is a nice grouping of minor controls on the driver's door panel.

B This square-cut visor above the square vent is very old-fashioned, but at least the multimedia screen is slanted toward the driver.

C Seat side bolsters would be useful in severe off-roading or high-speed cornering, neither of which is particularly likely with this vehicle.