Mercedes Benz missed out on a lot of action by not introducing the GLK to the SA market. Now the GLC has been launched internationally, and it promises to make up the lost ground.
Mercedes Benz is happy to acknowledge that it made a big mistake in not offering the GLK to South African motoring enthusiasts. For technical reasons too complicated to explain here, the GLK was made available only to left-hand drive markets, and it turned out to be the company’s best selling SUV in many European countries.
I recently attended the launch of the new version of the GLK, now called the GLC. Excursions kicked off in Basel, Switzerland, and we were fortunate enough to spend a free day in this beautiful city before the actual launch day.
While on a walkabout in the city, I noticed several examples of the old GLK, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would have been sold in SA, had it been available. It’s the sort of car just made for sunny SA. It was an aggressively styled machine, with a decent line-up of petrol and diesel engines, and it wore its coveted three-pointed star really well.
Anyway, we are definitely getting the new model, but now Mercedes will have to work really hard to tempt people out of their BMW X3s and Audi Q5s. These two SUVs have dominated a segment where Mercedes just wasn’t present. And both are brilliant products, so the GLC will have its work cut out to make an impact.
I saw pictures of the GLC before leaving for Switzerland and I was surprised at how sedate it looked. The designer was obviously bound by the characteristics of the C-class it is based on, but to my mind they could have done something a little more special.
My view didn’t change when I saw the GLC “in the metal”, but I warmed to it over the next two days.
This car is not flashy at all, but there are certain muscular design elements that you only notice once you sit back and study it. (Having the lead designer at your breakfast table also helps!)
But enough about the styling, because there’s a lot more to the GLC than the way it looks.
The first thing you notice within 10km of setting off is the ride quality and refinement. I know the BMW X3 fairly well and I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that the Benz is better for everyday driving. Mercedes has raised the bar in this respect. The GLC cruises beautifully and effortlessly.
The suspension is tuned for comfort and there’s minimal noise intrusion in the beautifully designed cabin. Couple that with the latest in petrol and diesel engines and an all-new nine-speed automatic transmission, and you have a winning soft-roader SUV.
Both on the highways and inner-city roads, the GLC decimates its competitors.
Once my co-driver and I turned off the highway, we found ourselves on some of the most magnificent driving roads I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Unfortunately, however, they are better suited to small hot hatches than SUVs, but as we were in the turbocharged petrol 250, I couldn’t help but press down a little harder on the accelerator.
As with most cars these days, the GLC allows you to choose between a number of settings. I swapped from “comfort” to “sport”, and the car responded immediately. The steering became heavier, the throttle responses were more immediate and the suspension stiffened up nicely.
I carried as much speed as I dared into the tight corners and the car stuck to the tar really well. It’s not a sports car by any means, but for what it is, it’s not half bad.
Pretty soon we arrived at the off-road part of the event and I was disappointed to see that the track was only 1,2km long. I assumed it would be a quick drive through the beautiful gravel roads along the vineyards in Alsace, but it soon became apparent that the organisers had a massive surprise in store for us.
I chose a GLC fitted with standard road-biased rubber, as can be seen in the photographs. I had hoped that this would give me a clearer view of what the average driver could expect, and what I experienced left me at a loss for words.
I was puzzled as to why I needed an instructor in the car with me for the off-road section, but then the vineyards opened up and revealed a very steep 30m climb up a loose surface. My first thought was that this couldn’t possibly be part of our route, and when the instructor pointed in that direction, I said: “You can’t be serious!” There was no way we would get the GLC up a slope I wouldn’t even walk up.
Then my companion revealed a new button behind the main touch pad, between the front seats. The car had been fitted with the Off-Road Engineering package which, when coupled with Mercedes’ Air Body Control, turns the GLC into a soft-roader slayer.
The ride height can be raised for additional ground clearance, but that in itself isn’t enough to conquer tough terrain. In addition to increased ground clearance, you surely need low-range, chunky tyres and a locking differential, or two?
The GLC had none of that, but I’d never experienced anything quite like its Off-Road Engineering package. It helped the car clamber over that hill with minimal effort. It even inspired me to try my best to catch it out, but I couldn’t. I even stopped in the middle of an incline with an axle-twister thrown in for good measure, but the car kept on clambering up. Slowly, but surely.
If we didn’t have the pictures to back up these claims, I doubt anybody would believe them. The GLC certainly represents a new benchmark in soft-roader off-roading ability, and it does so by using smart electronics.
Some of my colleagues commented that the package takes the fun out of off-roading as you merely have to press a button and point the car where you want it to go, and to some extent they’re right, but I know that the average buyer is going to love a system like this. Some people like to work hard to get where they’re going, but there’s something to be said for a car that makes it as easy as possible.
On the way back to the hotel, I “rode shotgun”, and this gave me the chance to explore the interior and the materials used to make it. It’s all top notch, and current Mercedes drivers will be familiar with the layout.
The standard specifications for SA-bound vehicles isn’t available yet, but the overall feel of the interior is brilliant. It looks and feels as well put together as anything else in Mercedes’ line-up. It’s the same interior you’ll find on the new C-class, which recently won the World Car of the Year title.
SA will be getting the 250 petrol, 250 diesel and 220 diesel models. I drove all three, and they are all very good in their own way.
The power hungry driver will be interested to know that an AMG version was all but confirmed during a brief discussion with Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the Daimler AG board and head of Mercedes-Benz cars.
The new nine-speed automatic gearbox, which is standard across the range, is, however, the real star of the show. You barely notice it in Comfort mode and yet it’s willing and able to let you have fun when you dial it to “Sport”. More than anything else, it helps all three engines achieve impressive fuel consumption figures.
The GLC is really going to upset the apple cart when it arrives in SA later this year. It’s everything a luxury SUV should be, and a lot more. Breaking into that particular segment isn’t going to be easy, but the GLC is more than good enough to punch its way in.
Mercedes-Benz GLC 220 d R599 900
Mercedes-Benz GLC 250 d R619 900
Mercedes-Benz GLC 250 R604 900
Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 R654 900