For those lucky enough to drive one, the world is cheerful and bright seen through the windshield of a Euro-tinted Mercedes. From this point of reference, it's difficult to fathom that for 2010 other car manufacturers are just now announcing things like variable-valve timing, two-stage intake manifolds and fuel efficiency that adjusts to engine performance. Given the title of this magazine, you'll be excused. With drives like those in the GLK350 4MATIC, all the niceties that come with an all-new model are easy to take for granted.
Starting with the nicest first-the seven speed automatic transmission. With fuel efficiency technology necessary on these types of vehicles, automatic is the only choice-pontificating about manual versus auto is a waste of time. To have any kind of fuel economy outside ridiculous, a torque converter with a locking clutch is necessary to simulate the benefits of a manual. The saving grace is often in the paddle shifters; some crossovers, however, do it better than others. In many SUVs this proves to be a mystery card, and all it takes is that first flick to see how much is an illusion. The shining difference is the varying levels of control that are allowed.
In the GLK's case, the only way to drive is to utilize the Touch Shift as often as possible. You're allowed to choose your own gear at any time, without having to move the gearshift lever over from auto sport mode. You can even skip three gears at any time if you like, with super-responsive results. In cruising mode, the unmolested automatic responds to road grades by adjusting shifts, adapting to a drive that is all between what you and the road are each doing. The shifts are noticeable, but smooth and without slip.
This transmission really shines combined with the 3.5-liter V6 with just enough power to bridge the gap between large car and a rock climber. With 268 hp at 6000 rpm and 87 percent of the 258 lb-ft of torque available at 1500 rpm, this car looks better on paper than, say, and Audi Q5. Add to this the four-wheel-drive, all-the-time 4MATIC, agile suspension and variable-valve timing tech, and the GLK looks off to a great start. The 4MATIC debuts in January, but Mercedes will offer a rear-wheel-drive version later in the year. There's even talk of a GLK220 Bluetec for North America, which is an almost identical version to the one Europe gets. That one, the GLK220 CDI BlueEfficiency, has a more efficient, small-displacement diesel engine and a turbocharger, and would only need a few different treatment systems to make it work here. A diesel hybrid will be further down the road.
It's more expensive than its competitors-in the $40k range-but enough about numbers. When you get a feel for the GLK, you're seeing the world through rose-colored glasses from then on. The GLK drives into the compact SUV party after an engraved invitation from the public. Smaller than the M-Class but with all the legendary largess of vehicles like Mercedes' G-Wagen, it's part of a lineage of 4x4s that goes back more than 100 years. Which also makes it, only by default, the most fuel-efficient Benz thus far. The boxy, stand-up-straight styling from the GL is still there, particularly in the hood, which contradicts rounded aerodynamics elsewhere. The standard 19-inch wheels almost appear small within the overall shape, but that's easily fixed with an optional Appearance Package that includes 20-inch wheels. The conspicuous lack of an off-road package here in the States says something about the car's target demographic, especially considering we first saw the North American version in the Sex and the City movie.