About 25 years ago, Mercedes-Benz released a bit of a shocker in the luxury car world. It brought out a much smaller, much less expensive sedan that was quickly dubbed “the Baby Benz.” It was not a huge success, initially.
Its main problem was image. The public had come to think of Mercedes automobiles as large, solid and prestigious. The new 190E (as it was first called), had none of those traits, although its solidity was better than other cars its size. But compared to the mid-size and full-size Mercedes-Benzes, it seemed like some kind of cheap, underpowered wannabe.
Eventually, the small gained credibility, thanks to engineering improvements from top to bottom. We now know it as the C-Class, although it hardly bears any resemblance to that original 190E, especially in size.
For the 2010 model year, there’s a new smaller Mercedes-Benz for a whole new generation of buyers, and it’s apt to be much more well received. The new GLK is a scaled-down sport utility, looking like the offspring of the large GL-Class. It’s built atop the C-Class platform, and shares its engine and many mechanical parts with it. And it probably arrives at exactly the right time, just as buyers of all income levels seem to be interested in scaling down in the new economic world.
The GLK350 is not really what you’d call “economical” unless you compare it directly to the big GL or almost-as-big ML sport utilities from Mercedes. Though it starts at a reasonable $33,900, it quickly becomes much more expensive when the options are piled on. The example I tested was fully-outfitted with every frill you could imagine, and carried a sticker price of $53,230.
But shelling out more than fifty large for a relatively small vehicle could actually be a pragmatic move in the coming months and years. As unemployment levels continue to shake the economy, those who are gainfully employed or well invested don’t necessarily want to show off too much with a big, flashy new ride. So, how about a small, flashy new ride? To your neighbors and friends, you bought a Mercedes, but you “downscaled” and chose the more compact model.
There’s no mistaking that this is a smaller kind of Mercedes-Benz. It’s shrunken down but still burly, kind of tough and chunky looking. Most people who saw my Mars Red test car (with its massive, optional 20” wheels) really liked it, thought it was “cute,” and asked lots of questions. I know there are some who think the styling is a miss, but the majority seems to approve of the GLK’s design.
Fuel economy is better than with the bigger Mercedes SUVs, but still not spectacular. The 4MATIC example I drove (all wheel drive) is rated at 16 mpg city and 21 highway, but I was barely able to make the lower number in mixed driving. I did get up to around 20 when I reset the trip computer on a long freeway drive, but as soon as some city driving was mixed in, the fuel economy dropped back down to the 16-17 range. As with all Mercedes-Benz gasoline models, the GLK requires premium unleaded fuel.
So the sticker price and the fuel efficiency don’t suggest an economy vehicle, but neither do the rest of the vehicle’s aspects. The seats – full leather in my test car – were supple and supportive. The ride is smooth, and power from the 3.5 liter engine is fantastic. The icing on the driving cake is Mercedes-Benz’s excellent 7-speed automatic transmission, which keeps the engine at an ideal pace no matter the condition.
There’s also no lack of amenities, especially if you or your dealer are heavy-handed with the options list. Navigation with a built-in concierge service (including a Zagat guide for finding restaurants), an awesome sound system, and just about every other convenience you can get in a bigger Mercedes. The rear seat passengers can even stare at LCD video screens, in case you can’t stand the thought of your young ones taking any kind of car trip without electronic entertainment.
Soon there will be no shortage of vehicles in this “small premium” SUV category. In addition to the BMW X3 and Acura RDX, both of which have been on sale for several years, there will be new models from Audi and Volvo too, debuting later this year.
When the 1984 “Baby Benz” first went on sale, there may have been a little bit of shame in buying one, as people might have assumed you couldn’t afford one of the bigger Mercedes-Benz models. Today, there’s a smaller alternative to larger SUVs from the famed German maker. But now, buyers may likely be boasting that they went with a more sensible choice.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.