The Mercedes GLK is an animated little vehicle, and by that, I mean one that looks like a cartoon character—Tigger the hyperactive tiger from "Winnie the Pooh," or the sadistic Tom from "Tom and Jerry:" all sinister grin, oversized grimalkin head, and sly widely spaced eyes. This serves the vehicle well, as Cute Utes, the category into which the GLK fits, are supposed to be, as their name implies, adorable. They're also supposed to hold the promise of utility, though few consumers ever call upon them to deliver on this in ways greater than the capacity to hold a Costco run's worth of toilet paper and frozen quiche. As Bugs Bunny says in a classic Looney Tunes short, "You can get away with nearly anything, in an animated cartoon."
I've never been much of a fan of small crossovers, and not because I'm possessed by the veiled (or overt) misogyny that pollutes many car writers' critiques of these vehicles. What I object to about small crossovers is the way they've come to act as replacements for my beloved and practical small wagons. The roll-out of these vehicles by luxe firms like Mercedes, as well as basic brands like Honda and Ford, has meant the death—at least here in America—of dynamic, attractive, car-like vehicles like the C-Class Estate, and the Honda Civic and Ford Focus wagons.
So it was not with the highest expectations of self-pleasure that I attended the recent launch of the heavily freshened, 2013 GLK, even though it was being held in picturesque Meadows of Dan, Va., which is apparently a place one can fly to, but only if one flies to Greensboro, N.C., and then drives for two hours. True to form, while the revitalized GLK includes—among its oft-heralded collection of 1,000 new parts—a softer nose, a Decepticon-like mouth, some Aladdin Sane LED eyeliner highlighting the upper lid of its headlights, and a motivating member that is at once more powerful and more efficient, I wasn't really won over.
Yes, its newly revised, 302 hp, direct-injection V-6 makes more than adequate power for zipping to Whole Foods and grinding up steep suburban driveways. Indeed, its updated interior is tastefully adorned with bowing expanses of dark polished wood that wouldn't look out of place on the lid of a successful insurance agent's coffin. Obviously, it is available with a comically diverse range of TRONIC-suffixed safety and service features that do everything from turn the steering wheel into a millstone when you accidentally cross the yellow line, to help you park with confidence at the outlet mall. Certainly, it offers an infotainment system, COMAND, that features the same glorious interface that delighted you in 2004 (although I continue to find it a profoundly uninspired platform that has been constantly expanded to distract from its shortcomings, like a modular home with a wine cellar and a sky-lit bonus room.) And speaking of COMAND, it definitively offers command seating—the upright driving position that offers insecure people a false sense of safety while upending the lower center of gravity and concomitant maneuverability that would actually make them safer.
But the biggest letdown about the GLK is that it doesn't dazzle in the way a Mercedes is supposed to. It doesn't demand subservience like a CL, SLS, or even the newly homelified SL. It doesn't exude stolidity like an E-Class or even the once-pedestrian C. It fails to be audacious like the long, and long in the tooth, S-Class. It's not a thrilling upending of the bland entry-level like the upcoming B-Class. And it certainly doesn't evince timeless and effortless class like the elegant and capable E350 4-Matic Wagon, a vehicle that has the exact same cargo capacity as the GLK, seats two more people than the GLK in its adorable rear-facing jump seats and smells forever like summer in Martha's Vineyard. Even the GLK's most spectacular and unique feature is one that won't be available until well after its fall 2012 launch: a turbocharged, diesel, four-cylinder engine which garners amazing fuel economy, and makes more torque than a Ferrari F430, and which I expect will find its way into other, classier American Benzes around the same time.
For the $57,000 my fully optioned GLK tester cost, I could buy a base E350 4MATIC Wagon. And I would. For the $39,090 price of a base GLK 4MATIC, I could buy a base C300 4MATIC wagon. And I would, if Mercedes sold it here.
But if you're cross-shopping a Q5, X3, or animated feline, you would be unwise to skip taking a test drive in this creasy-flanked cute ute. In that field, it's grrrrreat!