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km : First Drive

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20 September 2012

You’ll be forgiven if you can’t spot the differences between the updated 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK and last year’s model at first glance. We can’t either. But Mercedes assures us there’s plenty of change where it counts, even if you’re too blind to pick it up.

The best way to tell the two apart, quite frankly, is to open a door, any door. Not that the door you’re opening is different in any way, at least not on the outside. But inside, it’s another matter. Better materials and a softer design are signature elements of the newer version, bringing the small SUV in line with most of the rest of the M-B lineup. Broader expanses of wood veneer add visual warmth that was in short supply before, and the round air vents work particularly well at breaking up the linearity inherited from the first rendition.

Whether or not you can spot them, there are also significant changes to the outside as well. For starters, the whole body sits an inch closer to the asphalt at the mall parking lot. A common niggle for early GLK owners, who are for the most part female, was the step-in height, so an inch of ground clearance was subtracted to make entry and exit just a bit easier. And that seems to be just fine, as GLKs were a pretty rare sight on the Rubicon Trail anyway.

Most of the sheetmetal carries over form last year, but the hood and grill have been subtly updated to bring them in line with current Benz sedans. Headlights, taillights, and the front bumper are all-new as well, with LED lighting being the main calling card of the fresh design.

Nineteen-inch wheels are now standard, with twenty-inch AMG-branded rollers available as an option. The most enticing combination, at least to our eyes, is the AMG styling package, which adds nothing in terms of performance, but tons worth of go-fast looks with a unique twenty-inch wheel design, a two-bar grille, reshaped bumpers and aluminum roof rails. Even rolling on 20s, the GLK 350 maintains a comfortable if firm ride, consistent with competitors like the BMW X3, Volvo XC60 and Audi Q5.

The sole engine for the 2013 GLK as this point is a newly direct-injected version of the 3.5-liter V6 found in last year’s model. The departure from port injection bumps output from an adequate 268 horsepower to a much more appropriate 302. Torque is up as well, by 15 lb-ft to total of 273 across the sweet spot of 3500 to 5250 rpm. Paired with a seven-speed automatic, the GLK 350 sends power to the rear wheels, or to all four with optional 4matic all-wheel drive.

Typical for a Mercedes-Benz family vehicle, this engine/trans combo is stout but somewhat subdued, lacking the more visceral punch of, say, BMW’s 300-horse/300-lb-ft, turbo-six X3. Refinement is admittedly the priority of the GLK, though the added strength in the engine clearly makes for a more responsive overall package. If it absolutely needs to, the GLK 350 can jump to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds.

Perhaps more beneficial is the gain in efficiency with the new drivetrain. Between direct injection and a new automatic-start-stop “eco” mode (which happens to be exceptionally seamless in its operation), the 2013 GLK 350 essentially gains a 3-mpg advantage over its predecessor, with EPA figures of 19 mpg city/24 mph highway with 4matic, compared to the 2012 model’s 16/21 ratings.

Fuel misers will want to wait until next spring, however, when Mercedes will introduce the four-cylinder diesel-powered GLK 250 BlueTEC. The 2.2-liter clean-diesel engine will pump out a very healthy 190 horsepower backed by an astonishing 369 lb-ft of torque. EPA figures have not been finalized, but the same models tested on the European cycle reveal a 33% efficiency advantage for the small diesel, which could theoretically result in US ratings of around 25/32, roughly the same as a VW Jetta.

With this mid-cycle update, Mercedes has addressed some of the GLK’s initial shortcomings in the touchy-feely department and done its buyers a great service by improving both performance and efficiency with one stroke of the engineering wand. Visually, it still projects the aura of an uptight librarian – especially compared to its peers who have taken their glasses off and let their hair down, and maybe unbuttoned their blouse a notch or two – even when wearing AMG stilettos. Perhaps the styling wand will get a little more mojo next go-around, but for now the 2013 GLK 350 remains a solid, sensible and much improved choice in the compact utility market.


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