You can count on one finger the number of U.S. journalists who've driven the all-new 2010 Mercedes GLK350 compact SUV. I'm the finger. Mercedes engineers provided Motor Trend with an early introduction to their new BMW X3 rival at the SIP off-road test center in the Pyrenees mountains about two hours outside of Barcelona, Spain. Though the drive wasn't optimal (the special off-road package on the test vehicle won't be offered in the states), it did provide an early and revealing glimpse at this newest and smallest of Benz SUVs, headed our way in January.
"Smallest" is a bit of a misnomer, as the GLK isn't small. Compared with its larger ML sibling, the GLK rides on a 6.2-inch-shorter wheelbase and stretches 10 inches shorter in overall length. Yet at 4400 pounds it's still a bruiser. Chunky, GL-like styling (which doesn't translate well in photos) adds to the impression of size; the GLK is nearly as square-jawed as the long-gone Jeep Cherokee. The chiseled edges continue inside the cabin, resulting in a serious, almost severe flavor. The message is clear: Mercedes doesn't want its new crossover to be thought of as a "soft-roader."
In Europe, that'll be an easier case to make. There, an available off-road package adds underbody skid plates, long-travel springs, and specialized electronics that enhance the GLK's asphalt-free performance (still, the take rate on a similar package offered on the ML is only about 15 percent). Among the off-road features U.S. buyers won't be able to enjoy is Downhill Speed Regulation (DSR), which when descending steep grades automatically maintains a preset speed -- from about 2 mph to 11 mph, adjustable with a column stalk -- without driver input (the system even works with the transmission in neutral). On the SIP course, muddy after a previous night's rain, the GLK proved quite capable, climbing steep grades, articulating over widely uneven surfaces, and maintaining its composure on slippery descents. While the special off-road electronics no doubt improved the GLK's performance (certainly requiring less involvement from the driver), for most conditions the full-time 4Matic system (with 44/55 front/rear torque split) would've probably sufficed on its own (4Matic will be standard on all U.S.-bound GLKs, though a rear-drive model is planned for the future).
Yet while the GLK, at least with the off-road package, is unquestionably better in the dirt than the pavement-optimized BMW X3, it's no hard-core SUV. For one thing, it lacks a two-speed transfer case. And the braking-controlled, open-differentials 4Matic system simply can't deliver the rock-crawling ability of, say, a Jeep Wrangler. As we bypassed a rock wall any Wrangler could've climbed, Matthias Boumann, a Mercedes stability and traction-control engineer, admitted, "Now you see that there are some limitations with this system."