It always seemed like foolishness that the Mercedes-Benz GLK wasn't developed for right-hand drive, but its successor, the new GLC, rights that wrong and first impressions suggest that Mercedes dealers in Ireland won't know what hit them when the mid-size SUV arrives in October. It's more than a match for the class-leading Audi Q5 and BMW X3 in 220d 4Matic guise we review here and there's plenty more to come for the range later on.
In the Metal:
Mercedes-Benz is on a bit of a roll in terms of design and the GLC is one of the best looking cars in the line-up with appealing proportions and subtle sculpting of the haunches of the car giving it real presence. In isolation it also appears to be bigger than the competition, but the stats reveal that there's not much in it. The GLC is 27mm longer than the Q5 but 1mm shorter than the BMW X3, while the Mercedes is 8mm narrower than the Audi and 9mm wider than the BMW. Helping the GLC's styling, however, is a lower overall height; 1,639mm plays 1,655- and 1,678mm for the Q5 and X3 respectively. That height is increased if the Off-Road Engineering Package is fitted, which also comes with unique bumpers that allow greater approach and departure angles for more extreme off-road use. At the other end of the scale there's an AMG styling package that looks particularly good with a panoramic roof, black door mirror housings and 20-inch AMG alloy wheels.
If the exterior of the new GLC is a resounding success then the cabin is a triumph. It's simply massive inside. So much so that it's difficult to believe that this SUV is based on the same platform as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class - albeit with a stretch in the wheelbase. Rear legroom in particular stands out as generous, though only for the outer two seat occupants, as there's a large raised section in the floor in the middle. Headroom is ample too. The boot capacity, at 550 litres, is the same as in the BMW X3 and 10 litres more than the Audi Q5 holds. Tactile switches in the walls of the luggage compartment quickly drop down the split-folding rear seat too, creating a large, flat area to carry very big items. In terms of tactility and perceived quality, the GLC is at least on a par with the C-Class, which means a very high level.
Do not set your expectations for the driving dynamics of the GLC at the level of the C-Class; it's better than that. Well, it is in a way that matters to the majority of drivers of this sort of vehicle. That is to say it's more comfortable and more refined. Quite amazingly so. Only on 20-inch wheels did the ride comfort seem to deteriorate, but on smaller rims than that the GLC simply sailed along. Indeed, it's almost too cushy in Comfort mode, with more unwanted body movements when cornering and braking, so we found it best in the Sport setting, where it absorbed every bump thrown at it with aplomb. It's worth noting, however, that all test cars at the international launch came with Air Body Control air suspension and continuously variable damping, an option we'd expect little or no take-up of in Ireland. That fundamentally alters the driving experience so it's not really representative of most GLCs that will be bought by Irish car buyers.
What we can glean from the test drive is that the GLC's steering is less communicative than say the BMW X3's and that this car's chassis seems biased towards comfort more than sportiness. Backing that up is serene refinement. Minor wind noise makes its way into the cabin, but only because the road and engine sounds are all but completely eased away by what must be a comprehensive package of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) elimination. It's hard to believe that the twin-turbocharged 2.1-litre diesel engine under the bonnet is the same unit used throughout the Mercedes-Benz range, as this is, by far, its quietest installation. Performance with 170hp on tap is good rather than great (this GLC weighs over 1,800kg after all) and the 400Nm torque figure should be enough for 2,500kg towing capacity. Indeed, we tried the GLC 250d 4Matic as well and though it has 34hp and 100Nm more to play with it felt no faster out on the open road.
The nine-speed automatic transmission is a gem, with little evidence of constantly hunting between its many ratios. The driver can take over control of the gear changing via tactile alloy paddles if they so wish, but there's rarely a need to, unless you want to employ extra engine braking.
There is plenty of grip in the dry and our road route didn't tax the 4Matic four-wheel drive system. However, we did get to try out a GLC 250d 4Matic fitted with the Off-Road Engineering Package on a short off-road course. Modes to choose from include Offroad and Incline (both 15mm higher ride height), Rocking Assist (50mm rise to get out of particularly sticky situations), Slippery and Trailer. The surface was dry, loose dust and gravel and it did serve to exhibit the GLC's impressive array of electronic assistance systems to good effect with several steep inclines and declines and plenty of cross-axle articulation.
What you get for your Money:
Full pricing details and specifications have yet to be released for the Mercedes GLC for Ireland, though we know it will start in the 'mid forties'. It's not clear if that's for the entry-level launch model as reviewed here or a forthcoming version. In October, two diesel variants (GLC 220d 4Matic and GLC 250d 4Matic) will be joined by a single conventional petrol option (badged GLC 250 4Matic and powered by a 211hp turbocharged 2.0-litre engine) and an impressively efficient plug-in hybrid called the GLC 350e 4Matic, but that one won't be available until early 2016. A nine-speed automatic is standard on all of those, with a seven-speed auto for the hybrid. At some stage in 2016 the entry level GLC 200d and GLC 200 models will make an appearance, presumably with rear-wheel drive, however there is no intention to offer manual gearbox options in Ireland.
Not only has Mercedes-Benz entered the premium compact SUV segment in Ireland for the first time with a car that has the makings of being the best-in-class, the GLC surpasses the C-Class it shares so much with, certainly in terms of refinement, comfort and space. Of course, some of that depends on the optional Air Body Control suspension, so we'll reserve final judgement for a review on Irish roads later this year.