Mercedes-Benz wants a bigger piece of the premium-SUV cake
It was Bastille Day 2015. I was cruising through the lush green vineyards of the French Alsace region, flanked by the mighty Rhine. All was quiet on the western front. The only discernible movement was the multitude of Tricolour flags and table cloths on picnic tables, gently fluttering in the breeze.
In France, Bastille Day is a holiday. However, it will be no picnic when the German vehicle I was driving reaches South Africa. This model, the new GLC from Mercedes-Benz, is their main weapon for storming the fortress of the medium-size luxury SUV, where the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 rule.
Because the GLC’s predecessor, the GLK, was never available with right-hand drive (technical incompatibilities made the conversion too expensive), BMW and Audi could entrench their X- and Q-models in this SUV fort.
This leaves Benz, with no prior presence in this segment locally, at a disadvantage. But then the GLK was Merc’s most successful SUV model to date, with over 650 000 sales worldwide. Also, in the first half of 2015 Mercedes-Benz recorded a 30 percent increase in SUV sales measured against the same period last year.
Compared to the GLK its successor signifies a paradigm shift in exterior and interior design. It is more generic and more traditional, with definite GLE (previously called M-Class) design cues.
The all-new interior is elegantly styled, and most striking is the quality upgrade of materials and trim. In this respect you’ll be hard pushed to distinguish the smaller GLC from its bigger GLE sibling.
The newcomer is bigger and substantially more spacious than the GLK it replaces. Its cabin is 120 mm longer, 50 mm wider and the load compartment is 40 mm longer – allowing for 80 litres more luggage space. Yet it is 80 kg lighter. This is courtesy of lightweight materials, a new compact transfer case and intelligent packaging. Consumption has also been reduced by up to 19 percent.
The GLC is endowed with Merc’s Agility Control suspension and variable damping (ADS Plus) available in Sport, Comfort or (20 mm higher) Off-road configurations. An electronically controlled Air Body Control system and Dynamic Select driving dynamics programme, with pre-selected modes (Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Individual), is optionally available. In Sport mode the system lowers the chassis by an extra 15 mm for a tauter ride, while in Comfort the ride is softer and more relaxed.
An optional Off-Road Engineering package, with Air Body Control, can raise the suspension by up to 50 mm. It has four off-road driving modes – Slippery, Off-road, Incline, Rocking and Trailer.
For now there’s a choice of four derivatives, including a plug-in hybrid (not for South Africa) equipped with either Merc’s 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel or 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engines.
All use Merc’s new 9G-Tronic auto transmission, except for the hybrid using the proven 7G-Tronic Plus ’box.
On road, off-road
So, how does all this translate to road and off-road track?
We sampled the entry-level GLC 220d 4-Matic diesel with 125 kW and 400 Nm under the hood first. Due to turbo-lag it was lethargic low in the rev range, but quiet and refined at speed.
Standard issue driver assistance systems (Collision Prevention Assist Plus, Crosswind Assist, Headlamp Assist and Attention Assist) abound, and the optional Driving Assistance Plus package provide even more help and safety.
With Dynamic Select it was easy to find a preferable driving set-up and the more powerful GLC 250 4-Matic (155 kW and 350 Nm) was ideal to try the Sport+ mode up a twisty mountain pass.
Even when driven hard it felt surprisingly composed and nimbler than the heavier GLE. Yet it was the 250d 4-Matic that really impressed. With ample power (150 kW) and tremendous torque (500 Nm), a near seamless drivetrain and low noise levels it was a pleasure to pilot through the vineyards.
It was also the model of choice on the off-road sections, where it performed remarkably well, tackling the obstacles with confidence thanks to DSR speed control, ample ride height and good wheel travel.
Leading the attack locally from October will be the GLC 220d 4-Matic, 250d 4-Matic and 250 4-Matic, to be followed by the 175 kW 300 4-Matic. A second wave, consisting of AMG versions are set to follow soon, while a GLC Coupe version, to challenge BMW’s X4, is also imminent.
The Stuttgart banner is raised. Will the Bastille fall?
220d 4-Matic R599 900
250d 4-Matic R619 900
250 4-Matic R604 900
300 4-Matic R654 900
(excludes emissions tax and extras)