In Unexpected Turn, Brilliance Within Reach

2009 Mercedes-Benz GLK
2009 Mercedes-Benz GLK (Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz)
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 2009

In many parts of the world, Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks are sought for their utilitarian value. A cab driver in South Africa or a delivery truck driver in Kazakhstan is less impressed with the Mercedes-Benz tri-star as a symbol of luxury than he is dependent upon it as a promise of reliability.

That is true of a variety of vehicle brands in countries where automotive repair shops are few and often are less-than-quality enterprises when found.

Locals in those places look for names they think will stay on the road -- names that include Isuzu, Land Rover, Nissan, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz.

But in the United States, Mercedes-Benz has been more interested in burnishing its image as a manufacturer of luxury automobiles, a maker more of optional than necessary transport -- until now.

Welcome the 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 4Matic. In this country, we'll call it a "premium compact sport-utility vehicle." But here's betting that in less-developed, or perhaps less-pretentious parts of the world, it will be called what it is -- a little lorry, a "carryall" of particular prowess, designed to go anywhere most SUVs can and do what most of them can do without their egregious thirst for fuel or appetite for space.

I was prepared to trash the thing -- the result of an erroneous judgment developed two years ago during a corporate "product reveal" in which I was shown a prototype of this week's subject vehicle.

Back then, I was decidedly un-wooed. The prototype GLK 350, built on Mercedes-Benz's compact C-Class car platform, looked smaller than any SUV ought to look. It seemed a delicate, nanny-boo-boo mobile -- an overpriced conveyance of ill-defined nature wearing a luxury badge.

I erred.

The all-wheel-drive GLK 350 4Matic and its rear-wheel-drive GLK 350 sibling are brilliant -- perfectly sized and mannered for routine urban use, yet built and tempered to run over the most challenging roads.

My wife, Mary Anne, and I drove the test model all over northern and central Virginia, over roads smooth and rough, through weather fair, but mostly foul, often compromised by sleet and snow.

Our verdict was that we liked it so much, we would like to own one -- an aspiration not completely beyond possibility, as it might have been in the case of other vehicles wearing the Mercedes-Ben badge in the United States. The rear-wheel-drive GLK 350 starts at $33,900. The tested all-wheel-drive GLK 350 4Matic starts at a price $2,000 north of that. For employed members of the upper-middle class, ownership in that price range is at least dream-range.

That is what Mercedes-Benz's executives were thinking when they dreamed up the GLK 350. Their target was a Subaru Forester-Subaru Outback customer who someday dreamed of owning and driving something with a Mercedes-Benz badge -- a psychographic recipe for a neither-nor mobile that, in execution and road performance, risked being little more than cheap.

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