Second Time's A Charger: Getting a Hot Segment Exactly Right
Mercedes-Benz is no stranger to our SUV of the Year honors. The venerable Stuttgart brand has twice before taken home the Golden Calipers, once in 2007 for the three-row GL-Class and again six years later for the second-generation GL.
Interestingly, the first Mercedes-Benz SUV meant for civilians, the 1998 ML320, did not win our SUV of the Year award (principally because we hadn’t thought it up yet). However, the ML320 did win our 1998 Truck of the Year award—no doubt hastening the decision to cook up an award just for SUVs. Seeing as how the M-Class helped usher in the luxury crossover as we know it today, we find it fitting that the all-new GLC is the fourth SUV with a three-pointed star on its hood to take home a Motor Trend Of The Year award in less than two decades.
It couldn’t come at a better time for Mercedes. Saying the crossover SUV segment is on fire isn’t strong enough language. Small and midsize premium SUVs have achieved critical mass while other perennially strong segments, such as family sedans, are melting down. As of August, small luxury SUV sales are up 25.4 percent compared to last year. Also remember that because they’re “premium,” these little car-based runabouts are hugely profitable for their makers. Expect the GLC to provide a nice contribution to the Daimler bottom line, as Mercedes-Benz is bringing the right weapon to the right battle at precisely the right time.
Before we get to the why of the award, let’s get to the what of the SUV, The GLC replaces the old GLK, the little-loved, squared-off, schnauzer-faced mini-ute that will forever be known as the most believable character in Sex and the City 2.
But you will forget about that old thing when you meet its much better replacement. The name has been changed from GLK to GLC to comply with Mercedes’ new naming convention. It’s quite logical if you think about it. All SUVs save for the Bundeswehr-prepped G-Class are prefaced with GL. The subsequent letter then matches the segment it competes in; the A-Class SUV becomes the GLA, the C-Class becomes the GLC, and so forth. Easy, no?
The GLC itself is a mishmash of Mercedes componentry, specifically the chassis and mechanical bits of the E-Class and the interior and electronics from the C-Class. We find this to be a particularly brilliant way to build a crossover. “One of the deciding factors for me was the decision to use the E-Class platform and C-Class features,” Alisa Priddle said in explaining her vote. “That’s the smart way to engineer a product.”
Added guest judge Mike Accavitti: “Overall I feel that this is a great vehicle. I think you know you’re getting into a Mercedes as soon as you open the door to the GLC. The quality of the materials and the elegance of the design are very consistent with the Mercedes-Benz brand proposition and reputation.”
The platform itself is Mercedes’ clever MRA (Modular Rear Architecture) platform, which will eventually underpin 10 models, including everything from the C- and E-Class to an upcoming replacement for the defunct R-Class. The GLC’s 113.1-inch wheelbase nearly splits the difference between the 111.8-inch C-Class and the 115.7-inch E-Class. The extra length translates primarily into rear-seat space, including extra headroom when compared to a direct competitor such as the Cadillac XT5.
A bunch of Germans I know joke that the GLC is the cheapest E-Class you can buy. They ain’t joking.
As the GLC doesn’t have the fancier interior of the E-Class, a bunch of Germans I know like to joke that it is the cheapest E-Class you can buy. Thing is, they ain’t joking. The C-Class interior is the best in its class, and most folks couldn’t tell it apart from an E-Class anyway. “This thing is just nice,” Christian Seabaugh said. “I hop in and immediately feel relaxed. The seats are sofa soft yet still supportive. All the touch points feel like a million bucks.” Accavitti: “It’s very luxurious looking with lots of leather and wood. I love how the infotainment system warns you not to be distracted by it, but then it has all these awesome screens you can’t help be distracted by!” Angus summed up the interior well: “Looks rich and upscale, like a mini-S-Class. It sets the benchmark for a small luxury SUV.”
We like the outside, too. Unlike the odd-duck GLK, which never resembled any other Mercedes-Benz vehicle, the GLC is design boss Gorden Wagener’s great take on Mercedes’ current style. “I like the way Mercedes’ new design language translates to this SUV,” Frank Markus said. “It has a very pleasing shape even if it doesn’t set the world on fire.” Mackenzie called the shape “very conservative,” though Seabaugh said, “This is a very handsome ‘trucklette.’ Looks almost like a Jeep Grand Cherokee from the rear three-quarter view, but it really is unmistakably Mercedes.” I side with Seabaugh, inasmuch as this is the first time Mercedes’ new language comes completely together as a unified whole. Look at the car from any angle, and it’s not only clearly a GLC, but it’s also obviously a Benz.
The only version of Mercedes’ not-so-small SUV we had an opportunity to review was the GLC300 4Matic. Under its hood snarls the ubiquitous M274, a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four that creates 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Power from the M274 is first routed to Mercedes’ nine-speed automatic transmission before being doled out to all four wheels. Despite weighing in at 4,078 pounds (1849.8 kg), the GLC300 gets to 60 mph in a respectable 6.8 seconds and runs down the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds at 89.7 mph (144.4 km/h)—though we doubt any American customer will ever ask for such thrust. “This feels very much like a V-6,” Chris Walton said of the little engine’s grunt, “and a good one at that.” Scott Evans concurred, “Still hard to believe this is a turbo I-4,” he said. “It’s so quick, and the power is always there.” If the GLC had a mechanical weak spot, it was the nine-speed transmission. “The transmission is generally good,” Evans continued, though he did say he had a few stiff shifts that he called “out of character.” Angus noted the transmission could be “a touch more consistent.”
This is the first time Mercedes’ new design language comes together as a unified whole.
But these are the occasional rough spots out of a normally superlative powertrain. For the most part, we love the way the GLC300 drives. Some—like Angus—weren’t completely happy with the ride on the optional large-diameter wheels. Smaller wheels featuring fatter tires would of course smooth things out. Both of our Detroit-based editors groused that this less-than-stellar ride quality would be hell across the mean potholes of Motown. Markus, for example, noted that the GLC had “a much more abrupt ride than the Cadillac XT5,” a car that has presumably been tuned to deal with the weather-beaten tarmac in Detroit. There was some speculation that perhaps the front suspension got a little tweaked at the proving ground, specifically across the (unintentionally) high-speed off-road section. Was the alignment off, as Evans speculated? Walton noted that the steering wheel was cockeyed. Or, as Mark Rechtin wondered, were we just feeling the pea under the mattress? “The ride was jittery and busy,” he said of driving on the jarring 110 Freeway simulator, “but nothing too horrible.”
Back to loving how it drives. “The first thing I notice is how quiet the cabin is,” Evans said. “At low speeds there’s virtually no outside noise.” True, at freeway speeds there’s wind noise, but the car does a great job of keeping road and tire noise out. More important, Evans noted, the GLC300 “trounces the competition” in terms of sound levels. “The steering is beautifully fluid and nicely weighted,” he continued. “The GLC is a much smoother and more mature corner-carver than the Jaguar F-Pace, which feels darty by comparison.” Walton said it was “easy to drive around town—no jumpy throttle mapping and with gentle and predictable brakes.” Once on Cameron Road, Walton found himself “egging myself on, driving harder and harder because the GLC just feels so confident, capable, and predictable.” Boss man Ed Loh, who wasn’t the GLC’s biggest fan while the car was at the proving ground, changed his tune in Tehachapi. And Angus said it “feels like the most nimble chassis here, after the F-Pace.” Note: This is a big deal because Angus likes Jaguars. To my senses, it seemed like a little bit of sportiness had been baked into the Benz’s chassis.
The GLC isn’t the sexiest choice for SUV of the Year, but it’s without hesitation the smartest.
All of the above points to a very good, thoroughly thought-out SUV. To understand why we voted the GLC as this year’s best, though, check out what Jason Cammisa has to say: “This is a sea change for a German luxury brand. It’s the first time an SUV has been as good as or better than the equivalent price-category sedan it’s based upon. Every previous SUV has been based on a sedan but hasn’t been nearly as well done. The Germans considered SUV buyers to be more price-conscious (they are) and more accepting of poor quality (they are)—so the trucks were engineered to sell in big numbers. This GLC seems to have been engineered to be a good Mercedes-Benz.”
That last part might just be the most important. The GLC is a smaller vehicle that feels every bit as well-honed as an E-Class, if not an S-Class. The current W205 C-Class is the first small Mercedes sedan to feel so premium; the GLC is the first small SUV.
“This is a cleverly targeted product delivering a cost-effective mix of new C-Class and E-Class technology and hardware into a red-hot market segment at a surprisingly affordable price,” MacKenzie said. Seabaugh likewise struggled to come up with negatives about the little Benz. “The GLC is just solid,” he said. “It aces all six of our criteria without skipping a beat.” Added Priddle: “It manages to combine calming elegance and fist-pumping fun. My No. 1 choice.”
Looking at the GLC’s competitive set will also be helpful in understanding our decision. It’s pitted directly against the Lexus RX and the Cadillac XT5. I’m calling these two out specifically because in a comparison test we staged prior to SUV of the Year with all three and a Cadillac XT5, the Mercedes GLC trounced all comers. “The GLC300 takes the gold medal,” Chris Walton wrote at the time. “Keep your eye on this one for next year’s SUV of the Year.” Talk about foreshadowing.
How does the GLC compete against the other strong-selling German SUVs, the Audi Q5 and BMW X5? Solid players for sure, but we can tell from experience that the GLC does it all better. That also applies to the smaller players in the segment, the Jaguar F-Pace, Maserati Levante, Porsche Macan, Acura RDX, Infiniti QX50, and Volvo XC60. All are nice premium SUVs—some even do a good job mimicking sports cars—but none is as well-rounded as the Mercedes-Benz GLC. Although not an official criteria, being the best in a given segment greatly helps secure first-place votes.
Although it’s not the sexiest of SUVs, the GLC is without hesitation the smartest. The design is solid, the interior is first-class, the engineering is as good as small SUVs get, and the value proposition is strong. We have no crash data yet, but the E-Class chassis that the GLC is based upon underpins one of the safest cars on the road. And despite surprising all of us with its power output, displacing just 2.0 liters means that the engine is also scarily efficient. If one of our ratings categories carries more weight than any other, it would be Performance of Intended Function. Is there another small premium SUV out there that does so many things right? And one that will satisfy as many of its customers? Not this year. I’ll give the final word to Cammisa, as his thoughts echo all of ours. “Mercedes for the win.”
2017 MOTOR TREND SUV OF THE YEAR CONTENDERS
- Acura MDX
- BMW X1
- Cadillac XT5
- Ford Escape
- Infiniti QX30
- Kia Sportage
- Lexus LX 570
- Lexus RX
- Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class
- Nissan Armada
- Toyota Highlander SE
- Toyota Land Cruiser
- Toyota RAV4
2017 SUV OF THE YEAR FINALISTS
|2016 Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 4Matic|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.5 cu in/1,991 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||241 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||273 lb-ft @ 1,300 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||16.9 lb/hp|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||13.5-in vented, drilled disc; 12.6-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||8.5 x 20-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||255/45R20 101W Bridgestone Dueler H/P Sport|
|TRACK, F/R||63.8/63.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||183.3 x 74.4 x 64.5 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||5.9 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||28.0/23.0 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.7 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,078 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||53/47%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||3,500 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.8/38.5 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||40.8/37.3 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.3/56.5 in|
|CARGO VOLUME, BEH F/R||56.5/19.4 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.7|
|QUARTER MILE||15.3 sec @ 89.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||110 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.9 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,400 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$60,780|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||19.3 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||19.6/26.5/22.2 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||21/28/24 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||160/120 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.82 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium|