Well-appointed family crossovers and sports utes are becoming the most important class for prestige brands – Mercedes’ sees its GLC as being a star offer of 2016.
WITH the shape of the luxury market being clearly defined by sports utility styling, it’s weird the sector leader’s rise to the top has been spearheaded by something falling out of fashion: A medium car.
Mercedes isn’t complaining about the stellar performance of its C-Class but it also recognises that now being able to follow Audi, Lexus and BMW into the crossover sector with a spin-off sports utility will bring even better reward.
Such is our love for quasi-to-actual off-roaders that these cumulatively these account for the largest slice of new car sales, around 34 percent, whereas industry-wide the orthodox sedan share – despite the C being its best-selling model type – is much more modest.
Benz previously would have liked to have been there, done that with a street-smart quasi-sludge tamer, but couldn’t compete because the only model that remotely fit the bill, the GLK, was designed purely for left-hand-drive product. Doh!
The replacement GLC, here with a 2.1-litre turbodiesel in two outputs – the $89,900 GLC220d with 125kW and 400Nm and the $96,900 150kW/500Nm GLC250d - plus the GLC250, a flagship petrol turbopetrol 2.0-litre pumping 155kW/350Nm at $94,900 - isn’t of the same ilk.
Being a much softer shape than the square-edged GLK and smarter too makes it a sea change model. Or, as said, a ‘C’ change: Underneath the outdoorsy styling and you find the same platform and mechanical underpinnings used by the Benz Kiwis currently love most.
So really, then, the GLC is a good thing made even better for a brand already on the up, whose impressive migration from a year-starting third place in the luxury sector to a probable year-ending history-making first has been achieved even without any particular pitch into the SUV sector where, for rivals, all the major action occurs.
Benz doesn’t expect the GLC to ruin the C’s party: A model currently here in wagon and sedan form will soon to be joined by a coupe but, more importantly, the family also includes the AMG 63 editions that have so captured Kiwi interest that our per head-of-capita ownership rate of just under 14 percent is the world’s highest.
Mind you, the GLC is on the same path: A coupe edition has already been seen in concept form and might be here within 18 months and the AMG hotrod division is also set to provide tuned models, although not before 2017.
Benz also holds belief that the local soft-roader interest, despite also already being sizeable by global standard, has not yet reached saturation. It has tipped the GLC as being the strongest-selling of its four-wheel-drive models.
They see it as being very much a challenger not just to the obvious homeland rivals (Audi Q5 and BMW X3) but also the Porsche Macan, Lexus NX and Land Rover’s Discovery Sport and Range Rover Evoque.
Given that it also obviously offers similar functionality to a C-Class wagon, you’d think there might be some seat-swapping there as well, but Benz – as well as arguing these cars have different customers bases - has nonetheless also cleverly avoided a price list clash. The dearest estate, the four-cylinder petrol C250, is $800 cheaper than the entry GLC while the entry C200 wagon has $5100 advantage.
You could argue each way on the styling – they’re both great looking cars - but if it purely comes down to spaciousness, then GLC stands to win the family vote.
Being 4cm shorter in length than the estate is no issue, because it makes up any spatial shortfall by being 18cm taller, which means more head and lower leg space. With 550 litres’ luggage space seats up, rising to 1600 litres with the 40:20:40 split-fold rear seats pulled down, there’s at least 60 litres more capacity than the wagon has.
The boot space is in fact right in line with its BMW and Audi rivals and only beaten by the Discovery Sport. Storage spaces are also plentiful, with a decent-sized glovebox, roomy doorbins and nets in the boot. There’s also a handy cubby in between the front seats, and another ahead of the infotainment selector.
A rather wide transmission tunnel influences the seating plan, but head and legroom in the back are really good and rear-seat occupants are treated well, with their own air ventilation and a generous armrest storage area.
In regard to specification, Benz hasn’t squandered. All cars get an automatic tailgate, reversing and 360 degree camera, navigation, nine airbags and keyless start and only the 220d has Mercedes’ Artico manmade leather instead of the real thing and 19-inch alloys. A nine-speed automatic is standard.
The 250 models step up to 20 inch alloys, keyless go, privacy glass, leather and drive assist plus. A sunroof (for $3990) and Command, paired with the upmarket Burmeister sound system (for $2990) are optional, plus there are AMG Line and Night Package styling enhancement packs.
An Airbody Control air suspension plus an off-road pack are also available; Benz expects modest interest in the first and isn’t too sure what pick up there’ll be for the latter, which costs $3490 for the 250 models and $3990 on the entry car.
Airbody is inclusive with off-road, but the pack also gets you an approach angle-increasing front bumper design, reinforced bodywork and engine guard, an extra 20mm of ride height, off-road lighting setting, and a whole bunch of electronics – including Downhill Speed Regulation (DSR), off-road ABS, ESP and traction control, and up to five additional driving modes: Off-road, Incline, Slippery, Trailer and Rocking Assist (this being for getting you out of ruts where you would otherwise remain stuck).
It seems like a lot of effort to satisfy the tastes of perhaps the one in 100 buyers who might actually hit the dirt with this thing.
None of the cars on the introductory drive in the Yarra Valley behind Melbourne had these options – and off-roading wasn’t on the menu either (though gravel roads were) – and I ended the day wondering what difference to the dynamic side of things that Airbody might deliver.
Even if it doesn’t transform the car, Airbody might be useful anyway: It adds self-levelling for heavy loads and gives the off-road pack an additional 50mm of ride height.
In steel spring form, the GLC seems to be primarily about comfort. This might be the aerodynamic shape in its sector, with a Cd of just 0.31, but don’t misinterpret what those sweeping curves are suggesting. Slipping through the air is one thing, nipping around corners in sporty style another.
It’s not without some sense of elan – turn-in is sharp, there’s plenty of grip and the standard 4Matic four-wheel drive being is handily biased quite heavily to the rear, moreso in the 250 ( where the front-rear bias is 31:69) than the 220d, in which it’s 45:55.
However, it’s no racer. The engines are of course refined and thrifty (5.6 and 5.7 litres per 100km optimums respectively claimed for the diesels, 7.2L for the petrol). But they’re not exactly powerhouses; as 0-100kmh times between 7.3 and 8.3 seconds reflect.
When you do get it punting along, the limits are easily defined. There’s early onset of understeer, which the ESP is eager to kill by withdrawing power, and the steel-sprung ride quality definitely errs toward comfort. It soaks up bumps quite well but I suspect there’s less resistance to body roll than you might find in an X3 and Q5. It wouldn’t be surprising if the GLC’s engineers had different priorities than their counterparts at BMW and Audi; the Benz overall has an air of being a more refined car than its rivals.
The air suspension operates through the car’s dynamic select function, which is still useful because its settings – Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus – alter the gearbox and throttle mapping and the steering. The sportiest setting certainly has effect on the transmission of the petrol model; holding it up to three gears lower than where it would have been in Comfort. The difference in the accelerator and steering feel is less palpable.
Not being unduly sporty isn’t necessarily a black mark. Travel sickness-prone families and their canine companions might be quite relieved to hear it, in fact. The comfort over bumps and ruts is impressive and the diesel, of course, has lovely mid-range thrust. In that respect, the entry engine is actually so good you have to wonder if the 250d is worth the extra money. It probably is for the additional equipment, but in terms of the performance, even though it’s half a second quicker to the open road limit and has another 100Nm? Not so much.
The other outright attraction is how the car presents. I like the look – its classy and practical - and Benz interior design is a winner, too. Even the entry package has a suitably upmarket, quality air. Anyone who has driven a C-Class will find it all very familiar, too, since virtually every interface is the same.
In terms of safety, the GLC also stands tall; it packs an absolute plethora of safety systems: All GLCs get ESP with Dynamic Cornering Assist, Crosswind Assist and Collision Prevention Assist Plus, and also have nine airbags.
The GLC is big news for Benz, and not just here. So great is the pressure of demand on the Bremen factory that the brand has just announced intention to shift some production to a Finnish contract manufacturer.
A slightly relaxed driving demeanour and quiet performance doesn’t have to be a black mark against GLC – in all likelihood, the AMG equipment pack, and certainly the full-out AMG product – will remedy that, in spades. In the meantime this car is looking good: It has a premium feel, looks smart (and more modern than most rivals), seems set to work at a functional level and is priced smart.
Benz NZ was already running hot before GLC arrived. Now it’s in the stable, there’s every chance the sales pace will step up yet again.