It doesn’t seem that long ago that Mercedes SUVs came in two sizes: modest, as anyone might reasonably rate three generations of the M-Class, and massive, as anyone outside of the US would call the blimpish GL.
You could have a G-Wagen, too, of course, although no one did, because it was like buying a Land Rover Defender in Wehrmacht fancy dress. Mercedes also built something called the GLK, but you couldn’t have that in the UK, because converting it to right-hand drive was apparently too much of a bother.
Consequently, despite being in the business of turning out the kind of cars people suddenly want since the late 1990s, Mercedes, in the UK at least, has not previously made the waves it might have done.
Since 2014, however, it has begun to emphatically fix that. With the launch of the compact GLA, based on the A-Class’s architecture, the firm signalled to customers its intention to produce a crossover for every platform and attach a nameplate to suit. Thus we’ve had the GLE (formerly the M-Class), very soon we’ll have the GLS (in place of the old GL) and between the lot, appropriately, there’s the focus of this test, the new GLC.
This is the spiritual successor to the packaging blooper that was the GLK, so it represents something of an unknown quantity to British buyers.
Nevertheless, the underside (and therefore the general proportions) of the car ought to be well understood, because it rests on the C-Class platform – albeit one slightly swollen in both length and width.
At any rate, the GLC can be concisely and immediately related to people by simply explaining that this is Mercedes’ answer to the BMW X3. Mercedes makes no bones about the identity of its direct rival, and with the highly popular BMW now middle-aged in its life cycle, this is as good a time as any to introduce a premium alternative to Munich’s fattened 3 Series.
The grit in the oyster shell of Mercedes’ plan comes in the form of the Land Rover Discovery Sport. Although based on the LR-MS platform (which means there’s still some residual Ford in the heritage), the Discovery Sport isn’t beholden to a saloon car – and so it’s alone in this group in exuding the seriousness and visual heft of a ‘proper’ SUV. It is also the only one of the three to provide seating for seven, an advantage it’s possible to overstate but an attractive no-cost benefit nonetheless.
Despite not being as tall as the Discovery Sport, the GLC, in AMG Line trim, proves suitably appealing in the metal. The decision of the Mercedes press office to fit £450 running boards to our test car was doubtless an attempt to stamp some robustness on the bodyshell, but it needn’t have bothered.
Stick-on steps do not a Toyota Land Cruiser make, and the GLC’s conspicuous crossover-ness is assuaged by the fact that (with optional 20in rims filling the arches) it looks sharply engaging – certainly more so than the X3, which, despite a facelift and M Sport garb, is beginning to date with the inelegance of a Taylor Wimpy tudor mansion.
The Mercedes’ interior, inevitably borrowed mostly from the C-Class, completes the styling rout. The X3 remains unequivocally and consummately BMW: superior in ergonomics, function and perhaps even build quality. But, like the exterior, the overall design and some of the switchgear have fallen off the pace, a fact confirmed by glancing inside the GLC. Clad in slippery piano black and purged of right angles, the innards are two parts upmarket futurism, one part TIE fighter cockpit. It radiates wow factor.
That said, I will admit to still suffering the effects of mild discombobulation when sat facing the three-pointed star.
Mercedes’ dogged use of the column shifter continues to rankle. There’s the very latest in nine-speed torque converter automatics connected to the stalk, nestled in a magnesium housing to save weight; why we’re forced to engage this 21st century item like Tony Danza in Taxi is beyond me. Granted, there’s more room on the centre console for other controls this way, but the extra space is apparently insufficient to show me all the buttons without having to peer over the infotainment dial and the vast wrist-docking apparatus above.
Perhaps this is why the Discovery Sport continues to lure me in. Objectively, it is the most staid of the three, its perceived quality innately hamstrung by an in-house requirement to feel less special than the Range Rover-badged Evoque. But I find its dusting of utilitarianism, even in HSE spec, very endearing.
The Disco still wants to be the Leatherman multi-tool of SUVs: expensive, solid, useful and reassuring. The quirk of its positioning, which has left it straddling both a premium and mainstream customer base, ought to have limited it – some think it has – but I needed to variously wear muddy wellies and later a tux during our time together and felt right at home in both.
In terms of space in the rear, all three cars qualify as effective family cars (hardly surprising, given their provenance). The X3 has a fair bit more head room than the GLC, but leg room is similarly generous in both.
The Land Rover has a shorter wheelbase but doesn’t feel any less accommodating. Filling its two jump seats – even with small children – obviously eats into that space, although the Sport is packaged cleverly enough for it all to still seem like a neat idea.
Boot volume is similarly admirable across the board. The fact that you reportedly get 60 litres more capacity in the GLC than you would in a C-Class wagon gives some indication of the increased practicality (and therefore added value) that is had from choosing the SUV.
Also thrown into the usability bargain is Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive system. In the case of the 250d driven here, it’s powered by the 201bhp version of the omnipresent 2.1-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, which makes it moderately more powerful than both the Discovery’s 178bhp 2.0-litre Ingenium and BMW’s 188bhp four-pot oil-burner. Away from the mark, that difference shows.
The GLC proves a genuine sub-8.0sec to 60mph prospect, with a standing-start eagerness that not even the famously brisk X3 replicates. The Land Rover lags even further back, the gearing of its own nine-speed auto and a fair bit more kerb weight only contributing to the Ingenium engine’s power deficit. The unit’s refinement issues are hardly downplayed in this company, either.
Mercedes has successfully wrapped its own strident motor in an apparently thicker blanket than normal, its curiously chirpy thrum now consigned to moments of hard acceleration only. The engines in the Discovery Sport and the X3 are noticeably more vocal than that of the GLC, while the British car adds a dose of vibration into the mix.
The GLC’s pace is a useful ally in modern SUVs, and initially the car seems well primed to exploit it. Compared with its competitors, you sit low in the cabin – so low, in fact, that the model seems a more likely contender for something of the Audi A4 Allroad’s ilk than a Land Rover. The pedals and steering wheel are presented in car-like fashion, too. In the X3, the steering wheel has the girth of a George RR Martin paperback and is tuned for the kind of incisiveness that can be wrung from the front end.
The Mercedes follows suit, its variable rack being quick indeed but with less life to it. Compared with the Discovery, which turns the front wheels with a crisp, emphatic heft uncannily hotwired to your expectations, the GLC is lifeless to the point of impassive. Its pedals share the condition and prove oddly numb to either getting started or finally bringing the car to a halt.
In between those two states, the GLC is better. The question of chassis character when it comes to every compact SUV perched between a mainstream crossover and a Porsche Macan is a confounding one.
BMW and Land Rover have answered it succinctly enough. The X3 tested here, inexplicably shorn of its brilliant-value £650 adaptive suspension and unfairly propped on 20in alloy wheels, rides with stiff-backed abruptness and a disdain for road surface deflections deeper than a deck of cards. It also corners flat and tenaciously and with something approaching neutrality from the rear-biased xDrive all-wheel drive system.
Side by side, the Discovery’s patient lean under duress could almost be mistaken for wallow. It demands predictably more of the outside wheel and, on slimmer 19in tyres, mislays purchase earlier. But its poise and primary ride composure are exemplary, endlessly juggling mass and speed and body movement without the requirement for a button marked ‘Comfort’. The Ingenium engine finally comes into its own too, slyly and endlessly interjecting with 317lb ft mid-range gusts courtesy of the gearbox’s eagerness to unobtrusively downshift.
The GLC, one suspects, ideally wants it both ways – although with an emphasis on the tranquillity that £1500 worth of multi-chamber air suspension ought to buy you. Sadly, that option box was left unchecked, leaving our AMG Line test car with the passive ‘sports’ suspension set-up, as distinguished from the ‘comfort’-biased alternative on SE versions. Be that as it may, handling, in an enthusiastic sense, is not the GLC’s forte.
The right-hand-drive versions reputedly send more power to the rear wheels by default than the left-hookers, but that isn’t immediately apparent in the car’s overt preference for understeer – a characteristic typically unaided by the vagaries of Mercedes’ direct-steer electric rack and enhanced by the sportier dampers’ surprisingly permissive attitude to body control.
The softly-softly approach plays well at lower speeds, though. Here the GLC’s comfort levels outshine the Discovery, which can seem oddly rudimentary when dawdling. The Mercedes’ sophistication isn’t in question, yet it continues only up to a point: namely, the moment a suitably sized hole is offered up for one of the car’s big, pretty wheels to fall into.
This inconsistency leaves the GLC a patchier prospect than it otherwise might have been. Mercedes has trumpeted the availability of its Air Body Control in the segment, and it’s no great leap to imagine a better car resulting – just as the X3 is an improved product with adaptive suspension.
Without the costlier optional solutions – and minus the counter-intuitive selection of big rims – neither car tested here feels appropriately specced. Forced to make a choice between them on the day, I’d narrowly take the GLC, if only because its newness and aesthetic appeal better paper over the dynamic cracks than the older if leaner X3.
The GLC is also quicker (never a bad thing) and, if the claimed figures are to be believed, marginally cheaper to run, although there really isn’t much to choose between them on that score.
Nonetheless, both cars, any way you cut their spec sheet foibles, serve to make the Discovery Sport look good. Being the slowest, least efficient option in a modern SUV test is as welcome as discovering rust on the wheel arch, yet when driving the Sport, in Land Rover’s best tradition, your attention is rarely drawn to its flaws. Its steering and faultless sense of self make it both the most gratifying to drive and the best to be in long term.
Where its rivals shine in specific conditions, the Discovery feels ready for anything – not least the addition of two extra passengers and, lest we forget, the deeper, very occasional challenge of muddy stuff (where it is confidently superior).
The very fact that the GLC and X3 need careful finishing on their respective spec sheets only reinforces the impression that the Land Rover is the segment’s one can’t-miss, complete option.
Land Rover Discovery Sport HSE TD4 180 auto
Price £39,400; 0-62mph 8.4sec; Top speed 117mph; Economy 53.3mpg; CO2/tax band 139g/km/25%; Kerb weight 1884kg; Engine 4 cyls, 199cc, diesel, Power 178bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 317b ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 9-spd automatic
Mercedes-Benz GLC 250d 4Matic AMG Line
Price £39,595; 0-62mph 7.6sec; Top speed 138mph; Economy 56.5mpg; CO2/tax band 129g/km/23%; Kerb weight 1845kg; Engine 4 cyls, 2143cc, diesel; Power 201bhp at 3800rpm; Torque 369lb ft at 1600-1800rpm; Gearbox 9-spd automatic
BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport auto
Price £39,585; 0-62mph 8.1sec; Top speed 130mph; Economy 54.3mpg; CO2/tax band 136g/km/25%; Kerb weight 1820kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1995cc, diesel; Power 188bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1750-2500rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic