Mercedes has had a sizeable hole in its UK line-up in recent years: a genuine rival to the BMW X3 and Audi Q5. Continental buyers have been able to pick the GLK but that car was never engineered for right-hand drive and, despite intense pressure from British dealers, the costs of factoring it in later on never stacked up.
Here, then, is the solution - the GLC, order books for which will open in mid-June, with deliveries due to start from November. The car itself will be officially unveiled next month too, although the light disguise worn by the prototype we’ve just had a spin in should give you a fair idea of what to expect.
The GLC is based on the same modular underpinnings as the latest C-Class, although it looks like it gets a longer wheelbase than the small executive saloon. It has an impressively short front overhang and a modest one at the rear - enough, Mercedes claims, to allow it more than acceptable levels of off-road ability.
To prove this, the firm lined up a disused quarry and an hour of abuse and asked us along as ballast in the front passenger seat. Merc’s engineers were quick to point out that the GLC does without proper differential locks; we’re talking an electronic ESP-based system here, coupled with an air suspension set-up that has three ride heights beyond normal: raised by 30mm or 50mm, or lowered by 15mm.
You add this feature as an optional ‘off-road’ pack, and while you can also specify greater ability on regular steel suspension, that only adds up to an extra 20mm of ride height. Mercedes’ product wizards expect most customers who want this sort of functionality to go for the air option, and we’re inclined to believe them. The full ‘off-road’ pack also includes settings for snow and towing, and a natty data display that shows everything from ramp and lateral angles to throttle and brake pedal percentages and a compass.
The GLC did tackle the test site’s mixture of steep inclines, ‘rocking’ tracks (which place two of the wheels in the air) and sharp angles with plenty of aplomb. It always felt unmistakably like a software solution, with occasional rasps from the four corners as the ESP system did brutal things with the brakes, but given the road focus that 99% of these vehicles end up having, it seems easily strong enough for most customers. There are a few neat tricks, such as a front camera that guides you down steep slopes ahead of you when the view out of the windscreen is blue sky and little else.
What else could we tell from the prototype? The styling looks neat if predictable, although it’s good to see that there’s less of the fussy surfacing that has featured on many recent Mercs.
The packaging in the cabin feels clever; there’s room for four six-footers to travel in comfort, or for three to squeeze in across the back. The front occupants will be treated to the same dashboard architecture as in the C-Class, which is no bad thing; you get that single slab of wood in the centre console, with ‘uninterrupted’ grain, and either a large screen if you tick the option box for Comand, or a more modest display that features a Garmin-based navigation system. The materials feel every bit as plush as the C-Class’s. The boot looks a decent size, and there are buttons at either side of the load space to lower the rear seats without having to stretch in. There’s no awkward lip to load items over, either.
Our car’s petrol engine - the higher-powered version of Merc’s M274 motor, with 208bhp and 258lb ft of torque - felt punchy enough and refined during a brief squirt on surfaced road. The ride was pretty compliant too, given that our car wasn’t on the smallest wheels (likely to be 17in).
Merc is keeping other technical details, such as the engines, CO2 emissions and dimensions, under wraps until the new car is revealed. However, we’d say the firm’s OM651 four-cylinder twin-turbodiesel will be the main choice for UK buyers. A hybrid is a near-certainty, too; expect a system similar in concept and execution to the petrol-electric plug-in set-up that features on the C350e.
Even from this short off-road experience, then, there’s enough promise here to suggest that the GLC will be a very credible rival to the X3 and Q5. If anything, it feels a strong enough package to embarrass the GLE (the new name for ML), with as much off-road ability as many buyers will need, a plush enough cabin that’s scarcely any less practical and, one presumes, a tidy saving on purchase and running costs. Merc’s British dealers are about to get their wish, therefore, but quite a few customers could end up considering the GLC a bit of a result too.