It's no great new-age sporting SUV but the GLC is refined, rich and capable. Has potential but needs distinguishing price and CO2 stats

What is it?

What it might have been is one of the most interesting versions of Mercedes’ latest SUV. It may even still prove to be, in a few years' time. This, then, is the GLC 350 e, the company’s petrol-electric plug-in hybrid alternative to the usual mid-sized, five-seat family 4x4.

Like its diesel siblings, this one has got full-time four-wheel drive and height-adjustable air suspension. But unlike them it offers the potential to combine a sub-six-second 0-62mph sprint with a fleet-friendly CO2 emissions rating.

Well, it’ll offer those things in markets where you can actually buy it. While the other versions of the new GLC use Mercedes’ new nine-speed automatic transmission, the 350 e can only currently work with the old 7G-Tronic-Plus torque converter gearbox also used in the S 500 plug-in hybrid. Without splashing out on an expensive re-engineering program, Mercedes can’t make that gearbox fit a right-hand-drive car with four driven wheels. Sound familiar? That’s probably because it was precisely those RHD conversion problems that kept the GLC’s predecessor, the GLK, from going on sale in the UK.

Mercedes is working on a nine-speed PHEV powertrain to address the problem, so there is at least some far-off hope for UK customers interested in the GLC 350 e. So with a plug-in hybrid Porsche Cayenne already on the market and rivals from BMW and Audi imminent, is this Mercedes a good reason to keep your money in your pocket for now?

What's it like?

Disappointing in one respect. A 300bhp pseudo-performance SUV really ought to be more tantalising and enjoyable to drive than this.

The GLC 350 e, like all of Mercedes’ hybrid models to date, is the sort of car that’s at its best when driven unhurriedly. On more modest accelerator pedal openings, the electric motor copes well with the car’s two-tonne bulk. You’ll keep up with urban traffic easily, and maintain an A-road cruise without trouble.

But when you stretch the powertrain with wider throttle applications, the sheen comes off its style of delivery. Ask for full power and there’s often an unflattering delay before the combustion engine can wake up and supply it, followed by an unseemly lunge. Performance is strong in outright terms and powertrain response is better when the car is bowling along at more consistent speeds. But in manual mode, gearchanges can sometimes take a split-second longer than they should.

Brake pedal feel, a perennial bugbear of hybrid-electric cars that regenerate kinetic energy before activating their friction brakes, is also poor. Braking power ramps up suddenly beyond a certain point, and smooth progress can be tricky at low speed.

For keener drivers at least, other manufacturers offer more satisfying plug-in hybrid powertrains. But Mercedes may not worry too much about that, given that GLC owners will be used to making similar dynamic sacrifices relative to more agile-handling SUVs such as the Land Rover Discovery Sport and BMW X3. And given that the GLC 350 e, also like its rangemates, has strong practicality, commendable mechanical refinement and a fairly laid-back, cushioned ride to act as selling points.

The GLC’s high-voltage electric propulsion system is in effect noiseless from the driver’s seat. It’s powerful enough that you can quite easily keep the combustion engine from starting around town while comfortably keeping up with the traffic.

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A ‘haptic’ accelerator pedal contributes to the intuitive functionality here, which mimics a kick-down detent marking the point of pedal travel after which the engine would be needed to provide greater acceleration. But that’s not all it does. The pedal also works in tandem with the sat-nav to encourage you to lift off and coast in plenty of time when approaching a built-up area, by issuing a short pulse of feedback direct to your right foot. For drivers not used to how best to drive for optimum economy, that’ll contribute notably to their efficiency return.

Mercedes’ claim for electric-only range is 21 miles, delivered by an 8.7kWh battery under the GLC’s boot floor. That’s less than is claimed for other similar PHEVs, but our testing suggested it’s a more accurate claim than others. On electric-only running, we covered just under nine miles using roughly 40% battery capacity. The battery takes a sliver of boot space away by raising the cargo bay floor by a couple of inches – but it leaves more than enough space for daily use.

The car’s handling is competent and controlled, with steering that is sensibly paced and weighted but generously power-assisted and muted on feedback. In both, you can feel the effect of two tones of kerb weight. Grip levels seem well matched to the car’s body control, although neither are outstanding.

With air suspension fitted the car rides quite softly, allowing a pleasingly laid-back, gently loping gait to develop in Comfort mode. Ramp up the suspension settings and the ride becomes noisier and more fidgeting, but it still lacks truly impressive close body control. 

Should I buy one?

For the time being, you can’t. But if and when Mercedes masters the right-hand-drive conversion, you’d end up with a well-executed take on the plug-in petrol-electric SUV if you did.

For this tester, Mercedes needs to do two things to give the car a chance: undercut the likes of the Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid and BMW X5 xDrive40e by a wide margin on price and also ensure that its new nine-speed gearbox delivers sub-50g/km CO2 emissions to grant the biggest possible benefit-in-kind tax advantage.

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Both are entirely achievable. And if done, the GLC 350 e should be a tempting option for well-heeled fleet drivers looking for an ultra-modern and genuinely luxurious low-emissions SUV that comes without many of the familiar compromises.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLC 350 e 4Matic

Location Strasbourg; On sale na; Price na; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1991cc, turbocharged, petrol, plus 112bhp electric motor Power 316bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 413lb ft at 1200-4000rpm; Gearbox 7-spd automatic; Kerb weight 2025kg; 0-62mph 5.9sec; Top speed 146mph; Economy 108.6mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 60g/km, 9%

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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