SANTA BARBARA, CA – Mercedes-Benz likes to call its ‘10 GLK compact cross/utility vehicle “the right product for the right time.”

The first part is true. But the second part is an understatement.

The GLK represents the way of the future.

Last summer’s record-high gasoline prices jolted American consumers out of their Monster Truck fantasy.

Yes, there is legitimate demand for the high-fashion functionality found in the Lexus LX 570, Cadillac Escalade or Mercedes GL-Class. But never again near the 162,000 deliveries as witnessed when large luxury SUV sales peaked in 2004, according to Ward’s data.

Add up those seating positions and you exceed the capacity of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Giants Stadium, multiplied by four.

The GLK reminds that comfort, capability and style can be had in a sensible package. Although Mercedes is, admittedly, playing catch-up in a segment that is growing in number and character.

The pending arrivals of the Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60 will further crowd a landscape where the Land Rover LR3 has a lock on intrepidness and the Acura RDX pushes the envelope on edgy interior design. More significantly for Mercedes is that arch-rival BMW AG already has a head start of about 142,000 unit sales, having launched its X3 CUV in 2004.

But the GLK and X3 are as different as their respective auto makers would hope. Where the X3 is raw and dynamic, the GLK is elegant and refined.

Like so many things, preference depends on how you like it.

Consider driver interfaces. While each vehicle employs a joystick/knob that requires a seemingly endless series of maneuvers to access features such as navigation input or phone pairing, the X3’s screen has all the charm of MSDOS.

However, the GLK’s display benefits from a chic, orderly appearance that has trickled down from the S-Class sedan. The high-resolution representation of an old-school radio dial is a particular favorite.

And if nimbleness is a hallmark of compact CUVs, as it should be, the GLK’s relaxed steering bows to the X3’s sportier guidance system. Though the latter’s chubby wheel would not be out of place in Grave Digger. (See Monster Truck reference, above.)

With its upright stance, Mercedes traces the GLK’s bloodlines to the brand’s iconic Galaendewagen.

The auto maker says it wanted to avoid the inevitable “Baby M-Class” comparisons, but the midsizer would have made a superior sire. The GLK’s neat proportions would be well-served by the M-Class’ aggressive lines.

Instead, the GLK has a fish-nor-fowl presence that belies its bold front end.

Thanks in no small measure to European Union pedestrian-impact mitigation mandates, the GLK’s hood boasts a profile worthy of a muscle-car power dome. This feature is enhanced by contours that begin at the A-pillars and spill between the wide-mouth grille and the vehicle’s stylized, projector-beam headlamps.

When its wheelwells are stuffed with the optional 20-in., 7-spoke rims, the GLK conveys a no-nonsense attitude about off-roading. Though most buyers will never go there, they would be comforted – as we were recently – by the remarkable prowess afforded by Mercedes’ new, lightweight 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.

(A snowy Michigan shopping trek in a 4Matic-equipped C-Class, the GLK’s platform-mate, suggested “Miracle on Ice” can refer to more than a hockey game.) .

‘10 Mercedes-Benz GLK (AWD)
Vehicle type 4-door, 5-passenger CUV
Engine 3.5L 90-degree DOHC V-6; aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 268 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 258 lb.-ft (350 Nm) between 2,400 and 5,000 rpm
Compression ratio 10.7:1
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Wheelbase 108.5 ins. (275 cm)
Overall length 178.3 ins. (452 cm)
Overall width 74.3 ins. (188 cm)
Overall height 66.9 ins. (170 cm); including roof rails
Curb weight 4,036 lbs. (1,830 kg)
Base price $35,900
Fuel economy 16/21 mpg (14.7/11.2 L/100 km)
Competition BMW X3, Land Rover LR2, Acura RDX, Audi Q5, Volvo XC60
Pros Cons
Launch timing G-Class DNA
Graceful V-6 Cramped rear
Quiet cabin Metallic trim

The CUV’s 268-hp 3.5L V-6 gracefully muscled the vehicle’s 4,036-lb. (1,830 kg) bulk through the chaparral around Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Mountains. On a route comprising more than 100 miles (160 km) of suburban boulevards, backwater speed traps and wide-open spaces, the GLK averaged a respectable 20.5 mpg (11.5 L/100 km) – despite some moderate flogging of the GLK’s 7-speed Touch-Shift transmission.

Downshift/throttle-punch combos gave satisfying glimpses of the engine’s peak torque rating of 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm). But unless the windows or panoramic roof were open, and the 450-watt, 12-speaker Harmon/Kardon sound system was turned down, there was little aural feedback.

The GLK’s cabin is a supremely serene environment. Road noise and tire vibration are diminished by hydraulic by-pass pistons that lend soft-shock attributes to each corner of the CUV.

More importantly, optimal handling performance is restored when pistons are inactive.

Mercedes calls this technology “Agility Control.”

The GLK’s comfort quotient is further enhanced by its seating. Both the front and rear feature support and compliance in the proper balance, though the latter position portends a disappointingly cramped journey if the driver is a six-footer or taller.

However, if you ever find yourself in this position, at least you will be riding in style. From the fine-weave headliner to the soft-pile carpet that extends even into the 23.3 cu.- ft. (0.7 cu- m) cargo hold, the GLK is a paragon of tasteful design – with the possible exception of models with metallic trim.

The finish of these pieces features a black fleck so unlike any metal surface we’ve ever seen, the effect is more like an accident than an accent.

But the overall appeal of the GLK is no accident. It’s in the right place at the right time.

emayne@wardsauto.com