SANTA BARBARA, CA – Expect the ’10 Mercedes-Benz GLK to continue the U.S. sales momentum generated by the auto maker’s utility-vehicle lineup, a key Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. Inc. executive says.

In 1997, when Mercedes launched its first utility vehicle in the U.S., the midsize M-Class SUV, the model immediately accounted for 12% of the brand’s sales, says Bernie Glaser, MBUSA general manager-product management.

By 2007, after the M-Class had evolved into a cross/utility vehicle and was joined in the Mercedes showroom by three additional CUVs, light-truck products accounted for 30% of the brand’s U.S. volume.

When the all-new GLK compact CUV goes on sale, it will provide consumers with a new “pathway into the brand,” Glaser says, noting its aggressive $33,900 starting price.

Each of Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. Inc.’s 330-plus U.S. dealers will have a GLK by month’s end, in time for the Jan. 5 sales launch.

The GLK will compete as a Middle Luxury CUV, according to Ward’s segmentation. Not counting Mercedes’ new offering, this segment will soon swell to 16 entries with the arrival early next year of the Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60.

Glaser dismisses the notion that Mercedes is late to the compact CUV party, suggesting the GLK represents a step in the right direction as consumers migrate toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“It is the right product at the right time at the right price,” he tells Ward’s during a GLK media preview here.

The GLK’s starting price jumps to $35,900 when equipped with Mercedes’ second-generation 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, which debuted on the ’07 S-Class sedan. Its integration with the GLK’s 7-speed gearbox negates the need for additional suspension parts and a wider transmission tunnel, thereby enabling Mercedes to use the same body shell for the 4Matic and 2-wheel-drive models and limiting the weight differential between them to 145 lbs. (66 kg).

And because the front driveshaft has been reconfigured with two gears instead of the previous three, the system promises improved fuel efficiency.

Glaser says the GLK will achieve 16 mpg (14.7 L/100 km) in city driving and 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km) on the highway. The 4Matic model has the same city mileage rating but is expected to get 21 mpg (11.2 L/100 km) on the highway.

The GLK’s 4Matic system also boasts a multi-plate clutch in the center differential. Known as a “breakaway” clutch, it channels power equally to the front and rear wheels, but still allows for faster front-wheel speeds in turns – a key element for improved traction.

Output from the GLK’s assembly site in Bremen, Germany, has been skewed toward 4Matic models to accommodate the anticipated 70:30 take rate in favor of the more intrepid models. Mercedes links greater luxury-market interest in all-wheel-drive systems with steady improvement in the technology’s level of refinement. But the auto maker is not kidding itself about the propensity of its customers to go off-roading. Gravel and snow are toughest conditions most GLKs will see, Glaser says.

Production of 2-wheel-drive GLKs ramps up for a “soft” April launch in the U.S., says Dave Larsen, MBUSA product manager-GLK and M-Class.

The auto maker avoids public volume projections, but MBUSA President and CEO Ernst Lieb offers guidelines for the GLK’s U.S. reception. “A brand-new car, in a new segment, should be over and above 15,000 to 20,000,” he tells Ward’s.

That would represent about 50% of total GLK output from Bremen, also home to the C-Class, with which the new CUV shares a platform.

The U.S.-market GLK is powered by a 268-hp 3.5L V-6 with a peak torque rating of 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm). It is available in Europe with a pair of turbodiesel engines – a 3.0L V-6 and a 2.2L I-4 – but Larsen says there are no plans to make those powertrains available here.

Mercedes teased the U.S. at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit with the Vision GLK, which inspired the production-model CUV. It was powered by a 2.2L I-4 turbodiesel engine that generated peak torque of 369 lb.-ft. (500 Nm).

To streamline the GLK ordering process, Mercedes offers five packages and eight options. The packages emphasize appearance, multimedia, lighting and leather seating.

Larsen says MBUSA expects an average transaction price around $40,000. But Glaser admits the current economic climate, reflected in MBUSA’s 25.5% November light-truck sales plunge, poses a challenge.

“It’s a roller-coaster,” he says.