Remember the days, just before the GFC (no, that wasn't a car) in fact, that the luxury SUV was a bit of a novelty and not exactly a crowded segment. Those days are gone with even elite brands like Mercedes-Benz unable to ignore the lucrative field. The new midsized GLC has thrown its hat in the ring and it looms as Benz's most important new car launch this year.
We came to Basel, Switzerland, to put the vehicle through its paces and in what must be a first, a rare contingent of reporters in town not checking out the watches. In our case, however, we to-ed and fro-ed across more nearby borders than a Polish trucker evaluating the GLC.
The C-Class-based GLC is chock-full of features, looks a treat, drives well and gives you a level of luxury it's hard to find in a SUV of this size. If you ever needed an example of the SUV's coming of age, the GLC is surely it. The GLC uses the same platform as the C-Class (er, note the 'C' in the name) but in order to make it competent off-road, it has been given short overhangs to make it a better off-road vehicle.
Ulrich Zillmann - Development GLC says it's absolutely the right time to bring the vehicle to the global market: "People who chose SUVs with 'G' in them increased by a third in a year," adding that the market will see this SUV in "full gallop.
The GLC is spacious and comfortable, more so than its predecessor. Even on the roughest gravel road you'll feel like you are in business class."
Particularly noticeable is the extra headroom front and rear, and the cargo hold is larger than German rivals. Slide into the leather seats - electrically adjustable via seat pictograms on the doors - and it's all style and elegance and the boffins working on BMW X3 and Audi Q5, the big gun sellers among luxury SUVs, might care to take note.
Comfort levels are good thanks to soft seat cushioning and plenty of space, even for rear seat passengers. It's well and truly a family-sized lugger. I had loads of leg and head room in the front and back seats. We're talking real-deal comfort. Due to not getting a lot of kip on the way over from Dubai, your scribe took a brief nap in the front passenger seat while a colleague drove and drifted off quickly to push out some glorious reinvigorating zzzeds.
OK, the cabin looks pretty much the same as the C-Class as it's based on, the same MRA platform, but that's not a bad thing. The simplified but classy cooling controls work well, along with the redesigned steering wheel buttons. But the cabin is delightfully finished, pure quality.
The infotainment system is powerful and mostly user-friendly (even for a Luddite like your correspondent), with three input methods: voice, rotator dial or touch pad. It comprises an easy-to-follow satellite navigation system, Bluetooth audio and phone streaming, and features an SD card and twin USB ports. There's also a 12V socket. All info is displayed via a well-placed tablet-like screen.
An automatic powered tailgate is fitted as standard to all models. Standard fare also includes a nine speed auto transmission, nine airbags, automatic emergency braking, 360 degree view camera, LED headlights and tail-lights, and blind-spot monitoring. Incidental storage includes a plethora of cup and bottle holders, not to mention a big central storage bin.
So how does it go on the road? It's pretty good.
What's immediately noticeable is how incredibly car-like it is to drive. There's something appealing about this SUV's size in general. It's not big enough to make it intimidating to drive, sliding into tight laneways. This a vehicle that can still handle the battle for parking spaces at Spinneys car parks with ease.
The GLC's sense of luxury extends to the way it drives, although the steering is devoid of meaningful feedback and the front end feels a bit doughy through tight and twisty roads.
Under the hood there's enough poke for either powering along the autobahn or pottering around town. The engine is refined and quiet, responds with plenty of stamina and the new nine speed auto makes best use of the performance and economy available. The GLC will be available with a choice of two petrol engines in the Middle East, the 250 and 350. The former is a 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 211 hp 350Nm, the latter a 3.5 liter V6, producing 306 hp and 370Nm.
Being a Benz it also features loads of safety systems, from anti-lock brakes, stability control and nine airbags, to autonomous emergency braking (AEB), collision prevention assist plus and blind spot assist.
We tried out the off-road engineering pack that transforms the vehicle from a soft-roader to an off-roader. Various off-road modes are available via a rotator dial include a competent hill ascent/descent system, trailer assist and the extreme 'rocking assist' mode. What's clear from the course is that the GLC's 4WD system is just fine. Anyway, we'll be surprised if we see the GLC far from the tarmac in the Gulf.
Criticisms are few. It's well equipped and drives very, very well. The sun visors could be longer for blocking glare through the side glass. And there was a tad more body roll than we like cornering in Comfort. Some reviewers have found the nine speed auto fidgety at times and awkward when changing gears. I didn't spot that.
The smooth new exterior design is equal parts sporty and stylish, the interior borders on lavish and the car is blissfully easy to drive, incorporating clever but useful technology.
To sum up the style and substance of the GLC, Zillmann said it was a mix of the nations where the vehicle was a common sight during our testing stint: "It's a bit Swiss, German and French."