STRASBOURG, FRANCE – Without inserting too much exaggeration, a successful launch for GLC is vital to Mercedes-Benz both in Canada and globally.
Its outgoing version is the brand’s second-best selling unit behind C-Class. And, as a major player in the heart of the competitive compact luxury SUV market, a misstep here could have a painful ripple effect for the German brand as it seeks to extend its luxury volume lead over BMW in this country.
While it is impossible to predict fickle consumer tastes, having driven GLC through charming European villages on the international press launch in July, I think Mercedes-Benz has another winner on its hands.
The 2016 GLC is longer and wider than the outgoing GLK. The name switch is in adherence to the nomenclature name game the automaker announced last fall.
All SUVs and crossovers will start with G as an ode to the matriarch flagship G-Class at the top end. Below that GL, GLE (former M-Class), GLC (former GLK) and the new crossover GLA slot in.
The C in GLC comes from its connection to its C-Class cousin. (The third letter in SUV names going forward will be used to denote market segment or distinguish size.) Both vehicles also share some basic architecture and modules.
After first hitting the market as GLK in 2008 as a 2009 model, the vehicle has been a popular nameplate for the brand around the world.
Thomas Weber, Mercedes-Benz board member for R&D, says it has delivered more than 650,000 units globally since that first one hit the road and expectations are high this latest version can succeed in equal fashion.
Helping drive volume for GLC is the fact it will be offered as a right-hand drive for the first time. New markets for the model will include several automotive powerhouses including Australia, South Africa, India, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Company executives say they expect either the U.S. or China to be the nameplate’s biggest market going forward.
Certification for Canadian sales comes in November with sales expected to start immediately after that.
Dealers here will see a staggered rollout with the gasoline-fuelled 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder 300 4Matic leading things off. A turbo diesel 300d 4Matic version will follow soon after, while a plug-in hybrid is slated to hit Canadian roads sometime for the 2018 model year.
After that, Mercedes-Benz executives teased of a coupe version no doubt aimed at BMW’s X6, though a timeline for that variant has not been decided.
The most noticeable change comes on the outside as GLK’s characteristic sharp edges and lines (cues borrowed from the G) have been softened considerably.
The new sheet metal look follows a design philosophy the automaker calls “sensual purity,” whatever that means.
Inside, like out, has been totally redesigned. Designers have added some strong accents with open-pore wood and nappa leather depending on the trim.
It is also noticeably larger inside the cabin as the stretched exterior dimensions – 120 mm longer and 50 mm wider – seems to double the roominess. Shoulder width has increased 54 mm, knee room in rear is up 36 mm while load capacity has jumped an impressive 80 litres.
The optional Air Body Control system – a multi-chamber air suspension system with electronically controlled, continuously adjustable damping – is a step up from GLK’s Airmatic system. Specific characteristics are pre-selected through the Dynamic Select driving dynamics program that offers eco, comfort, sport, sport+ driving modes.
Competition and Technology
As a bigger, roomier model, GLC is also up to 80 kg lighter depending on the variant and enjoys a fuel consumption drop by up to 19 per cent over its predecessor.
Experts with Mercedes-Benz say the weight loss is owed to a wider use of aluminum and high- to ultra-high strength steels in its construction.
The unit will continue to battle Audi Q5, BMW X3, Porsche Macan and a slew of other comers in the segment including Cadillac SRX, Lincoln MKX, Acura RDX and segment leader, Lexus RX.
And while sales of the outgoing GLK lagged to finish last year – 5,599 units translated to a drop of 6.9 per cent – appetite for the compact luxury SUV market seems to know no bounds as the 93,694 units sold in 2014 marked a 12 per cent increase over 2013.
To put those numbers in perspective, the luxury SUV segment sold more than the luxury passenger car and non-luxury large SUV segments combined last year.
Timing with GLC is perfect as upstart Audi – part of VW Group that is marching towards its goal of top volume auto company by 2020 – has started a massive investment campaign it hopes will supplant BMW atop the global luxury heap inside of five years.
Audi CEO Rupert Stadler confirmed in early June the segment set to see the most expansion for the brand would be SUVs with a Q1, Q8 and potentially a sport compact crossover.
Helping GLC stand out now is the slew of driver-assistance systems programs previously seen on the likes of S-Class, E-Class and C-Class. Mercedes-Benz’ Intelligent Drive system with collision prevention and crosswind stabilization will come as standard while certain other safety features will depend on trim and country.
It has also not been lost on industry observers that Mercedes-Benz continues to add partial or semi-autonomous driving technologies to its vehicles. A major foray came with the S-Class redesign in 2014 and on the subsequent refresh of the E-Class.
GLC is no different, as much of the same active safety systems seen on the latter two models will be found on GLC at launch.
While executives at the international press launch – which saw journalists from around the world navigate drive routes from Basel, Switzerland to Ettenheim, Germany and onward to Strasbourg, France – were not ringing the autonomous bell, it is clear they do not want to be caught flatfooted when legislation catches up to the reality of current vehicle technology.
What is also clear is that automakers cannot simply start at the end product with regards to introducing these capabilities to consumers. This technology will take baby steps.
“Autonomous driving is the top of the ladder,” explains Frank-Werner Mohn, Mercedes-Benz developer and active safety expert. “We can’t just start there at the top. We have to bring the customer with us on every step.”