The Mercedes-Benz GLC Is Actually Pretty Good Off-Road

Too bad none of its owners will ever find out.

Mercedes-Benz GLC
Mercedes-Benz

More than the BMW X3, more than even the mall-dominating Audi Q5, the new Mercedes-Benz GLC seems designed to suburban lifestyle fantasies like Cinderella’s glass slipper. It’s the perfect size for 1.5-children families, two inches longer and 2.2 wider than the departed GLK. And unlike that polarizing, somewhat frumpy ute, the GLC is soft and pretty and luxurious as the C-Class sedan on which it’s based. Unlike most competitors, AWD is optional, a refreshingly honest admission that most owners will never need it.

That rear-drive GLC 300 starts at $39,875, or $41,875 for that AWD version and its surprising off-road talents. Not too harsh for a baseline number, but it’s easy to overindulge: Swaddled in black quilted Designo leather (of which Alexander McQueen would approve), flashing $3,950 worth of matte brown paint, and accessorized with seven option packages, my GLC soared to $64,530.

“No, of course we don’t have to spend that much,” you can imagine a happy couple saying, as they kick the tires and adjust their matching cardigans. And then the salesman will “throw in” the $205 heated washer system, maybe even the $850 Burmester audio unit, and the couple will find themselves racing home to impress friends with a small Mercedes for 60 large.

Even disciplined types who sticking to a Zara budget will find the GLC anything but a designer knockoff. In the C-Class’s high fashion, the GLC looks to imitate the S-Class sedan wherever possible. The infotainment screen is smaller, and hangs somewhat awkwardly from the dash, but its functions and animations are largely similar, including the S-Class’ rotary controller and drawing pad. Metal seat controls gleam on doors, including an optional driver’s thigh extender. The dashtop is a filet-thick slab; the generous clamshell center console isn’t flimsy like some entry-luxury rivals.

Options range from air suspension and 20-inch black AMG wheels to active LED headlamps and interior ambient lighting. The $2,800 Driver Assistance package calls in electronic guardians, including active lane keeping, rear collision protection and the ability to steer itself along mellow highway curves.

Where the GLK was a mite constricting, the GLC opens up for family business. A 4.6-inch longer wheelbase makes it easier to clamber into the back, where passengers enjoy 2.2 inches more legroom. Up front, there’s two more inches for shoulders and elbows, and seemingly enough headroom to keep Shaq grinning. Cargo space behind the second row is stingy for the class, with just 20.2 cubic feet versus 29.1 for the Audi. But drop the rear seats, split in a versatile 40/20/40 arrangement, and the 56 cubes virtually matches the Q5. A pair of useful switches manually drops the rear seats; waggle a foot under the bumper for hands-free liftgate operation.

Unlike the BMW X3, which offers a six-cylinder option, the Mercedes for now is four-cylinder-only. A 2-liter turbo with 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet bolts to Mercedes’ nine-speed, paddle-shifted auto ’box. The engine isn’t as lusty as BMW’s boosted four, and it’s not as creamsicle-smooth as Audi’s. But if you’re willing to thrash it, the GLC can keep decent pace, with a roughly 7.1-second run to 60 mph.

Unlike Fiat Chrysler’s jerky, nine-speed nightmare, the Mercedes transmission actually showed me ninth gear when conditions merited, including via paddle shifts. But even the Benz slipped up with an occasional clunky, hiccupping gear change, especially in its Sport Plus driving mode. The other four-cylinder upside is fuel economy, rated at 21/28 mpg in city and highway. I managed a reasonable 22 mpg over one 120-mile test.

Most owners will never dream of muddying this Mercedes. But on dirt and off-road near the Cross River Reservoir north of Manhattan, the GLC did itself proud. The Mercedes effortlessly toured a wooded trail of snowdrifts and foot-deep muddy ruts. I mean, the tires didn’t even slip, and I was sorely tempted to find rougher terrain to give the Benz a stiffer challenge. Adopting the sharp twin-louver grille of the GLA crossover and similarly short body overhangs, the GLC boasts 28-degree breakover and departure angles: That means it could climb and descend far steeper grades than you’d think, without scraping its handsome chin or butt. And playing on a washboard gravel surface at 50 mph, the Mercedes felt as solid as a bridge abutment, impervious to shakes and rattles.

The GLC also continues a Mercedes winning streak: The steering and suspension are textbook, almost perfectly tuned for the GLC’s luxury mission. As the modestly powered starter model, the GLC 300 isn’t overtly sporty. But the steering is finely weighted, and the Benz glided through curves with endearing cheek. And that was with relatively spongy winter tires. Girded with grippier all-season or summer rubber, and some forthcoming AMG upgrades, this GLC should whip into fine athletic shape. One caveat: There’s almost no road communication through the steering wheel. In the same easygoing manner, the brake pedal is on the soft side, though stopping power is good.

As for the faster GLC of our dreams, Mercedes is saying nein to a full-blown V-8 AMG version. Consolation will arrive this fall via GLC43 AMG. With 362 hp and 384 lb-ft. from a 3-liter biturbo V-6 (an engine we fell in love with in the C450 AMG Sport sedan) that GLC should scamper to 60 mph in barely five seconds. Also fall, a 2017 GLC 300d will offer a frugal 2.1-liter turbodiesel. And a second body style, the slope-roofed 2017 GLC Coupe, will break cover at the New York auto show in March.

That AMG model will bring a touch more grunt than Audi’s high-performance SQ5, the poor man’s Porsche Macan. The last SQ5 I drove, memorably lighting up the lonely canyons of southwestern Colorado, cost $57k. That, I thought at the time, was a lot of money for any compact SUV. Since this GLC 300 can top 50 and even 60 grand, I can only imagine what a GLC43 AMG will cost when the final option is tallied. But the urge to try on the GLC may be hard to resist. Glass slippers are like that.