words: Kurt Braun

Okay, I give up. It's time to give in to this sport-ute thing that's apparently been going on for the past couple of decades. And just in time for $4 gas! I've never paid much heed to the collective's witless embrace of size over sense, but, after driving a slew of new, smaller premium SUVs (Audi Q5, VW Tiguan, Volvo XC60, and, most recently, Mercedes-Benz GLK350), I've concluded that resistance is futile.

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This recent onslaught of competence has forced me to acknowledge the merits of a vehicle type that isn't my first choice but is, relatively speaking, still a step forward into a more efficient and practical future. I still yearn for the perfect station wagon, but until the Borg, er, market determines otherwise, this batch of like-minded machines will do very nicely.

My pick? To consider the Mercedes-Benz, I'd want a competitive price. A company spokesperson said the GLK would begin under $40,000, which not only is well in line with the others but is more than tolerable considering the GLK is built on the same platform as the well-regarded C-class and sports much of the sedan's technology and savoir faire.

To consider the GLK, I'd want an economical engine with enough pulling power that I wouldn't be the last boat at the launch ramp. In that respect, Mercedes' familiar 3.5-liter V-6 fills that role nicely. Its 268 horsepower flows smoothly to all four wheels through the seven-speed automatic transmission, and its ample 248 lb-ft, available from just 2400 rpm, takes care of the boat question, allowing a maximum braked tow weight of 4400 pounds. One of the most refined powerplants around, the gas 3.5 is estimated to deliver around 22 mpg on the highway, which is acceptable for a 4000-lb SUV, but I'd be tempted to wait for the GLK320 Bluetec diesel and its superior mileage and torque. It should arrive within a year after the GLK350's debut in January 2009 along with a less expensive rear-drive GLK.

Given my eco-conscious lifestyle's abhorrence of hardcore off-roading and the lack of snow and ice here in Southern California, a rear-drive oil-burner makes all kinds of sense, even if diesel prices stay higher than gas. I love the idea of 400 miles or more between visits to the fuel station, and deleting 4Matic will save weight for even better mileage. Moreover, I have total confidence that Mercedes' excellent traction- and stability-control systems would keep me out of trouble on greasy freeway cloverleafs.

Devoted dirt-pounders will be disappointed to hear Mercedes has no plans to offer U.S. buyers the special off-road package that so impressed me on a muddy forest track in Germany's gorgeous Bergisches Land. The purpose-built test area displayed the GLK's ability to negotiate up to a 35-degree gradient, 35-degree side angles, and waterholes up to 12 inches deep. A 23-degree approach angle, 25-degree departure angle, and 19-degree breakover angle all are at or near top of class.

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A number of styling touches distinguish the off-road version from the standard GLK, but the most significant alterations are several new technologies that are claimed to lend the GLK as much off-road prowess as the ML. Most impressive is a "G" switch that activates a special off-road program to modify the throttle angle and the shift points for the 7G-Tronic transmission as well as retune the various braking and traction-control systems. Additional items in the package include specific tires on 17-inch rims; additional underguarding; downhill speed regulation set by the driver via the cruise control stalk; a three-spoke leather steering wheel with shift paddles; and an off-road monitor that displays a compass, altimeter, GPS coordinates, and a tracking system to record routes not covered by the nav system's digitized maps.

The rest of the world also gets a choice of three V-6 powerplants at the GLK's launch later this year instead of just our one. Two gasoline engines — a 3.0 with 228 horsepower and the 3.5 destined for our shores — will be joined by Mercedes' proven 3.0-liter diesel, which gets an output bump to 224 hp. Europeans, huge fans of diesel technology, are especially excited about the GLK220 CDI BlueEfficiency (it lacks the urea tank of Bluetec models) that will hit the world market later in 2009, but likely won't make it to ours. Despite its modest displacement, this 2.1-liter four delivers 170 horsepower, a top speed of more than 120 mph, and 295 lb-ft of torque. I drove both diesels and loved them — especially the GLK320, whose 400 lb-ft of torque makes it a riot to drive. Pity we have to wait a year for it.

Meanwhile, think of the GLK as a C-class with a height advantage. Much of the interior reflects directly back on the sedan; the ride quality is virtually identical even though the GLK sits on standard 19-inch running gear (20s are a silly option); and the handling is exemplary. The normal torque split is a sporty 45/55 front/rear, but most credit for the GLK's nimble road manners must go to a new Agility Control system, built around mechanically adjustable shock absorbers from KYB. And, thanks to a revised speed-sensitive power steering rack, turn-in is precise, feedback is direct but not intrusive, and parking is a snap due to the GLK's efficient 2.2 turns lock to lock.

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Proponents of the segment say a commanding view of the road is one of the prime factors for choosing a sport ute over a conventional car. The new front chairs, specially designed for a more upright seating position, provide just that, with hip points more that six inches higher than in the C-class. Even so, the GLK never feels tippy, and though there's a modicum of understeer to warn the clueless that this isn't a sports car, it can be driven quite briskly over winding roads without frightening either driver or passenger.

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Dr. Klaus Maier, the Daimler board member responsible for worldwide sales, hopes I'm not the only one with a positive impression of his new SUV. "This is the most important debut for a Mercedes-Benz this year," he stated, flashing a ready smile and bursting with the bonhomie of a successful salesman. He's got a long way to catch up to the very successful BMW X3 (half a million sold and still counting), but the GLK seems able to make a substantial dent in that lead.

It was less easy for me to accept his contention the GLK is "very sexy." He likened its angular lines to the mighty G-wagen, and there is indeed a second-cousin sort of resemblance. Certain of the angles and proportions are a bit awkward, and photos do the designers little credit. That said, there's no other existing compact SUV that feels as solid and suave over every kind of road surface.

Is all of the GLK's wonderfulness — it's better riding than the X3, stouter than the VW/Audi, and more engaging than the Volvo — enough for me to buy into this newest SUV phenomenon? I'll let you know when the two-wheel-drive diesel goes on sale.