Mountain Wheels: Picking the right mix of size and performance in the Mercedes-Benz SUV family
The breadth and depth of models and variants available in the six vehicles in the Mercedes-Benz SUV range is quite remarkable — even more so considering that most of them also are available in high-output AMG performance editions. Their abundance of technology, not the least of which is the rock-solid 4Matic 4WD system, also can be a bit overwhelming, not to mention expensive when all the options are ticked off.
Let us concentrate on three sizes and shapes beyond the famed and iconic G-wagen: the full-blown GLS 450, the somewhat smaller GLC 350 and its 469-horsepower AMG GLC 63 edition, and a recent experience I had in the compact GLB 250, which might have been my practical favorite of the bunch.
My ride in the seven-passenger, three-row 2019 GLS let me see how it all looks and feels in the brand’s largest model, accentuated with a $6,000 Grand Edition package: fine two-tone, quilted Nappa leather seating and dashboard, ash trim, special ambient lighting and 20-inch, two-tone wheels, raising the vehicle’s sticker price from $70,150 to a whopping $99,620. Power was capable and quick despite GLS’s girth, and even with the smaller 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V6 option, that meant 362 horsepower. It’s a surprisingly substantial vehicle, and parking lots show all that extra size. For its newest models, the GLS has gained 2.4 inches of wheelbase and also can be ordered with massive free-standing second-row captain’s chairs and a new, electrified V-8 engine with the EQ Boost electric system.
The best-selling models of the group, the midsized GLC, now include a standard SUV shape and a coupe model. I had a couple of equally unusually variants, most notably the new GLC 350e plug-in hybrid. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder blends with an electric motor for 315 total horsepower and an alarming 516 foot-pounds of electrified torque, providing it with an all-electric range of about 30 miles.
As is the case with many of my tests, the $68,145 vehicle arrived with the boost battery pretty much depleted, and through braking alone, I earned back about 8 miles of electric range. You can switch between high-power and conservation modes, or a self-charging mode that can better recharge the battery when not plugging it in.
Power was kind of a mixed bag, either excessively fast or somewhat indistinct with sometimes jerky power hand-offs; the net effect was mileage of about 30 mpg. Utility also was somewhat impaired by the taller rear cargo deck holding the battery. But with a gigantic, full-cabin sunroof and all of the wood and real aluminum trim, it’s also a striking hybrid experience.
Striking is absolutely the name of the game with the blazing 2020 AMG GLC 63, which for its $83,655 price tag meant a grunting and growling high-performance 4.0 liter twin-turbo V-8, plus slightly audacious 21-inch wheels and a fully digitized cabin to boot.
The more menacing 63 S model pushes the output to 503 horsepower and will do 0-60 in 3.6 seconds; I used mine in Summit and Eagle counties just before the holidays in the first of our truly serious snow and didn’t really have much opportunity to dial in the track-oriented performance, though I was very happy to be on Pirelli Scorpion winter tires.
Given that it also came right on the heels of time in the out-of-control Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quad, the GLC 63 offered a more nuanced and resolved mix of luxuriously furious power with a much softer and more forgiving ride and a quick-acting nine-speed transmission. The very attractive GLC’s main issue was that much of that pure mechanical excellence was masked in Mercedes-Benz’s concerted effort to be the most data-rich driving experience in the world.
The revolutionary mix of tiny thumb-activated rolling controllers on the wheel and an almost totally unresponsive hard plastic track-pad in the center console made it a bit of a challenge to access what I swore were 50 screens’ worth of race track data, mood lighting and hard-to-scale maps. I got up to 22 mpg, or as low as 17 when using more of the power, and was surprised to find no rear climate control and nothing but the small-sized USB plugs throughout the cabin.
Oddly, the most fun I had was in the much smaller GLB 250, the entry price of which is $38,600 ($51,210 with options, naturally), and its surprisingly athletic 221-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder came together for a just-right experience.
Like the GLC 63, it’s something of a disco lightbox with its eye-blazing interior mood lighting and slightly scaled thumb and trackpad controls, but the overall effect was much less overwhelming and data screens (and even seat massage) easier to access. Its ultra-low dash and big up-front glass made forward and side visibility great; a sculpted rear window makes visibility in the back a little challenging.
Mostly, the fact that a competently low-profiled vehicle could provide absolutely rock-solid motoring over Vail Pass in a total blizzard suggested you don’t really need all that extra real estate or power — and the winter tires helped, as well. There’s reasonable cargo space, and the rear seats even slide. With tall roof rails, 19-inch wheels and its interestingly cubist design aesthetic, it felt much bigger than it actually was. And I think the super-aggressive, two-stroke-and-we’re-done wiper blades should be an industry standard.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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It was your typical ranch truck that stopped next to us — dirty, dented and hauling a horse trailer. Inside, silhouetted by the sun, were two cowboy hats and a gun rack.