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2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class Test Drive Review
Suburbs mean a lot to Mercedes. Company research is dead set on an American future of growing megacities, which feed growing mega-suburbs underserved by mass transit—basically, all the places we’re moving to now to escape absurdly high mortgages and rents in places like New York and San Francisco. The car Mercedes executives think you’ll be buying in these super suburbs won’t be an autonomous electric car. It’ll be another version of its top-selling car in the US, the compact GLC crossover.
Look and Feel
We’re stuck in present-day Mercedesville, which is no bad place to be. For 2020, the GLC gets a new front fascia with a trapezoidal grille and angled LED headlights that mimic the aggressive sneers coming from the A-Class and CLS-Class. The taillights have square LEDs within the same housing. You likely won’t notice a difference unless you park a 2016-2019 model next to the new one. The GLC isn't ugly, but from most angles other than head-on, I think the GLC is boring. The proportions are fine. The mass-market model, the GLC 300, lacks visual drama, so you’ll likely want to change to a better alternative like the gorgeous Volvo XC60 or the sharp Acura RDX. The AMG versions with their wide tires, vertical-bar grille, and lower stance add some visual drama. The GLC Coupe’s fastback roof brings real entertainment, if not outright beauty, to the mix. Perhaps Mercedes just doesn’t care that much to design a hot-looking SUV the neighbors will covet. With my test car’s beige paint and 18-inch wheels, I lost it in parking lots several times. And it stickered for over 60 grand. No thanks.
What saves this Benz from the clearance rack is one of the best interiors in the business. Again, the photos of my car’s all-black interior and stained gray ash wood don’t do it justice. But the way that wood cascades down in a continuous sweep from the three circular air vents, the padding and stitching of the leather on the seats and doors, and the cold metal covers of the stereo speakers are all rich. Fit, finish, and overall quality are impeccable. Spec the GLC in brighter colors and woods, and you’ll see for yourself.
The major change for 2020 is a standard 10.3-inch touchscreen that replaces the square 7- and 8.4-inch displays from the outgoing model. The knob/touchpad combo on the console is now just one very thin touchpad. The steering wheel has more buttons—including two thumb pads—and feels thicker and softer (it’s identical to the one in the E-Class and other new models). A 12.3-inch display can replace the analog gauges and central display in the instrument cluster. Finally, the shiny buttons for lane-keep assist, steering assist, the head-up display, and other functions that were previously aligned in a strip above the headlight switch are gone, replaced by a blank plate.
The GLC 300 comes with a brand-new turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine that makes an identical 273 pound-feet of torque and 14 more horsepower than last year's version, for a total of 255. The 9-speed automatic routes power to either rear-wheel drive (RWD) or Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel drive (AWD); the GLC 300 Coupe comes standard with 4Matic. The transmission features major reprogramming. Together with the new engine, the GLC 300 no longer feels laggardly and half-asleep. The car will hold gears longer and downshift earlier to keep most of this engine’s power at hand. This is much better than the 2016-2019 models, but the new Mercedes 4-cylinder has much to learn from the new four in the BMW X3 (or even Honda’s four in the Accord). From sound quality to vibration to response, it falls short. You won’t hate driving it, not by any means. It’s only when you get into a car with a better engine that you’ll notice what’s missing.
The 2020 AMG GLC 43 will arrive in late 2019. Its engine is truly phenomenal: a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 with 385 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque. Yes, yes, and more yes. Power delivery is linear, strong, and sounds like Thor’s yawn. You’ll be blown away by the performance. I’ve tested this engine in a 2019 AMG C 43 Cabriolet and a (slightly) detuned version in a 2017 AMG GLC 43 Coupe. With the sport exhaust crackling and popping, the GLC becomes alive. It’s so fast you won’t need the AMG GLC 63 4Matic Coupe's 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, which cranks out 469 hp and 479 lb-ft, or the version in the AMG GLC 63 S 4Matic Coupe that tops it at 503 hp and 516 lb-ft.
I’ve driven the 2020 models with this V8, and yes, they’re glorious for stoplight launches and onramps. For 2020, Mercedes makes an electronic locking rear differential standard along with AMG-tuned adaptive dampers and an air suspension. On both V6 and V8 models, a separate AMG Dynamics mode offers four more driving styles (Basic/Advanced/Pro/Master) that you’ll never use on the street.
So why my low rating? Because the GLC 300 is the popular model you’re most likely to find, and its steering and handling disappoint. I don’t expect the GLC 300 to run circles around its more powerful brethren, but there’s barely an ounce of those cars’ hunkered-down suspensions and precise steering. Body roll, vague steering, and sloppy suspension control—which I found unsettled the GLC 300’s directional stability after driving over a mild dip in the highway—should not be trade-offs for a supple ride. For Mercedes, this shouldn't be acceptable. Given the lackluster 4-cylinder engine and this handling behavior, I’d say an AMG upgrade is at least worth considering. Try one for yourself.
Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 21 mpg city, 28 highway, and 24 combined for the GLC 300 4Matic I tested (and its Coupe version). Over 430 miles, I averaged just under 22 mpg. All 63-series AMG models are estimated at 16/22/18. The 43-series does not yet have an EPA rating. A plug-in hybrid GLC 350e arrives during the first half of 2020.
Form and Function
A mix of digital and physical controls makes the GLC a happy place, although if you’ve never driven a modern Mercedes, the learning curve is steep. For example, the column shifter (remember those?) requires an upward tap for Reverse and a downward tap for Drive. The seat controls are on the doors, which is unconventional but makes more sense since you don’t have to feel around for buried switches on the seat’s lower side. The ease of using the touchscreen, thumb pad, and touchpad to control various functions on the infotainment becomes second nature with practice. The new system, called Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) places several tiers of selectable items that glow when highlighted. Shortcut buttons for popular features (like pairing a phone) are directly below each menu item on the home screen, which can be rearranged and reskinned with different designs to match the digital instrument cluster. Do you want a map to replace the tach? A tach that reads out revs in four digits? There’s enough usefulness to MBUX and its simplified layout versus COMAND, the company’s previous system, to make the 2020 version a must-have if you’re buying a GLC.
As a car, the GLC has enough room for four adults. But it’s not that roomy, and the back seat has the most perplexing way to recline a backseat that I’ve ever seen. There’s no manual adjustment with a lever or pull strap. There’s no power adjustment, either. First, you have to fold both seats down by hitting the switches on either side of the cargo area. Then you fold down the metal latches on either side of the seatbacks, and then you raise the seatbacks on each side. Tip: Never adjust the seats ever again after you do this. In their standard position, they’re uncomfortably upright.
Cargo space is 19 cubic feet behind these wonky seatbacks and 57 with them folded. That’s way less than you’ll find in a BMW X3.
MBUX does come with very cool tricks, though some are a bit too ahead of their time to be in a conventional car like the GLC. One uses augmented reality for the optional navigation system. When approaching the next directional waypoint, the GLC switches on its windshield-mounted camera to show a live feed of the road, and it overlays arrows pointing to the desired direction, including overlays for street names and house numbers. It also switches to the live camera feed when you approach a red light—as if to remind you to stop. These are neat, half-baked features that ought to be better integrated with the head-up display instead of arriving as pop-up videos on the dash. But the idea is there.
MBUX uses a cloud-based voice assistant to look up addresses, contacts, and anything on the internet. The system can track your behavior to suggest where you might want to go, who you might call, and other AI-based tasks. It’ll show Yelp reviews of nearby lunch spots. And since this is a Mercedes, it’ll steer and brake itself on the highway to give you the illusion—for 10 seconds—that this is a self-driving car. It’s not. None of these features are that good yet—they’re limited in functionality and often don’t do what you want. For the time we’re living in, it’s pretty darn good. And you’ll really like the touchscreen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as are USB-C ports. Wireless device charging is optional and located just aft of the center cupholders behind a beautiful wood door in the dash.
For 2020, there’s an Off-Road Engineering Package that equates to hill-descent control, a couple more driving modes for rocky or snowy roads, and some underbody shields. Don’t assume you’ll go far off the beaten path in a GLC, and you’ll be satisfied.
The GLC was named a 2019 Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which crash-tested a mechanically identical 2019 model. The GLC scored the top rating in all six crash tests and the top rating for its standard forward emergency braking. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in testing a 2018 model, scored the GLC its highest 5-star rating in all crash tests. A new standard feature for 2020 is Exit Warning Assist, which uses the blind-spot-monitoring radar sensors in the rear bumper to detect if a cyclist or car is approaching the vehicle. For up to 3 minutes after shutting down the car, the system will warn the driver or passenger if a cyclist is approaching. Other features, such as Pre-Safe Sound, play “pink noise” that’s supposed to save your eardrums in a crash. Predictive Brake Priming moves the brake pads closer to the discs when letting off the throttle quickly in anticipation of the driver slamming the brake pedal. Few other cars offer engineering like this.
The 2020 GLC 300 starts at $42,500 with standard MBUX, heated front seats, LED headlights, and 3 years of connected vehicle services (such as the voice assistant). The 2020 GLC 300 Coupe starts at $50,000. The AMG GLC 63 is $73,750 for the regular SUV and $76,500 for the Coupe. The AMG GLC 43 starts at $59,500. CarGurus recommends a GLC 300 priced around $55,000 for the most content without breaking the bank on an AMG model. My fully loaded test car was $62,965 with destination. Considering what competitors now charge, the GLC isn’t a bad deal, given all of its improvements. I think the 4-cylinder model could drive better, and the AMG models are too expensive for this size car, but for small families and singletons in the ‘burbs, you’re doing just fine if you can park one of these on your driveway.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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