Mercedes GLK 350 4Matic and Toyota Prius – Utility Meets Political Correctness
By Jim Bray
Mercedes-Benz' "entry level" SUV offers a lot of benefits for the luxury-minded consumer, while Toyota's third generation Prius is a rolling political statement that's definitely not aimed at the automotive enthusiast.
Let's talk about the Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 4MATIC first. I got my test sample just as we received a bunch of snow, and it proved to be a wonderful time to test such a vehicle – except that it forced me to actually leave the house on some very, very chilly days.
At least I got to go out in a Mercedes-Benz!
The midsize GLK goes head to head with such worthy competitors as the Volvo XC60, VW Touareg, Lexus RX 350, BMW X5 and Audi Q5. And 'twould be tough, indeed, to decide between 'em if it were my money.
The GLK 350 (as do many of today's vehicles) gets its motivation from a 3.5 liter, 24-valve V6 engine. This particular power plant could use just a smidgen more oomph than the 268 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm and 258 lb.-ft. of torque @ 2,400-5,000 rpm provided, but it's hardly a deal breaker – and regardless of my oomph angst, it's competitive in its class.
The transmission is a delightfully smooth seven speed 7G-TRONIC automatic. The "AGILITY CONTROL" suspension has struts up front and a multi-link rear, as well as a selective damping system that adjusts to the road and driving conditions. Together, they help the GLK tip the fun/comfort scale on the comfort side – even if you activate the sport mode, which tightens it up a bit. In short, you won't confuse the GLK with a sports car, and that's okay.
The 4MATIC Permanent All-Wheel Drive performed beautifully on our disgustingly wintry roads, allowing me to drive anywhere, anytime, with confidence and – at least on the GLK's part – competence. Naturally, you get stuff like ESP (Electronic Stability Program), ABS (for the quartet of disc brakes) and Acceleration Skid Control.
The interior is all Mercedes and that is mostly good: the seats are terrific, very comfortable and supportive – and up front they're power-adjusted, heated and cooled, with three memory settings for each side. As is the wont of such beasties, the GLK350 sits high and offers a very good greenhouse, giving you a nice view all around.
There's plenty of room for four in the GLK, and it's not bad with five, either, while still offering enough room under the tailgate to carry your stuff.
I've grown to like Mercedes-Benz' COMAND system as I've gotten used to it (and as it has been refined). It's a knob-activated cursor control thingy on the center console that lets you access an abundance of audio, A/C and other settings. It works logically and is easy to use.
I also like how the LCD screen displays radio stations (even satellite ones) like an old fashioned analog radio dial, which is very cool for old poots like me who remember when cars had analog tuners with push buttons that physically moved the tuner from station to station. The multi-info display in the middle of the instrument panel is easy to read and easy to navigate through, and the rest of the instruments are also easy to read at a glance.
The GLK features dual-zone climate control and my test unit had the optional panoramic sliding glass sunroof which would have been really cool to use if the temperature had been about 40 degrees higher. Actually, I guess it would have been even cooler if I'd opened it during my test period!
Convenience features abound. The power windows have one-touch up/down all round, the three spoke sport steering wheel features tilt and telescopic adjustment (which makes it easy to find a great driving position) and there are controls built into the wheel that can operate the audio system, telephone (via Bluetooth) and the multi-info display.
The Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 4MATIC starts at $35,500 U.S./$41,300 Canadian. In all, it's a pretty compelling entry into this niche, a comfortable and luxurious vehicle that also gets the job done.
Not nearly as interesting to drive – and I'm being kind – but a non-subtle way to make a statement about how eco-wonderful you are, is the 2011 Toyota Prius. Now in its third generation in North America, the bubble-like Prius is probably the most recognizable hybrid on the road today. And that's its ace in the hole.
Compared to the last generation, the 2011 Prius looks a little sleeker, but it's still recognizable immediately as a Prius. This, I daresay, is what its buyers want, because you see a lot more Priuses on the road than you do, say, the Honda Civic hybrid that looks virtually identical to its conventionally-powered counterpart and therefore doesn't scream "Look at me! I'm better than you!".
Needless to say, as a proud "man-made climate change denier," I wore a mask while driving the Prius lest anyone think I'd had a lobotomy or, worse, an epiphany.
Toyota says the third generation Prius offers increased power, though you'd never know it if you didn't drive it back to back with its predecessor – which I didn't. The company also says it offers "The best fuel consumption on the road, no compromise comfort and convenience combined with innovative, advanced hybrid technology."
I'll leave the fuel consumption argument to others, not only because I never achieve the mileage I'm supposed to but because it was very cold and wintry when I drove the Prius as well, and conditions like that wreak havoc on gas mileage.
The Prius' Hybrid Synergy Drive system has been revised 90 per cent, according to Toyota, and features a new, larger 1.8 liter, 16-valve four cylinder engine coupled to a continuously variable transmission the company says delivers increased horsepower and better fuel efficiency compared with the previous generation Prius (the "Pre-us?").
Power is now rated at 134 "net power", up 22 per cent, while the gas-sipping ante has been upped by seven per cent. In other words, like most other new cars, you now get more power with less gas.
On a side note, I find it amazing how engineers keep getting more from their power plants for less investment these days – in nearly every car made whether it's a hybrid or not. Heck, there's so much interesting innovation coming down the automotive pipeline these days that it's safe to say – the Prius notwithstanding – that we're living in a great time to be a car nut!
How is the Prius to drive? Need you ask? Acceleration, even in what they laughingly label as "power" mode, is leisurely. It feels pretty much the same in "Eco" mode as well, and there's an "EV" mode that supposedly lets you run the Prius on electrical power only, but you'd better be comfortable with losing drag races to pedestrians.
"Priui" come with power-assisted, disc brakes with ABS all around, with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist (there's a little troll living in the center console that reaches out and helps you press the pedal). The car meanders around corners with variable power-assist electric rack and pinion steering that works fine as long as you don't care about steering feel.
Even though calling the Prius a driver's car would risk generous guffaws from those within listening range, it's comfortable and pleasant enough inside. The comfortable and heated front seats are surprisingly supportive which, after taking the Prius though a couple of curves, made me wonder why.
The audio system in my test car was okay, though nothing really to write home again. It offered Bluetooth connectivity for my phone, but for some reason my phone and the Prius refused to play nicely with each other.
The rear seat's fine for two, tight for three, but reasonably comfortable. Toyota says it's roomier than in the previous generation. There are plenty of cup holders and storage bins, too, including a double decker glove compartment.
My test Prius had Toyota's solar-powered ventilation system they say pre-cools the cabin in summer. I would've sold one of my neighbor's kids to be able to try it...
Get this: when you shift the weird electronic transmission control level to reverse, the car starts beeping like a big truck backing up. The big difference is that it only beeps INSIDE THE PRIUS. Huh? The driver should know he's in reverse: he just shifted there, a process that also illuminates the handy little back up screen on the inside rear view mirror.
In the Prius' favor was that when it sat for some 24 hours in temperatures of about minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, it started the first time and, rather than just sitting there quietly on electrical power like it does most of the time, battery level dropping like a stone, the whole system fired up and got the car toasty warm while I swept the snow off it. I was impressed – and not just a little bit relieved.
Obviously, the Prius isn't my cup of tea, but if it's yours you'll probably be very happy with it. It's a Toyota, first of all, which means it'll probably be extremely dependable. It gets very good gas mileage and is made of enough environmentalist-kissing-up-to stuff (such as recycled or recyclable materials) to keep those "smug emissions" coming for years to come.
The Toyota Prius, which is rated at 51/48 mpg by the EPA, starts at $23,050 U.S./$27,800 Canadian.
Copyright 2011 Jim Bray
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