2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 - Click above for high-res image gallery

When you launch a vehicle during the year's most over-hyped estrogenfest, you're obviously trying to appeal to a specific demographic. Specifically, not us. There's a reason we haven't taken a crack at the Mercedes-Benz GLK until the sequel to Sex and the City hit the screen. It was just too easy to pigeonhole this cute 'ute as nothing more than a boxy four-wheeled trinket – a cynical fashion accessory designed to compliment your rat-faced pooch and Manolo Blahniks (yes, we had to look that up).

But a funny thing happened on the way down I-5.

While blasting the stereo and hauling along at a decidedly Germanic clip, all of the stereotypes about the GLK's target demographic flew out its expansive sunroof. For as much as we dislike the mere idea of "entry-level luxury" – and in particular the scads of pseudo-SUVs that populate it – the GLK started to make sense. It's well proportioned, has adequate power and comes with nearly enough amenities to match its tri-pointed badge. We actually enjoyed it, even though our manhood might've taken a hit in the process.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Speaking of hits, from a stylistic standpoint, the GLK is either a solid double or a strikeout. Over the course of a few days, we warmed up to it, enjoying the E-Class-inspired rear fender flares, expansive greenhouse and tight posterior. Its Sports Appearance Package 20-inch, seven-spoke wheels fit the blistered arches to a "T," and while the emblem is larger than a Big Gulp lid, we've resigned ourselves to the fact that Mercedes-Benz is taking a "go big or go home" approach to its fascias.

Inside, the slab-sided aesthetic of the exterior carries over to good effect, with a right-sized dash, center console and steering wheel. It's a clean, if staid design for its segment and made up of de rigueur C-Class materials to match. The center-mounted speedo recieves the standard Merc LCD display in the middle, allowing you to toggle between everything from fuel consumption to trip readings. The gauges are clear and legible, the steering wheel controls easy to understand and even easier to operate.

The stereo is an ode to simplicity, save the numerical keypad running along the right side, and the dual-zone climate controls are nicely knurled, if a little shifty in their fitment. In short, everything is exactly where you'd expect, including the large COMAND knob aft of the shifter and the absolutely massive (and slightly comical) dollar-coin-sized engine start button.

Finger that aluminum-look starter and the 3.5-liter V6 gets startled to life and falls into a smooth drone in the background. With just over 4,000 pounds to motivate, the 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque are up to the job, and in our tester's 4Matic (read: all-wheel-drive) trim, the first stab of the throttle was met with more acceleration than expected. The standard seven-speed automatic flicked through the ratios with the speed and assurance we've come to expect from the Benz boyz, lending more credence to the claims that Mercedes vehicles offer some of the best 'boxes in the biz.

A few circular on- and off-ramps along with a run down a local Bay Area backroad proved that the GLK is remarkably more at home on the curves than most of its closest competition. The steering, while fingertip light, provided a connection to the road largely devoid on most luxo-soft-roaders and, despite its lanky proportions, the GLK was remarkably adept at handling the twisties. The rough(ish) ride we experienced on the highway and around town became an asset, not a curse, when bouncing from bend to bend, with body motions kept in check and an uncommon amount of front grip when heading into a corner a touch to fast. Scrubbing off speed with the four-wheel discs was never an issue, with firm, positive feedback that proved fade-free throughout our various drives.

Mercedes' COMAND interface seems to fall somewhere in between Audi's MMI and BMW's iDrive when it comes to ease-of-use, with a well thought out menu structure and a "Back" button always providing you a quick escape from sub-menu hell. While we understand the safety concerns about entering a destination into the nav system, the inability of the passenger to get directions while the GLK is trundling through traffic became a reoccurring annoyance. Even more galling was the lack of Bluetooth audio streaming or even a standard 1/8th-inch jack to run our phone into the system. If Ford can do it in the bargain basement Fiesta, surely a Benz driver shouldn't be forced to listen to their tunes through a crappy set of headphones – particularly on an audio system this damn good.

A quick review of the GLK's interior stats proves what we've suspected all along: its quarters are slightly more cramped compared to the competition, particularly in rear leg and shoulder room. Similarly, its maximum cargo capacity – 55 cubic feet – is notably lower than the 71 cu-ft provided by the BMW X3 and slightly less than the 61 cubes found in the Acura RDX. However, considering it's the shortest of the bunch, that's to be expected, although it is the tallest and the widest amongst its German competitors.

Situated in the firm, comfortable seats while peering through the uncharacteristically upright windshield, we began to think of the GLK as more of a mini-G-Wagon rather than the high-riding C-Class on which it's based. That impression lasted right up until the moment we pulled up next to one of M-B's WWII throwbacks. Despite its marginally rough ride, the GLK is not a Gelandewagen at two-thirds scale. It's far too modern, far too composed and, yes, far too ordinary to carry on that legacy. But that's not a bad thing.

With competition coming from all coasts, the GLK is remarkably well-equipped to handle the onslaught of buyers looking to downsize. Our fuel economy numbers landed smack-dab in the middle of the EPA's estimates (16/21 mpg city/hwy, 17.7 mpg tested) and the 4Matic's starting price of $36,600 (minus $2k for rear-wheel drive) puts it right on par with the rest of the pack.

However, as with anything hailing from Deutschland, the price rockets skyward like Atlantis on its final flight if you get crazy with the options. Our tester – fitted with the $3,150 Premium Package (memory seats, power liftgate, Panorama sunroof, etc.), $3,350 Multimedia Pack (5.1 Dolby surround, seven-inch color display, COMAND) and an assortment of other kit – rang up an MSRP of $50,235. That's nearly enough to buy Ford's aforementioned subcompact for your kid along with a bone-stock GLK. Then again, that's just how the German's roll.

Needless to say, in the realm of compact luxury crossovers, you're basking in a big bucket of choice. But while the RDX might be sportier, it's decidedly less refined. And while the Audi Q5 might fit like a well-tailored suit, it lacks the panache to stand out from the crowd. So where does the GLK fit in? Right in the middle; a pseudo-'ute for fashion-conscious Cougars and maybe their well-heeled suitors. We wouldn't mind driving it to the multiplex, even if that involves a rendezvous with four insufferable forty-somethings. No matter, we'll leave with our manhood intact.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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