by Jonathan Yarkony
If you're shopping for a small crossover these days, the number of options is staggering. Even affordable, efficient subcompacts are fit for a family of four, and some of the midsize models offer more space for similar prices to traditional compact utilities, but of course the balance of affordability and practicality has led to the rise of compact crossovers as the favorite segment for consumers. Luxury brands claim to offer a bit more class and refinement with a dizzying array of trims and features to satisfy any combination of your needs and whims.
When it comes to variety and covering every possible niche in the crossover market, nobody does it better than Mercedes-Benz, with five model lines, two of those with coupe-styled derivatives. Power comes from small, efficient 2.0L turbo-fours to an artillery-grade, twin-turbo V12 in the iconic G-Class, and a fully electric crossover is on its way to join the plug-in hybrids already on offer. And within the Mercedes SUV portfolio, no model has more variety than the GLC, with seven distinct configurations between its SUV and Coupe body styles and Benz and AMG powertrains.
While BMW, Porsche, and Volvo offer almost as many powertrains in their X3, Macan, and XC60 crossovers, other brands like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus counter with simpler lineups and better value for the features. Nonetheless, Mercedes seems to have cracked the code as it has leaped ahead in the sales race, leapfrogging the Cadillac XT5, BMW X3, and Lexus NX to take over the sales lead in the segment so far this year.
However, rather than chasing obscure performance niches, we had a chance to test two efficient, moderately priced versions of the practical SUV models that will appeal to most consumers, the GLC 300 4Matic and the GLC 350e 4Matic plug-in hybrid. If there are any Mercedes purists still reading that believe all Mercedes should be rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered luxury cars, you have my sympathies and are probably in the wrong article; here, read this instead.
For the average well-to-do family, commuter, and car shopper, the GLC is that Goldilocks-worthy blend of just the right size and just the right luxury for the price, and the four powertrains and two body styles means there never won't be the right package for any buyer. Other brands may have some of those variations covered, but not all of them under one roof, and none of them, save perhaps BMW, with as broad a brand appeal as the three-pointed star on the nose of Mercedes vehicles.
Being the entry-level model for the GLC, the 300 is going to be the most popular, and it does a fine job of meeting minimum requirements for the segment. The GLC 300 starts at $42,050 (plus $995 destination for all trims) for 4Matic all-wheel-drive models, but you can knock $2,000 off if you want to skimp and stick with rear-wheel drive. The heart of the GLC 300 is the brand's flexible 2.0L, turbocharged and direct injected, with variable timing to provide a broad band of 273 lb-ft of torque from 1,300 to 4,000 rpm and 241 hp peaking at 5,500. It's not the best-sounding engine in Mercedes' stable, but it certainly gets the job done, and at 4,000 pounds it's not too heavy, allowing it to reach 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, and feeling strong within every gear.
The GLC 350e takes the same basic architecture of that 2.0L turbo-four but dials output down to 208 hp and 258 lb-ft but adds an 85-kW electric motor rated at 114 horsepower and 251 lb-ft of torque, boosting total system output to 315 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque. That's quite a leap over the GLC 300, but the GLC 350e also weighs over 400 pounds more, so while the electric torque is instantaneous and all-wheel drive puts power down to all four corners, it shaves only a couple decimal points off its acceleration, officially 6.2 seconds to 60 mph.
The GLC 350e also costs quite a bit more, starting at $49,990 without adding any significant feature content except the mechanical and electronic systems relating to the hybrid powertrain. The federal tax credit puts $4,460 back in your wallet for the GLC 350e, cutting that steep premium in half, and depending on your driving habits and electricity rates in your area, you could save significantly more.
The appeal of a plug-in hybrid lies more in its efficiency than outright speed (although the mid-range boost of the electric motor is an especially great perk), and the 8.7-kWh lithium-ion battery can provide about 10 miles of pure electric driving on a full charge, at which point the gas engine kicks in to supplement power and the battery allows longer engine shutdowns while being kept charged through regenerative braking. It's also super smooth and plenty powerful on battery juice alone, easily if not so urgently getting all the way up to highway speed, so it has me looking eagerly forward to the fully electric EQC arriving next year. About two and a half hours at a 240V charging station should recharge it fully, and it charges fully overnight on a regular 110V household outlet.
We typically got about 10 miles of pure EV operation, but in heavy traffic one day we managed the eke out over 12, and after a week with the GLC 350e, we put on a total of 336 miles, and 126 of those were with the gas engine and fuel tank just along for the ride, which boils down to 29 mpg, probably a reasonable reflection of the EPA's 25 mpg combined rating for the gas engine and 74 MPGe for the electric operation.
The GLC 300 landed at 22.4 mpg at the end of our week with it, closer to the 21 mpg city rating for the GLC 300 than its 24 mpg combined rating or 28 mpg highway rating. At my rate, it would represent huge savings over the course of vehicle ownership, though the EPA estimates the plug-in GLC 350e would only save about $400 per year over the standard GLC 300, but these figures can vary widely from state to state depending on fuel vs electricity prices.
One of the other differences between the two models I tested is that the GLC 300 uses a nine-speed automatic transmission while the hybrid goes with a seven-speed transmission. The GLC 350e also has additional drive modes specific to how you deploy its electric range on top of Dynamic Select, which allows you to dial up a more comfortable or sporty tuning of the engine, transmission, steering, and other vehicle systems.
The GLC 350e can be left in its default Hybrid mode to manage the electric propulsion for maximum overall efficiency, but if you know you're on a short run and want to use all of the battery, E-Mode sets it to run in pure EV mode for as long as the battery lasts. E-Save mode will minimize battery usage in case you prefer to save its pure EV range for stop-and-go parts of your commute or dense, smog-filled urban density.
This is something I'd recommend because as much as the electric powertrain runs incredibly smoothly, the GLC 350e can be a bit rough between engine stop/start and waking the engine up and combining it with the EV power at slow, crawling speeds. At high speeds, the two power sources combine smoothly and the 2.0L turbo is unobtrusive on its own in either the hybrid or the regular GLC 300.
The other downside to the GLC 350e's driving manners is that it is at the very limits of the suspension's comfort zone, weighing about as much as the AMG GLC 63, but without its beefed-up sport-tuned adaptable air suspension. Because of that, the GLC 350e is prone to some clunky knocks from big impacts, some unrefined noises escaping from the rear undercarriage where the battery taxes the springs and shocks.
Aside from those extreme events, the GLC 350e handles respectably, with light accurate steering that makes it easy to drive, although with tires designed more for comfort and durability, the limits of grip are reached long before its handling potential. That being said, the GLC 300 was more comfortable both cruising and absorbing rough roads with the same independent multi-link suspension front and rear, and more nimble thanks to lighter weight and simpler drive train that was eager enough to respond even without the instantaneous boost of the electric motor. However, if handling matters, consider the $56,250 AMG GLC 43, which has superb manners and handling thanks to the adaptable air suspension, and brings the chassis to life with its 362-hp 3.0L biturbo V6.
Sadly, the nine-speed transmission in our GLC 300 developed an issue during my week with it, which I later found out was attributed to a previous reviewer abusing it in an off-road setting - apparently the techs found dirt in places they'd never thought it could reach, and the transmission is what paid the price for the overconfidence shown by one of my colleagues sometime prior to my test. Before the transmission started acting up, the GLC 300 responded well to prods of the throttle with eager downshifting, and smoothly worked its way through the gears when accelerating.
Aside from the powertrain, the two versions of the GLC that I tested were very similar, and moderately equipped with various options, the GLC 300's price rising to $52,665 as equipped with panoramic sunroof, navigation, proximity keyless entry, 360-degree parking cameras and sensors, and heated steering wheel and seats.
The GLC 350e had all that plus a rich dark blue paint and the Burmester premium audio, running up the bill to $62,475, but it would have cost even more to get desirable features like adaptive cruise, head-up display, or even Apple Carplay/Android Auto smartphone connectivity, never mind one of the two possible tiers of leather interior that are a serious upgrade from the base Artico synthetic leather that isn't all that convincing, nor is it pleasant to the touch.
At least the steering wheel is genuine leather with perforated leather on the sides where you grip it, and other touch points are of high quality, with lovely open-pore ash wood trim looking and feeling properly luxurious, especially with the hybrid's Burmester audio and its eye-catching aluminum speaker grilles. While the Artico 'leather' detracts from the luxurious feel, the hybrid's battery pack detracts only slightly from its practicality.
Both models have sufficient passenger space and comfortable seating in front and rear, with plenty of cabin storage for drinks, devices, and detritus, but the GLC 300's 19.4 cubic feet of trunk space shrinks to 13.9 in the hybrid, much of that in the loss of the 300's under-floor hidden compartment, which has room for the portable charger and not much else in the 350e. The difference is the same for max capacity with the rear seats fully stowed, 56.5 cu-ft for the GLC 300, 51 for the 350e, and while the 350e's floor is higher, so are the rear seats, so you still get a completely flat surface and the utility of 40/20/40 split-folding seats.
After spending a week in the GLC 300 and then another week in the GLC 350e, I came away favoring the simpler, more affordable GLC 300. The GLC 350e didn't offer enough electric range or hybrid savings to offset its rough edges in the powertrain and suspension. The combination of performance shortcomings and slow sales (they only moved 251plug-in GLCs in the US in the first half of 2018) likely contributed to Mercedes pulling the plug on production and making way for their next iteration of plug-in power under their new EQ electric sub-brand.
Meanwhile, the GLC 300 makes excellent use of the company's most modest engine and delivers a driving experience that lives up to the brand's standards. Although it is disappointing that essential luxuries like quality genuine leather and tech like smartphone integration aren't standard fare in every model with the Mercedes badge, the GLC's wide variety of powertrains, trims and options means it can be tailored to suit your budget with only the features that matter most to you.