Less than five years ago, I rode Audi’s 2014 SQ5 through the cowboy ranchlands of southwestern Colorado. I enjoyed Audi’s first-ever high-performance SUV, but expressed some amazement over its $53,000 base price—a number I associated with Corvettes, not a compact SUV. “Inflation” doesn’t fully explain what’s happened since. Here in 2018, I just wrapped up a week with the Mercedes-AMG GLC43 Coupe. This slope-roofed crossover is less practical than its traditional cousin, the standard GLC-Class SUV. But the GLC43’s petite footprint isn’t stopping Benz from charging Christian Louboutin
prices: $75,745 for my well-optioned tester, up from $61,395 in base trim.
This particular GLC-Class may be trained and toned by the drill sergeants at the AMG division, including a rocking 362 horsepower from a 3.0-liter biturbo V6. But still: 75 grand for what's basically a lifted hatchback barely more practical than a Honda Civic—only with less rear legroom—is hard for me wrap my middle-class brain around. By those standards, I might call this GLC Coupe a cash cow for Mercedes. But “cash calf” is more like it.
Mercedes certainly isn’t alone. Porsche’s small Macan SUV is delivering 40 percent of the brand’s worldwide sales, and outsells the storied 911 by three-to-one. It starts below $50,000, but can shoot past $135,000 (not a typo) in lavish Macan Turbo trim. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio will explore high-price territory in 505-hp Quadrifoglio guise. And a hugely popular troika of German compacts—the aforementioned Mercedes GLC, the Audi Q5, and the BMW X3—is minting money at barely-more-mainstream prices, with roughly 150,000 annual sales between them in America alone. While the Q5 starts from $41,500, J.D. Power data shows that the average buyer is paying nearly $51,000 once options are tallied. That typical Q5 buyer paid $15,000 more than the price of the average new car—which now stands at $35,444 in the U.S., according to Kelley Blue Book.
So count me un-surprised that Mercedes has whipped up this four-door “coupe” variant of the GLC, which will battle BMW’s own X4 offshoot of the X3.
Fortunately, this GLC looks much, much better than its dowdy predecessor, the hunchbacked midsize GLE-Class Coupe. The GLC’s smaller proportions better suit the pod-like shape, even if the raised stance and skyward butt created an annoyingly-high cargo lift-over that forced me to swing my luggage onto the deck like some hapless discus thrower. Two different onlookers said the GLC reminded them of a spaceship, for whatever that’s worth.
The striking radiator grille features a constellation of chrome-tipped “diamond blocks,” a nod to recent, gorgeous Mercedes concept cars. The taillamps are equally artistic, with their natty crimson stripes of LEDs and a quartet of chrome-tipped exhaust outlets below. When evening fell, the light show continued with puddle lamps that projected the Mercedes-Benz star on the pavement, and adaptive LED headlamps that sweep like Hollywood searchlights upon engine start-up before moving back to center.
The starry impression is amplified inside, with a sumptuous, AMG-enhanced cabin that underlines this Coupe’s racier mission versus the standard GLC. Up front, enveloping sport seats featured handsome ribbed inserts (red on my tester)and manual thigh extenders. My AMG's seat belts were red, with crimson stitching on the steering wheel, dash and doors, and a checkered-flag background on the driver’s instrument panel dials. There’s even a race timer for the oddball owner who takes this baby onto a track.
The rear seats are especially well-sculpted, including cushions that curve outward for bonus leg support, rather than the typical straight edge. I managed to put three adults in back—fine, two of them were petite women, but still—and they were reasonably satisfied with the space. Cargo room, though, is less satisfying; with the rear seats up, the GLC could only fit two large rollerbags plus some odds and ends below its roll-up cargo cover. Fold the Mercedes's 40/20/40-split rear seats down, and there's a decent 56.5 cubic feet of space. Yet a freakin' Volkswagen GTI brings a near-identical 53 cubes, and a humble Honda CR-V dwarfs the Mercedes with a sprawling 76 cubic feet.
One big glitch: Mercedes’s “Comand” infotainment system, never intuitive to begin with, pulled a stunt that reminded me of Cadillac’s reviled, first-generation CUE: When I dialed its knurled metal console knob, the merest brush of my wrist on the nearby (and overly sensitive) touchpad controller kept kicking the screen cursor off my intended target. This happened a good two dozen times during my test, and it’s ridiculous, because the touchpad is shaped and positioned to also function as a wrist-rest. It’s a shame, too, because the touchpad does work far better than most rival units, including Lexus's P.O.S. pad, for scrolling and inputting functions.
The Benz may have four doors and a liftgate, but the coupe attitude is clear: This is the GLC for empty nesters, singles, or couples who assume that children aren’t in their future. Couples blindsided by pregnancy will likely trade the GLC Coupe before they even paint the nursery. But until then, they’ll definitely enjoy the ride: The biturbo V6 that powers a vast range of “43” models that designate mid-range AMG’s—including the tasty C43 sedan, just revised by the carmaker—whips up 362 horses and 384 pound-feet of torque. In cahoots with the AMG-massaged nine-speed paddle-shifted automatic transmission, the GLC43 blasts to 60 miles per hour in a genre-defying 4.8 seconds, and to a 130-mph top speed.
Dial up sportier modes, including a fully-manual paddle-shift setting, and the 9G-Tronic transmission triggers a double-clutching function that elicits thrillingly-snappy gear changes. Those shifts pair best with the optional (at $1,250) AMG exhaust system, which heightens the wicked V6 soundtrack, including charming backfires under full-throttle upshifts.
AMG also went to work on the suspension, as you'd expect. A multi-chamber air suspension adds continuously variable dampers with four driver-adjustable spring rates. A four-link front axle adds special steering knuckles, while negative wheel camber on both axles boosts lateral dynamics. Whip the Benz into a fast corner and punch the gas or brakes, and spring rates instantly stiffen to reduce body roll and pitch. For safety’s sake, even in Comfort mode, the Mercedes will instantly tighten up its spring and damper rates if you perform an evasive maneuver.
In steady-state driving, the AMG 4Matic AWD system sends 69 percent of power to the rear axle and 31 percent up front, with a more-generous shove to the back when you accelerate. As for traditional SUV adventure, Mercedes’s honesty is refreshing: “Additionally, the AMG GLC43 coupe is able to undertake occasional off-road excursions,” the press kit reads. Yet the Mercedes’s air suspension can raise ride height at the touch of a button; a multi-disc clutch boosts traction, especially on snow or slippery surfaces, and the breakover and departure angles allow for fairly steep climbs or descents.
Yet the GLC43 is born for pavement, and I could feel the suspension magic at work on the fast-paced Taconic Parkway on a drive up the Hudson Valley to Rhinebeck. When I really stormed into high-speed corners, I could feel the Benz’s front end bite and the back end lag slightly behind—a bit disconcertingly at first—before everything firmed up and the GLC locked onto its target with surprising accuracy. That occasional bobble reminded me of inescapable physics, the fact that this is a relative high-rider with a curb weight just shy of two tons. And the lack of strong feedback from the otherwise-excellent variable-ratio steering played a role in my initial tentativeness on the dicey, no-shoulder Taconic. But once you learn to trust the grip and technology, the GLC43 will set a mean pace; I’m dying to see how it stacks up against high-performance editions of the BMW X4, this GLC's truest competitor.
The ride did seem needlessly crusty in Sport Plus mode, especially on the optional 21-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels. The “Individual” setting came to the rescue here: My personal whims called for Sport Plus settings for the powertrain—the better to hear that raspy rottweiler exhaust note—but to leave the steering and suspension in Sport.
Fuel economy is another area where even downsized SUVs deliver diminishing returns, simply because they’re relatively tall and less aerodynamic than cars (and have efficiency-sapping AWD to boot). The GLE43 earns a federal rating of just 18/24 miles per gallon in city and highway. Get this: Equipped with the same 362-hp V6 and nine-speed transmission, the Mercedes S450—the brand’s luxobarge sedan—manages 19/28 mpg, a 4-mpg edge on the highway and one better in the city. On my fairly zippy run up the Hudson Valley, the GLC Coupe fell short of even that mediocre EPA rating, showing me 22 mpg. I might have done better in Eco mode, which enables a sailing function that can decouple and idle the engine at speeds between 37 and 99 mph.
Not to single Mercedes out, but you gotta wonder: In spite of all that work to make a small SUV look like a coupe and act like a coupe...why not just buy an actual coupe? Those would include the aforementioned C43, which also comes in cabriolet form—or at these prices, even Mercedes’s all-new E-Class Coupe, whose knee-wobbling beauty puts the GLC to shame.
The answer, of course, is that buyers don’t want actual coupes. They want SUVs or pseudo-SUVs. And if you like this particular pseudo-SUV, most consumers will surely choose the more affordable version: The GLE300 Coupe starts from $47,595, powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. On the flip side, you could go whole hog and get the GLC63 and GLC63 S, making a respective 469 and 503 horsepower from a 4.0-liter biturbo V8; the “S” version scorches from 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds. (But for a cost: Remember that $53,000 Audi SQ5 I mentioned from back in 2014? That price seems downright affordable today: The GLC63 starts from $74,145, and the GLC63 S from $81,475.)
It might seem insane, but it actually makes sense. As The Drive keeps pointing out, the SUV has become the default definition of a “car” for a clear majority of Americans. Traditional sedans, coupes, wagons, and even sports cars are on the wane. Some version of an SUV must assume each of those roles, however awkwardly the mask fits—including SUVs that accelerate as fast as some supercars.
Driving purists love to shake their fists at automakers, but they might want to unclench and point a finger at consumers instead. From Germany to China, automakers are just giving the people want they want. For this GLC43, that happens to be a $75,000, fantasy hot hatch with AWD. I’m sorry, make that a $75,000 luxury “coupe.”
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected].